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Stop Making Sense – an essay by Claire MacDonald    

Remember the storm? On the night of October 15th 1987, huge winds made landfall in the west of England and raced across the country throughout the night bringing down ancient oaks and devastating woodlands. The event they began at once to call The Great Storm was seen as an apocalypse, a once-in-several-hundred-year event, a sounding bell that might indicate a turbulent future. It was followed three days later by Black Monday, the financial hurricane that seemed to tear the wings off Thatcherism's first, triumphalist phase. It came eighteen months after another kind of storm, Chernobyl, had unleashed its poison across the skies of Europe from the insides of a rotting industrial unit in the Ukraine, echoing, perhaps, the earlier man-made storm-clouds from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in whose refracted light a young J. G. Ballard saw portents of World War Three, as he recalled in Empire of the Sun (1987), his hypnotic vision of a feral childhood spent prowling the margins of a Japanese internment camp in China. All those storms; all those visions that haunted us at the end of the 1980s: the ever present threat of nuclear war; the distant echo of past menace; the wasteland lying just beyond the domestic. O Superman. O Judge. HERE IS WEATHER ITS DARK IT SMELLS BAD. HERE IS SPORTS. EVERYBODY LOST.

A Girl Skipping takes place in the faded after-light of all that stormy weather; an attempt to sound the moment and listen to the echoes of the past inside it; a show occupying an energetically charged field-yard; an irrationally prescriptive dream punctuated by delirious 'headsongs' (as Graeme Miller has called them) that conjure, cut up and remix absurdist fictional narratives – exterminating angels and the Vivian girls; Riddley Walker, medical history-taking, urban myths and childhood fears. In the febrile tangled world of the late 1980s, history itself was being blown away and we stood on the beach watching. Remember that? The end of history? Baudrillard's simulacra, postmodernism, the post-past, the end of certainty? We found ourselves catapulted out of the known and into an unknown new kind of world made of new kinds of relationships and institutions – fluid, temporary, contingent. Yet those us who made theatre work in that period, those of us who were, say, between twenty and thirty in 1980, were also haunted by the world of the 1960s when we had been at primary school. That was a time when the sites we played in were the water and frogspawn filled bomb craters that remained from the Second World War. Mysterious and powerful, these craters seemed to come down to us from another world. Ours was a world fringed by violent mystery, a world in which children were left alone, carried off, or had to save humanity. Ours was the world of Stig of the Dump and The Weird Stone of Brisingamen, haunted by the ghost-voices of those other lost children of the 1960s, buried on the moors of West Yorkshire by Ian Brady and Myra Hindley. A Girl Skipping takes place inside the vernacular grammar of childhood play. It takes place in the folk culture of childhood: joyful, menaced, hexed. It isn't about adults playing children, or about hidden traumas or primitive urges, as in Dennis Potter's television play Blue Remembered Hills (1979) or in William Golding's novel The Lord of Flies (1954), written in the immediate aftermath of the second world war. A Girl Skipping (1991) concerns the ways in which adult identities continue to be sedimented with, almost drenched with, the past – not as content but as gesture, as habit, the informing matter of being.

In the Britain of our 1960s childhoods the relationship between the imaginary world and the real experience of the child had a particular pertinence. It was in British psychology and psychoanalysis before and after the war that two powerful and ultimately connected ideas were generated – one to do with the results of abandonment and separation, and the other to do with creative play. The first emerged largely from the work of psychologists observing hospitalized, homeless and traumatized children; the second to do with the fundamental importance of play as a mode of being and operating in the world. For the psychoanalyst Marion Milner, play itself was of paramount importance in establishing the relationship between inner and outer worlds, and 'framed' play, that is play framed within a boundary which allowed outside realities to break down and fall apart, was, for her, essential for the making of creative work. British psychoanalysis, in its various strands, has play and what it means – the relationship of inner and outer worlds, and the tactics and strategies that imaginative experiment involves – at its heart. The development of this psychoanalytic approach arose in part from the pre-war work of Anna Freud and Melanie Klein, but it is most closely associated with the ground breaking work of Donald Winnicott and Marion Milner. It is an approach that is attuned to childhood in very particular ways, both to its potential for creativity and to the child as a figure embodying loss and aloneness, a figure who symbolically inhabits the emotional territory of post-war Britain and stands in for larger losses.

Childhood, from the end of the Second World War to the middle of the '60s, is now often seen nostalgically as a time when we played in parks and fields and woods and streets, ate well and behaved ourselves – but it was also a period of harsh encounters amongst children and between children and adults. The world we grew up in was peopled by adults still dazed with loss, still stupefied by modernity. The edges of parks and playgrounds marked the boundary between a world under the control of school and home and the memory of recent chaos, of a war whose reality was still evident in the hollow water-filled bomb craters that stood out in the woods, or that pock-marked, pre-war farmland now being sold for suburban housing estates. Yet we were sent out to wander there. And what of that? What kind of culture did we, as children inhabit and how did it later inform our work as artists? British film and literary culture in the 1960s is filled with lone, uneasy, half-abandoned, creative, misunderstood children. Feral, unsupervised, ranging both wide and far, the children in books and films such as Whistle Down the Wind (1961), Elidor (1965), Stig of the Dump (1963), and, later, A Kestrel for a Knave (1968), exhibit powerful tensions around abandonment and autonomy. These texts speak of children's understanding and power, combined with the knowledge that no one understands or believes in them, whoever they are, whether poor and left to fend, or middle class and trusted with the key to the house, once they question authority.

The questioning of authority in the name of creativity is a cultural theme that gathered momentum in the late 1960s. By the end of the decade that followed – the period in which Graeme and I, and the friends with whom we formed Impact Theatre, made our early work – theatre had become a space of tribal self-education and self-medication in which we innoculated ourselves against the straight world and the irrational power of the forces of history – absurdly (and aptly) mocked in the figure of the teacher in A Girl Skipping. As theatre-makers beginning our work in the late 1970s we were part of a social milieu which drew on childhood games and ideas about British folk-culture and its poetics. When film-maker Ken McMullan and artist Stewart Brisley made their performance art documentary Being and Doing in 1984, they turned and returned to the power of the pagan: the pageant, the ritual and the vernacular performance in Britain, passed down from hand to hand and knuckle to knuckle through rhyming games and folk events. The film is edged with brutal slapstick. The events it observes seem to take place in that framed space in which things fall apart, in which adults do not play children but play like children, or with the seriousness of children, muddy, wild, abandoned. It is this vocabulary that we see in A Girl Skipping. It gives the work a compelling intensity and coherence, a depth that comes not from dramatic exchanges or story, but from the evocative resonance of cultural gestures.

Did I think about any of this when I first saw A Girl Skipping at The Place theatre in 1991? I don't think so. Did I know then what I am seeing now? Of course not. The work I am looking at now is not at all what I saw then. In the intervening years it has accrued patina, aura even. Here it is in front of me, playing on the screen of my laptop. Look at it. How little it has conventionally dated. How little there seems to be that ties it to the late 1980s; how fresh and integrated it feels; how plastic; how strongly built; how recognizable these performers are as people I know. Now they have kids. None of them is dead. What a lot we have come through in two decades. The material record I now see on the laptop is part of the history of British time-based art, video-making, performance theatre, and sound art. It has become a record. What strikes me now, equally forcefully, is that it is also part of the history of ideas, for, despite its pronounced lack of narrative, its gestural play, its open form, it is very much a work of ideas, and the ideas it deals with are still with us.

There is a strong sense in which A Girl Skipping is a dance piece, not just because it contains choreographed movement, but because its aesthetic – the way it works with rhythm and music, and with chord structures that merge and move away – is redolent of choreographic ideas, and especially of choreographic ideas after Pina Bausch. The performances, at least as I look at them now, are performances 'after Bausch' – strong, collaborative, athletic and committed. While these performers are not dancers, they are imbued with a dance sensibility. Their activity moves between stillness and bursts of high energy; they move across the stage with intention – but not necessarily with intention borne of narrative. Often the intention is borne from the logic of game playing. When British dancers, choreographers and theatre makers saw Pina Bausch's work in the early 1980s it informed subsequent work in culturally specific ways. It came to meet an alternative, non-narrative theatre culture already imbued with making practices that drew on games and strong vernacular traditions of performance.

If the scenography of A Girl Skipping references the schoolroom, playground and park (what, as kids, we used to call 'the rec') with blackboard, bookcases, table, chairs, and chalk markings on the ground, dramaturgically it stages a continuous process of marking, as the space becomes a pavement, a game of hopscotch, a series of chalk circles. Performers group, repeat, clump together, pull away – summoning up the body-memory of games and gestures: the way we pushed, leant, shoved, sat, laughed, huddled. All this is interspersed with a precise formalism of movement – repetition turns the one-off jump into a system, sharp, musical, powerful, adult. The space is defined less as a setting and is more what the performance critic Elinor Fuchs calls a 'landscape dramaturgy' a set of coordinates in which action emerges spatially, so that there is no necessary sense of time unfolding within a scenographic setting; instead we see performers engaging with the simultaneity of landscape as site. Those elements of composition we have come to see as marks of non-traditional theatre-making: repetition, choral structures, action set in real time, further contribute to this sense of spatialization.

The predicament of the schoolroom is a recurring theme in twentieth-century art and performance. Think Beuys' blackboards, Kantor's Dead Class with its robotic figures and rows of desks, or Goat Island's more recent When will the September Roses Bloom? in which the gestural rhetoric of learning transmutes into an abstract composition. The schoolroom is referenced in each of these instances as a place of enforced learning, of rote, constraint and repetition, but it is also a place in which ordinary elements are often imbued with something approaching magical powers.

What I am watching, now is, of course, not the show itself. As I take in the space, the moves, the repeated structures, the rhythm and conduct of the performance, I am not even seeing a simple video document. I am watching another work, made from A Girl Skipping and in response to it. I am watching a remastered DVD, a three-camera video shoot, an interpretation, a take on the piece, if you like, by Stephen Littman, one of the best video-artists working in performance theatre in the 1980s, working here with other video-makers, including the time-based artist Kate Meynell, as camera operators. I am watching Steve's signature cuts and sweeps; the fluid assemblage and dis-assemblage style of his editing; the way he works in and out of the live moment, finding the rhythm that exists between eye and body as the camera crosses the stage: cutting, swinging out, moving in, bringing together. His take is dance-informed, rhythmic, fluid. His is a generational style, operating at the tail end of a period when many video artists and film-makers worked in performance-theatre and dance – Sally Potter, Mike Figgis, Tina Keane. Steve and his team are collaborators in the creation of the only document that now remains, this video-text. This is one of the ways in which the show is part of the history of time-based and sound art as well as performance-theatre. In interesting ways that haven't yet been very deeply explored, the world of British performance-theatre related very strongly to independent film and video, both in its techniques of cutting and assembling material, its disjunctive narratives and cut ups, and in the ways in which soundtracks timed and framed the performances, taking them away formally from character development.

The work which Graeme and I had been part of making in the immediate period before A Girl Skipping, with Impact Theatre, embedded the concept of the integrated soundtrack, which, as Impact's work developed, increasingly determined the pace of the performance and cued the show. In addition it provided the kind of emotional depth which sound has in film. It was in effect a character. In Impact's Useful Vices (1982), for instance, the soundtrack contains an entire sub-narrative, never seen or referred to but strongly felt as ambience. It includes birdsong and references to someone called Tulse Luper, himself a mythical character generated by Peter Greenaway and used throughout his work. Working with Steve Shill, Graeme created soundtracks for all of Impact's work, occasionally collaborating with composers, but most often creating music and sonic ambient tracks from scratch. A Girl Skipping works with the same kind of mix – a bricolage of made-up and found sounds. Here they include voice, sounds of the natural world, lyric and plain chant. In the 1980s Graeme and Steve also worked in TV, creating a new soundtrack for, amongst other things, The Moomins. Though never making music-theatre, Impact worked extensively with musical ideas, and especially with filmic ideas, and with musicians and performers who had worked with an earlier generation of composers such as Gavin Bryars and Michael Nyman, or who were themselves composers: Jocelyn Pook, Andrew Poppy, Jeremy Peyton Jones.

Graeme's musical work developed from music into sound, in something like the way that Brian Eno's work has developed – and I see their work as part of an ongoing conversation about listening to the spectrum of sound, and what constitutes music proper. Like Brian Eno's, much of Graeme's work became less identifiable as music towards the end of the 1980s. It moved towards a practice of sound as intervention in site, or sound as a practice of sonic illumination, enhancing, even enchanting, a given site. He began to use sound as a mode of enquiry into space and time, adding to the existing sediment, or excavating material from within it. Yet Graeme has never lost his strong sense of English lyric, nor his feel for biblical cadences. His is a spirituality finely tuned to the plaintive, the half-heard passage of English song down the ages; song that is never quite song; song that is also birdsong; song that collapses into fragments; song that coheres, once again, around a short refrain.

In A Girl Skipping song is also sprechgesang – spoken-song – either broken down or extended, so that lyric and the percussive work together musically, crossing between gesture, movement and speech. Singing and speaking, skipping, jumping, running, hugging, slapping, turning, sitting, clapping – are all communal acts of ritual expression. They frame, punctuate, parse, fill, layer and narrate the time-space.There is little speech, and yet a lot is said. There is almost no dialogue. There are fragmentary exchanges between performers; there are long periods in which nothing is said and we focus on the physical. What is said is mostly declarative in form, rhetorical, monologic. What is said is not spoken – at least, not much – as part of dramatic exchange, instead, the show's speechifying is grandiloquent, mock bombastic, spoken stage front, with a big book held up in front of the speaker. Graeme has described the composition of the several long speeches as almost a kind of hypnotic channelling, and though these speeches are unconventional in dramatic terms, they are also the point at which the dramaturgy becomes theatricalized. Here we are, on stage, telling tall stories, madcap fictions of cartoon-like vivacity. Moreover, what these tales evoke is an offstage world of dark blood; collapsed worlds and crazy landscapes, as if to suggest that 'we' are only safe within this perimeter, while beyond the edge chaos reigns. This is territory where the sensibilities of a century of expressive tale-tellers reign: Alfred Jarry, Angela Carter, Ben Okri, Gabriel Garcia Marquez – magic realism tinged with Viz. Yet it is also serious. What are folktales made of after all, other than the traces of fear and hope in the guise of whatever it is that haunts our own times?

These redolent scrapheap speeches, with their fermenting bodies and stories of painful demise, bear witness to strange happenings at the end of the 1980s. The ferment of that age stirred up all kinds of fears and terrors: AIDS was rampant; borders of all kinds were opening and closing; new wars were on the horizon. 1991 was the year in which Tony Kushner's Angels in America first opened, with its own strange narratives of witness, its own need to testify. What links this to A Girl Skipping is that both, like Derek Jarman's films and the work of Pina Bausch, are forms of expressionist art. Against the cool tableaux of Robert Wilson, or the high formalism of postmodern dance, a powerful countercurrent of expressionism also ran. A Girl Skipping, one of the last pieces Graeme Miller made for theatre, was an eloquent part of this.

If A Girl Skipping is a kind of testament, or an act of witness, one of the things it bears witness to is friendship. In the years that have passed between the then and the now, that much is clear. The engagement of this group of artists, and a wider group that radiates out from them, with each others' work; this way of engaging in public rooms big and small, on stages and galleries, in spaces and in our lives, has gone on. Who knew then that we would still be here? That we would have taught each other, learned from each other, changed as people, held each other, argued and made up? A Girl Skipping now, in 2011, is a document of artistic friendship. Because that is also what we always thought we were doing. To say this is not to round something up, polish it off or sew in its ends simply because we have got older. It is to say that the private and public exchange of views and practices, of insights and skills, is the fabric from which artistic lives are made, and it becomes clearer with time.

I remember a night in the before-everything-that-then-happened-in-our-adult-lives, a few weeks after I met Graeme in Leeds, when he was 19 and I was 22, when we stayed up all night with someone who dropped out of our lives almost at once, just to see the dawn. It was the start of years of staying up late, of tribal behaviour, of group travelling, of which A Girl Skipping is part of the distilled essence. It ends something. It begins something else. After this piece Graeme's work opened out into a more direct engagement with landscape, into his theatre piece Desire Paths, and then into the practices of marking, listening and attending to hidden narratives, traces, footprints and body prints, voiceprints and ghost sounds in different kinds of spaces. It's all here. Isn't it always? All moments feel like the end and the beginning. The bells that end A Girl Skipping seem to me now, today, this minute, to be a kind of herald and a kind of valediction. To watch it as I now see it, layered by the many hands who have also viewed it, responded to it, edited it onto video and remastered it, is to see the strength of a collective performance-theatre tradition – the whole powerful shared vocabulary of a generation played out. Post Pina, post happenings, post ritual poetics, post socialist theatre, post Impact.

We thought at the end of the 1980s that we stood on the edge of the most fragile possible future. God knows we feared we were on the road to nowhere. We weren't. Here we are. Still on the high road. Still looking out into the darkness. Still ringing.The question now – as always – is what to do next.

Claire MacDonald
September 2011

      Claire MacDonald
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