On Wednesday afternoon I witnessed a thought-provoking performance, strung. It took place in the grounds of Bethlem Royal Hospital, and tied in with the opening of the Bethlem Gallery‘s Reclaiming Asylum exhibition.
strung was devised by artists Jane Fradgley and Shane Waltener and performed by dancer Laura Glaser and sound artist Zoë Gilmour. A video iteration of strung is showing in the gallery, created with the videographer Antonia Attwood. One element, then, of strung is collaboration.
Another element is the magnificent cedar tree, site and heart of the performance. The Reclaiming Asylum brochure refers to it as a ‘Lebanese cedar tree.’ I’m not an expert, but having checked my RHS Encylopedia of Plants and Flowers, I’m inclined to think it’s a Blue Atlas cedar, with its silvery smoky blue foliage.
The sound element of the piece was provided by Zoë Gilmour. Beneath the wide skirts of the cedar tree, to one side of the trunk, she’d set up with her cello, a small amp, some effects pedals, microphone and minimal percussion. For the two hours of the performance she created a subtle slowly changing soundtrack of looped cello phrases and percussive sounds. Plucking, strumming, brushing her bow on the cello strings; shaking a rattle; whispering into the microphone. Sometimes the sounds carried and sometimes they didn’t. Wind blew through the tree, dislodging clouds of fine dust. Traffic passed on the nearby hospital road. Under the tree Zoë responded to the movements of the dancer or was it the other way round? How much was improvised, thought out on the go, and how much choreographed and mapped out beforehand?
On the other side of the tree trunk dancer Laura Glaser – dressed in white trousers, white plimsolls, white long-sleeved top and wearing her long straight brown hair loose – moved back and forth between the lower branches, weaving a net with red twine. Her hands made small quick skilful movements, tugging, knotting, testing and stretching the twine. She seemed purposeful, focussed. I walked around the circumference of the tree, glimpsing the performers between the spreading branches. The tree gave off a spicy scent. And then unexpectedly (to me, anyway), Laura climbed through an opening in her woven net and began clambering over it. These were slower, tentative whole body movements as she navigated and extended the net structure. Rolling, grasping, tumbling into the cocoons and hammocks of the red twine web. Stretching and contorting herself, like a cat exploring and inhabiting a confined space. Lying along one of the branches. Climbing higher and continuing to unravel the twine and twist and knot triangular pockets between trunk and branches. As Laura tested and stepped from one spot to another the lower branches rippled like the hem of a flamenco dancer’s dress and the tree released another waft of dusty spicy scent. The cedar is also a performer.
The afternoon was warm and sunny; the eve of the autumn equinox. People lingered, soaking up the golden light and immersing themselves in the unfolding performance. We wandered through the hospital grounds for a bit, holding our thoughts, as far as the small orchard where apples lay quietly rotting in the long grass. Heading back towards the performance, I could hear the mellow tones of the cello carried by the wind. I liked the correspondence of the plucked cello strings with the rhythmic weaving. The dancer’s agility and fragility. I thought about trust – as a performer, trusting the twine, trusting her skill, trusting the tree will hold her. Tree climbing as emblematic of childhood freedom; innocence. The woven structure reminding me of cat’s cradles and also a safety net. We stood and watched the end of the performance, as Laura climbed down through the net one last time and walked out from the sheltering reach of the cedar tree. Something quite beautiful and moving happened that afternoon.
The video version of strung is showing at the Bethlem Gallery until 11th November.