Hatch at NEAT11: Zoo Indigo/Medium Rare: Opening Hours (I)

While Hatch is straying from its usual operating principle of gathering a range of work loosely connected by a theme into one time and location during NEAT11, that doesn’t mean there isn’t continuity with that inclination in the Hatch: NEAT programme. With the linking theme over the fortnight being ‘identity’, the opening weekend’s performances – from Medium Rare and Zoo Indigo – seemed to begin very much at home, with both companies exploring not only aspects of a very British kind of identity, but linking them to the convoluted history of a circular patch of ground known as Wellington Circus, named after the architect of Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo. Formerly a burial ground, and in the 19th and early 20th centuries a gathering point for nannies working in the large households of The Park to gossip and exercise their small charges, more recently the site – located next to Anish Kapoor’s Sky Mirror and Nottingham Playhouse – has been fenced in by railings and padlocked against public intrusions. 

In Medium Rare’s performance on Saturday, the five members of the company dressed in their best PE Teacher outfits and led small groups into one of three exercise routines. Whistles were blown, we were ordered into single file and marched across the green, where we were obliged to take part in a series of mildly taxing physical exercises. The first, “I hope in this time we’ve had together you have realised that we can co-operate…and make something that is really nice”, took its cues  from management training days as we were put through our paces, playing catch with satsumas, while seated in a circle of mismatched chairs. The distance of each throw was gradually extended and the pace of the game became increasingly demanding as it went on: so much so that at one point the satsuma split and began to leak juice.

The second section, “Whatever your squad does, it needs to be uniform”, led us into a different circle where we were coaxed sternly through a series of synchronised swimming positions in the open air. As we knelt, turned, raised arms, pointed toes, formed Busby Berkeley circles of limbs and much else besides, the regimentation involved began to raise questions: was this healthy outdoor co-operation or something more sinister and controlling? I had images in my mind of the mass choreographed displays so beloved of totalitarian states and participatory arts and sports events.

By the time the whistle called us back into single file,  the question of what distance there might actually be between a military drill and a school P.E. lesson, a Nuremberg Rally and an Olympics opening ceremony, was beginning to form itself quite clearly. The third part – “[Team name] x 2 rah, rah, rah (while clapping)” – required us to kneel on small lily-pad shaped circles of foam placed at points on a Baseball Diamond and try to follow the complex but purposeless sequence of marking and standing positions being played out around and behind us. By now, the link being made between sports, regimentation and blind obedience to the authority of a uniform, a whistle and a confidently issued order seemed to be crystal clear. 

But perhaps that was just me. As someone who used to skip P.E. lessons at school and spend those dreaded double periods in the library or a side-room in the art block (thanks to a sympathetic art teacher) I might have been biased all along. Others might have come away with fond memories of exercise and the outdoors, or glimpsed a benign model for co-operative living, an antidote to individualism, in these healthy pastimes. Even so, it’s hard to deny that we live in a culture that invests social and national identity in its sports, measuring dominance and cohesion in Olympic Medals and shared cheering rather than body-counts on the battlefields of Europe, as Wellington did. Perhaps the question is whether that’s a permanent improvement or merely a way of keeping the embers of something more dangerous smouldering away beneath the civilised surface? 

Zoo Indigo’s performance on the Sunday evening raised similar questions from a different angle. The traditional fertility rite of the Maypole Dance was here artificially stretched out into a two hour endurance test that saw the participants slowly circling the green, over and over again, each lost in a private and inaudible world as they danced to looped replays of their own favourite songs. Where Medium Rare whistled and cajoled individuals into undifferentiated groups, Zoo Indigo seemed to be caging participants in what was once a joyously collective endeavour inside their individual bubbles.

As the maypole dance went doggedly but colourfully on, we were invited to take a pram around a circular path, listen to speculation about the dancers’ thoughts and facts about the area’s layered history. We were invited to plant and water a seed. We could listen to ipods and match the number of each song to that on the shirt of one of the dancers: the four or five ‘favourite songs’ I tried out in this way spanned a broad range, from Fatboy Slim-style Big Beat to ‘hang on in there’ power balladry and no particular clues as to who might have chosen what were evident until the numbers were matched and it became possible to read the song we heard into the rhythm of someone’s movements. 

In fact, given the circular theme in both performances and the Wellington Circus location itself, I’d like to imagine someone had chosen one of the many versions of Michel Legrand’s Windmills of Your Mind  (“…like a circle in a circle, like a wheel within a wheel…”) but I heard no evidence that anyone actually had. Instead, as each dancer trudged around the imperceptibly diminishing circle, nodding their heads or pacing steps to the different beats of their own private soundtracks, I was reminded of old engravings of 19th century convicts circling prison yards, or those 1930s dance marathons that offered cash prizes to whichever couple could remain standing longest.  

As the ribbons plaited the pole through the final 30 minutes or so, the dancers were drawn ever closer together, yet always remained isolated from one-another, adrift from the spectacle they were part of. The maypole and its ancient links with fertility and communal celebration seemed both intact and diminished. Perhaps the pram echoed this link to fertility as well as the ground’s history as a recreational area for nannies, in much the same way that the inscribed markers placed over the planted seeds echoed the former burial ground reputed to still be present under our feet.

At the end of the weekend, the dual nature of current British identity – its collective and individualistic sides, its sinister and celebratory sides – seemed to be floating in the air, somewhere, so it’ll be interesting to see how these two performances coincide when both companies return to the same site on June 12, closing the circle of the Hatch: NEAT programme after its forthcoming diversions through Poland, Iran, Germany and many other places with connections to Nottingham. That circle’s next segment will be sketched in with linked performances from Jenna Finch and Krissi Musiol as we head from Wellington Circus to the Polish Eagle Social Club in Sherwood on Thursday evening.

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