Hatch at NEAT11: Hunt & Darton/Leentje Van De Cruys: From Rosettes and Rocinante to Ponies and Polos

After Thursday evening’s performance of Tourist and Gabriele Reuter’s reshuffling of the identity concept that has underpinned Hatch: NEAT so far, the final Saturday moved us away from the national and cultural identifications that had informed such pieces as Krissi Musiol’s Sugar Statues and 30 Bird Productions’ Poland 3 Iran 2 to far more personal kinds of belonging and alienation. To be specific, we had a double bill of performances in which women identified themselves with horses to look forward to, as Hunt & Darton’s Break Your Own Pony shared the Playhouse rehearsal studio stage with Leentje Van De Cruys’ Horse.

Of course, there’s nothing especially novel about female artists taking horses as subject matter. The title poem of Sylvia Plath’s posthumous collection Ariel was about the sense of dangerous freedom engendered by riding a horse, while Patti Smith’s 1976 debut LP (Horses, naturally) featured a long title track in which successive waves of ‘white shining horses…with their noses in flames’ appear to symbolise a kind of visionary ecstasy that overwhelms the song’s narrator. The association isn’t just made by female artists, either: Peter Schaffer’s 1973 play Equus centres on the relationship between a psychiatrist and a disturbed young man who blinds a stable full of horses out of a religiously-inspired fear of their connection with female sexuality and power.

So, not putting too fine a point on it, women and horses have form, artistically speaking. Where some examples of the identification are intense and archetypal, though, the first piece on show this afternoon – the live art duo Hunt & Darton’s Break Your Own Pony – takes a far lighter and much less reverent approach to its subject in a series of vignettes which sees the two performers (Holly Darton and Rachel Dobbs) acting out a series of alternatively surreal and silly skits playing around with the ways in which women and horses find a kind of cultural and emotional common ground.

Scripted as a list of ‘actions’, the various parts of Break Your Own Pony are like the lessons of a riding school tutor, with the duo offering a series of brief demonstrations as we work our way through the options. Some use puns (‘Whore/See’), some ridicule the identification of female sexuality and horses by miming horse-riding as a kind of ludicrous booty-shake, some drag half the audience onstage to walk and trot them round in circles onstage while the theme from the 70s TV series Black Beauty blares out. The duo leap onto tables and hold convoluted poses, perform synchronised gurning sessions, hand out torches and ask audience members to spotlight their George Stubbs Whistlejacket sweatshirts as they scuttle across the stage like moving targets on a fairground stall.

Pretty much every horsey cliche you might think of was slotted in somewhere: clip-clopping coconut shells, polos, carrots and rosettes. Miniature jumps are set up on the stage. Chairs have stirrups, TV shows like Rawhide and The Horse of the Year Show get name-checks. A lot of it reminded me of the horsey bits in Smack The Pony where Sally Phillips or Doon Mackichan would move from being sophisticated career woman bemoaning the immaturity of men before suddenly switching to being six year olds cantering round pretend show-jumping courses, neighing, snorting and giving themselves four faults. In other words, Hunt & Darton’s piece didn’t take itself too seriously and didn’t outstay its welcome.

The second piece, Leentje Van De Cruys’ Horse, was a rather different take on the idea, as a woman, naked but for a pair of red high-heeled shoes and a static but oddly expressive horse’s head mask, appeared on the stage and began to tell us her story. She is a horse, as we can see for ourselves, she begins, but the problem she has is that – while she appears to be a young foal with sleek muscles and a shiny black nose – in fact she believes herself to really be a saggy old mare: and not just any saggy old mare, either, but Don Quixote’s faithful but decrepit steed, Rocinante, as ridden by the delusional knight in Miguel de Cervantes’ great two volume satirical-chivalric novel completed in 1615.

Van De Cruys takes this rather bizarre concept and runs with it, allowing the central thread to accumulate resonances in an unforced way as it goes. The superficial youthful appearance in contrast to the ‘real’ old nag self of Rocinante brings ideas of female body image into play, and the broader story – in which, just to compound her main difficulties, our narrator is also ill at ease in the company of horses, and prefers the human society of the pub, where no-one can get past the fact that she’s a horse who can talk and read for long enough to actually listen to anything she has to say – touches on many ideas, not least those of acceptance and the experience of being an outsider in a culture that isn’t your own.

The sense of Van De Cruys’ alienation from herself is reinforced by the practical set-up, where she speaks through a microphone inside the mask that creates a slight echo and displaces the voice from the body in front of us: her words are amplified through speakers rather than heard coming from her own mouth. At first, it wasn’t entirely clear what the nudity added to the piece, but when a later section takes Van De Cruys into the audience to seek acceptance and understanding it’s obvious that the self-consciousness and mild embarassment her nudity generates is crucial to the effect she’s creating. Were she clothed or in costume, the audience could far more easily appear to accept her for what she is.

By the conclusion, she’s managed to generate a strangely plausible sense of connection with an audience that can’t quite understand her and remains uneasy in her presence, but is prepared to listen to what she has to say for as long as she is willing to confide it. It’s this ability to combine a genuine undercurrent of unease with a gradual acceptance that really underscores the points that Horse sets out to make. It’s a difficult piece to summarise without making those points sound far more bluntly made than they were, but by the time Van De Cruys turns from the microphone and disappears behind a backstage curtain, it’s clear that however extreme her own confusions might be, they’ve illuminated something far more universally human than her own very particular dysfunction.

One reference the show didn’t make directly is to the final chapters of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, where Swift’s hero, Lemuel Gulliver, finds himself in a land peopled by a race of highly civilised horses, the Houyhnhnms, and a barbaric human tribe called the Yahoos. By identifying so strongly with the horses during his stay, Gulliver finds that on his return to England he is forced to become a recluse, no longer able to bear human company, and spends his days in his own stables. It’s not clear whether Van De Cruys has consciously made Horse as an inversion of the same idea, albeit with a less biting mode of satire in play, or whether the allusion to Swift’s 1726 novel is merely coincidental. Either way, the relationship is notable and adds another facet to an already layered performance.

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