Lightness: Drunken Chorus and Wolf Close at New Art Exchange

Text: Wayne Burrows
Photography: Julian Hughes

I hope to have shown that there is such a thing as a lightness of thoughtfulness, just as we all know that there is a lightness of frivolity. In fact, thoughtful lightness can make frivolity seem dull and heavy…” 

Italo Calvino: Six Memos for the Next Millennium (1988)

In a series of lectures written in 1985, but left unfinished at his death and posthumously published in 1988, the Italian writer Italo Calvino defined a series of (mainly literary) properties that he thought to be endangered by an increasingly dominant and formally prescriptive culture. The keynote memo, On Lightness, presents this property as implicitly opposed to traditional notions of weight and, by extension, significance, and Calvino’s notion of what ‘lightness’ might mean certainly comes to mind in relation to the two short performances, by Drunken Chorus and Wolf Close, staged at New Art Exchange in December.

Drunken Chorus [photo credit: Julian Hughes]

Drunken Chorus [photo credit: Julian Hughes]

Developed into finished pieces from the earlier ten minute ‘scratch’ incarnations presented last year in Leicester, the two pieces aren’t really extended too much from the performances seen there, or at least, feel more like extended, around 20 minute, remixes of their ‘scratch’ versions than fully developed new pieces. Which is precisely where Calvino’s comments on lightness seem appropriate, because in both cases there seems to have been a deliberate avoidance of the usual development process which might add weight or overwork the initial sketches. Here, the lightness of the performances seems deliberately cultivated: a method of achieving a kind of formal equivalent of optimism and uplift, a sort of ‘breathing out’.

Drunken Chorus [photo credit: Julian Hughes]

Drunken Chorus [photo credit: Julian Hughes]

Just Like Larry Walters by Sheena Holliday and Chris Williams, the duo at the heart of Drunken Chorus, makes this quest for lightness its subject. Larry Walters was an American who in the late 1970s strapped a bunch of weather-balloons to a lawn chair, grabbed himself a pack of beers and a pellet gun (to shoot out the balloons when he fancied descending to earth) and cut the rope that tethered him to his garden. Underestimating the lifting capacity of helium, he proceeded to ascend not to the 50 or 60 foot altitude he’d anticipated, but shot quickly upwards to a height of 16,000 feet where he drifted for hours, visible to aircraft and air-traffic control and stuck until the helium depleted and brought him naturally down.

Drunken Chorus [photo credit: Julian Hughes]

Drunken Chorus [photo credit: Julian Hughes]

Williams tells the story of Larry Walters’ temporary escape from the ordinary, merging it with bits of Pixar’s Up and the award winning 1950s childrens’ short film and storybook The Red Balloon, while Holliday blows up balloons, wanting to inflate enough for a party, to fill the stage, the room, the whole building. While Williams searches for moments of rhetorical uplift and Holliday blows bubbles and struggles to speed up her production line of balloons – sometimes roping the audience in to help – the piece builds, then just as quickly crashes, its failure to achieve take-off marked by a rampage of onstage bubble-popping and balloon-bursting.

Wolf Close [photo credit: Julian Hughes]

Wolf Close [photo credit: Julian Hughes]

Whether this ‘crash’ is intended as a metaphor for human endeavour generally, as unrealistic hope seems always to precede an equally unrealistic disillusion, is left open-ended. It does, however, obliquely connect Just Like Larry Walters with its companion piece on this double-bill, Onto The Roof, performed by Dartington graduates Wolf Close. Another attempt to build an ascent into escape velocity from the everyday begins to unfold, the emphasis less on literal flight than a (very Dartington) effort to find ways of achieving communion with nature. The duo begin with stories, dances and low-key rituals to set the mood, then gradually allow their words and actions to expand outwards from the confines of this particular stage into imagined forests, rivers and rainstorms.

Wolf Close [photo credit: Julian Hughes]

Wolf Close [photo credit: Julian Hughes]

As with Drunken Chorus, any notion of actual escape is held within a rhetorical, storytelling framework, as we’re asked to enter into this play-acted imaginary escape like the kind of children who might once have entered into the story of a boy befriended by and carried into the sky by a red balloon, or a man dreaming of flight in a lawn chair. The difference, perhaps, is that where Drunken Chorus imagine individual escapes, Wolf Close seem intent on drawing us into a collective escape: a journey by coach that crosses Europe, pays tribute to the giant Sequoias and Redwoods of some vast North American forest, then returns us all, exhausted, to our seats, while playing the violins we’ve made for ourselves and mastered in transit before rushing to the roof to dance in a rainstorm.

Wolf Close [photo credit: Julian Hughes]

Wolf Close [photo credit: Julian Hughes]

It’s simultaneously a kind of hymn to unfettered imagination (what might we be capable of if we suspended our perceived limitations?) and an absurdist joke on the sheer unlikeliness of it all. Even so, that possibility might seem more worthwhile, for all the uncertainty of its likely outcome,  in the face of our own mortality, which On The Roof neatly symbolises with an RSPB clock inherited from a relative held, for a full, very long, minute  against a microphone, its slow but remorseless ticking a brief interlude to sharpen our engagement with the climactic scenes. On The Roof seems intent on telling us that it hardly matters whether we succeed or fail, given the blunt fact of mortality. What we choose is how to fill the ever-declining number of seconds and minutes we have left.

 

 

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