Last year myself and my collaborators Laura Dannequin and James Stenhouse began exploring the possibility of creating a dance that responds to and reflects the weather in which it occurs. A dance of rain or of sun or of wind or of cold.
We set out with the desire to give weather back some of its scale and wonder. We wanted nature to seem vast and wild again, for those people such as ourselves who are fortunate enough to normally be insulated from such wildness. We wanted to make the sky feel really big and ourselves really small, to transform our relationship to weather and by extension the non-human world more generally. We wanted to live again in anticipation of the rain, to reconfigure our lives around the weather, even if only temporarily.
To do so we began a residency that took in three different cities and three different seasons. Cardiff in the summer, London in the Autumn and Bristol just as winter was closing in.
Here are some notes I made from the first two of those residencies, and at the end is a video we made from the third and final residency.
Part 1 – Cardiff
We are standing on the barrage and waiting.
The barrage is half a mile long, a spine of rubble and a battery of metal damns and bridges. A pair of vast human arms reaching out into the water, suffocating Cardiff Bay into placidity and genteel pleasantness.
The barrage exists because thirty years ago a politician dreamt of an opera house, and of the serene bay upon which that opera house would sit. It exists because at the turn of the millennium this politician’s vision was exactly the kind of monument we wanted to build to our fragile prosperity.
The barrage is an exercise in human interference, a feat of late 20th century engineering that embodies a much older set of beliefs about the value and purpose of nature and our right and ability to shape it to serve our own crudely obvious desires. It is encrusted with invasive zebra molluscs, encircled by copy and paste apartment blocks and unleased retail units.
The barrage is the point at which the detritus of neoliberalism meets the water’s edge – the place where a future of prosperity and comfort fall into the sea.
The barrage is where we choose to wait for the rain to come. We imagine it swelling up from the Atlantic like a biblical plague, a typhoon, a tempest.
We continue to wait.
This is a week of waiting.
We get up. We check the forecast. We look at the sky. We check the forecast again. We plan our day accordingly. We follow weather patterns, the shifting and mutating bands of blue and green on maps and satellite pictures.
This becomes a habitual practice. A daily routine. And whilst the weather remains almost spitefully warm and sunny, this act of waiting, of watching the forecast, of following the clouds as they collect so promisingly in the sky above us, is already reconditioning our relationship to the world around us. The longer and harder we look, the more we are gently lifted out of the urban environment we usually inhabit.
I talk to Karine from Migrations, the lead partner on this project, and she tells me that where she lives in the countryside of North Wales, the weather has a more tangible daily presence than it does in Cardiff, or any other city. The flow of the stream through the garden heard as a daily report on the weather conditions. The consideration that has to be given to what to wear when you go outside, or even whether to go outside at all.
James tells us about growing up in a remote part of Northumberland, about the microclimate around their house – the sense that the weather was bigger there, more substantial, more physically present, than when they were closer to the rest of the world. And perhaps the weather is bigger and closer but perhaps it also feels bigger and closer. In these places a study of the weather is a daily ritual because it has to be, because it is unavoidable. In the city this is not the case.
I am walking along the barrage, thinking about the weather, watching the clouds form and evaporate. And this weather feels not like the backdrop to my day, but rather an ongoing process that I am a daily witness to. I feel a heightened awareness. It feels good. I also feel pleased that this daily ritual is bleeding out into other people’s lives. In Bristol on the other side of the channel, Laura’s partner Dan is looking out of the kitchen window in the morning and thinking of us and thinking of the weather, albeit what he is really doing is worrying about us, and the oppressively unbroken sunshine.
This sense of a habitual practice, of a daily routine, feels important to the piece. An act of communing with nature that isn’t just a fleeting spin in the rain but is instead patient, diligent and transformative – that is an act of love or a duty of care.
Back on the barrage we are still waiting.
We wait and as we wait I am thinking about the times when bearing witness to a performance has involved waiting. Those great expanses of waiting that some artists have the confidence to conjure, waiting that unfolds like something geological. Neil Callaghan and Simone Kenyon in their duet Someone Something Someone, their bodies slowly collapsing in on each other like glacier melt. The ponderous walk of the two figures at the beginning of Back To Back Theatre’s Small Metal Objects, plodding across Stratford Station as commuters wash around them. The beginning of Jerome Bel’s The Show Must Go On, as the lights slowly fade up over the course of an entire song.
Recently a friend asked me what I thought ‘live art’ was good at, and this was my response:
Live Art is good at silence. Not the silence of a pause, which is really just the anticipation of more noise, but actual silence. When I think of Live Art I think of all the time I have spent in silence, not waiting, just experiencing. Silence that is indefinite. Silence that holds time differently, that asks us to sit together in a moment, rather than rattle through it in pursuit of a narrative or another exhilarating thrill. Silence is boring and Live Art is one of the few disciplines that appears to have absolutely no problem with being totally, obnoxiously boring. But silence is also the most effective way of creating a space in which everyone is listening. In an era of such thunderous volume, from the infinite black static of the internet to the deafening booming of the White House, a space in which everyone is listening is rare, vital and radical.
This kind of waiting, this kind of silence, is important to what we are trying to make. Getting inside of those meaningless and vacant tracks of time, to find their inner tingle.
But how does an audience find that space? How do you let them in on the secret? How do you prepare them in such a way that ‘a mere tale of emptiness, in which nothing happens, nothing is gained, and there is nothing to describe’ becomes a revelatory experience, rather than something tortuous?
For the moment at least we continue to wait. The barrage is still so solid-seeming and unmoveable, a theatre set on an industrial scale. The bay glitters in the blustery sunshine.
Part 2 – London
I am standing with one arm in the air, as if about to give a signal to start or to stop. I am signalling something but what that thing might be is not entirely clear. I am a measurement of the sky, a gauging of the temperature, and the temperature is currently three layers of jumpers and coats and my hood pulled up over my head, one arm in the air and the other plunged deep into my jacket pocket like a rabbit seeking shelter. I hunch over, bouncing on the balls of my feet, head nodding, my body lilting with the wind.
I can see in front of me other bodies, scattered across the rooftop in no discernible pattern. They are also raincoats and scarves and small flutters of movement. A murder of crows, not waiting but watchful, marking the time, acknowledging how it passes, guarding against the possibility that something might fall out of the sky without them noticing. Laura is squatting with her hood up and her hands in her jacket pockets. James is lying on the ground, arms and legs spread wide, a starburst or a snow angel, a gangly, human attempt at something vast and heavenly. We have been here for over an hour, not in these exact positions but nearly, and we have over an hour left of the time we have set ourselves to remain up here, doing this.
We are drawing weather patterns. We are a weather pattern. We are a map of the sky and the air and the wind that never stops blowing and the occasional spitting rain. We are describing the movement of clouds as they pass over our heads, not in a flurry of floaty symbolic gestures, but rather through a language of duration, endurance and persistence – a gradual building of a vocabulary of gestures and actions that speaks of labour, toil and precarity. That speak of nature as something hard and remorseless; not bucolic green and blues, but muddy browns and drizzly greys.
The rooftop is a wilderness of pipes and ducts, hidden from the view of the people walking along the South Bank. I can smell chicken being cooked in the chain restaurants below us and measure time on the clock faces of the hotels and headquarters on the other side of the Thames. The London Eye slowly turns and occasionally one of the rides in the fairground on jubilee park spins into view with a neon twinkle. I wonder what we look like to the people looking down on us – a crew of castaways desperately signalling for help in a semaphore nobody can understand, maintenance workers in the middle of a complex calculation, sunbathers optimistically awaiting a break in the clouds. Or perhaps at a glance we appear to be nothing, to be doing nothing, simply standing, gazing off into space, out of sync with the mechanical pace of the city around us.
When I was 18 years old I worked briefly as a farm labourer in the fens. We would spend hours in the wide-open flatness, wrestling vegetables from the damp ground, folding steady lines across vast fields of oilseed rape, preserving our energy where we could, doing as little as possible which meant still doing plenty, the landscape accumulating in our muscles like sediment. It was messy work, as imprecise and inhospitable as the weather, a daily reckoning with the instability of the world and of our relationship to it. In my memory I am stood on the raised bank of a drainage ditch, both of the landscape and in defiance of it, a speck of dust in the corner of an eye. In the last 15 years I have never again worked like this, but standing on the roof of the royal festival hall, it is these days of diligent labour that I am reminded of; nature as something that cannot be framed, cannot be rendered pictorial, can only be experienced.
Despite their obvious differences, there are undoubtedly similarities to these two practices. In the first instance they are both clusters of movement whose shape and trajectory are determined by the weather, from the particular angle of a head in resistance to the rain or sun, to the larger distribution of bodies determined more or less explicitly by the wind and where it has thrown us.
But equally these two activities are also born of the same understanding, of nature and of weather in particular; its scale, its relentlessness, its unavoidability. They both seem to recognise that communing with nature is not a country walk in the sunshine, is not Rousseau or William Morris, it is dirt and cold and sweat and heat, it is rain and mud, it is time and commitment, it is messy and imperfect and prone to periods of uncertainty, drudgery and boredom, scattered with moments of haunted beauty and unexpected euphoria. It is this understanding of nature that will be needed if we are to learn some collective humility and the reality of our place in the world, and recognise, finally, how very small and vulnerable we are in the face of what is surely to come.
And it is coming, the thing all this watching, all this waiting, is leading up to. Perhaps not in the duration of this show, or even in our lifetimes, but it is coming. Indeed, in places less fortunately comfortable than an arts centre roof in the centre of the second biggest city in Europe, this confrontation with relentlessness of nature is already an unwanted daily practice. London is generally insulated from such realities; indeed it is an insulator from such realities, its light and power, its labyrinthine tunnels, all the many facets of its infinite infrastructure sheltering in us from the outside, and from the future. What does it take to puncture a hole in that, even if only temporarily? I think it takes time, and patience, the diligence of agriculture, or of surfing perhaps – that is, a willingness to be cold and unspectacular for extended periods of time in pursuit of something a sublime connection to the non-human world that most likely won’t happen and is probably anyway impossible.
I turn on the spot and face into the wind, instinctively opening up my body in the process, head up, shoulders back, arms lifting, fists unfurling, fingers outstretching. I am a sail. I am sailing, running forward now into the wind, chasing the advancing weather and throwing myself into it, conjoining and defying, flinging myself into the air and raising my arms above my head. And then we are all there, running and jumping, pitching ourselves into the breeze, feeling the first few spits of rain against the thin skin on our faces.
Part 3 – Bristol