Interested in site specific performance in your museum?
Increasingly, museums are embracing the opportunities of partnership with performing arts – including theatre and dance. Sometimes the partnership projects are fairly simple – for example a theatre company is touring a production and is looking for a venue, the museum can provide a suitable space and facilities. But other projects are more complex and require deep commitment on both sides to collaborative development.
In most cases, site specific performances fit at the latter end of the partnership scale. This is performance (such as dance, theatre, music or opera) that is specifically created to take place in a particular space – a different kind of space from a theatre or performance hall. Typically, this kind of work responds to, exploits and illuminates the physical features, meanings and stories of the site. All kinds of spaces have been used from sports fields to railway stations to factories to prisons. And, of course, museums.
Like many forms of cross-cultural practice, site specific performance offers fantastic opportunities to engage with new audiences as well as to interpret collections and sites in new ways.
My half term family break took me to two very different immersive performance pieces. The first, ‘The Wedding Reception’, performed in a West End hotel, was a light hearted theatre piece by Interactive Theatre International, the Australian company behind ‘Faulty Towers: The Dining Experience.’ It’s immersive (in the sense that you become one of the guests – including being served a 3-course chicken dinner) and site-sensitive in the sense that it works in a place where a wedding might be held. The interaction between the play and its setting is at times hilarious – as when passers by on the street outside started filming on their mobile phones, thinking that they were seeing a real wedding going wrong – but not truly site specific. It’s designed to be performed in any venue that could host a wedding reception and so tours to hotels, social clubs and sporting clubs around the world. It would be great in a museum that hosts weddings.
By contrast, the second piece was serious in intent, truly site specific and created over time in response to a particular venue. This was Quests, the second site sensitive performance in a trilogy of work by Belgian choreographer Tara D’Arquian, performed in . the Borough Hall, Greenwich.
It’s not a museum, it’s a former municipal building with historic features and historic resonance for the local community. Built in 1939 as part of the council headquarters complex that replaced the Victorian Greenwich Town Hall, Borough Hall is Art Deco in style and Grade II listed – described by Nikolaus Pevsner as ‘the only town hall of any London borough to represent the style of our time adequately.’ It was used for municipal purposes until the 1960s when a local government reorganisation moved the headquarters to Woolwich. It’s now home to the Greenwich Dance arts agency. As such, it’s been used in much site specific work.
Experiencing Quests is different to most experience of ‘going to see’ dance. The audience is part of the piece from the beginning and as the story unfolds, we moved from space to space through the building. The rooms of the Borough Hall had each been transformed by the production designer, so that the spaces told part of the story. The piece built on the features of the original building but also changed them. The company included both professional performers and community members, who formed a bridge between the professional cast and the audience.
Reflecting on the experience of Quests, I was keen to help museums considering a site-specific performance project to understand the creator’s perspective on the experience of bringing the piece to reality. I was also interested in giving museums a picture of some of the practical considerations involved. Choreographer Tara was generous in her time in responding to my questions and I am reproducing our email interview here, so that museums can learn about the performing artist’s perspective on the process:
LM: How did the project come about?
TA: Quests was the second site-specific piece of a trilogy which was initiated by In Situ, a Greenwich Dance & Trinity Laban Partnership Compass Commission.
Quests revolves around the second state of consciousness in Nietzsche’s Three Metamorphoses, the state of the lion who deconstructs all truths that he has been inculcated.
In order to support this theme and to transmit it to the audience, I wanted for it to be performed in a site which possessed a timeless feel and which could be transformed and made multiple, passing from the inside of a boat to a hotel lobby for example.
I thought of the Borough Hall of Greenwich and when I approached Greenwich Dance, they didn’t hesitate and embraced the project.
LM: How was the project funded?
TA: Quests was commissioned by Greenwich Dance and supported by Arts Council England, Trinity Laban and Dance East. In addition, I raised a part of the fund through a Kickstarter campaign and also invested in the project myself.
LM: What is special to you about developing site-specific work?
TA: I am very sensitive to space, places, buildings. I am moved by how light and textures meet to structure the space. I am the daughter of two architects and I grew up in an old water bottle factory which they transformed into our home. So I guess I understand space by creatively interacting with it. As an artist today, I like to share this with an audience and highlight the multiplicity of perception of Space. I am interested in using the identity of a site as a metaphor for human identity. It’s a sort of personification of the site.
LM: How did the setting influence this piece and the trilogy as a whole?
TA: The composers, Bruno Humberto and Philippe Lenzini, one of the performers Anne-Gaëlle Thiriot and myself carried out a few weeks of research and development at the Borough Hall of Greenwich before the beginning of rehearsals. During these weeks of R&D we did a lot of improvisations and worked a lot with memory. The simple fact of being on site for this phase of the process hugely influenced us on a subconscious level. The outcome of these R&D weeks established the mood and tone of the piece.
As for how this site influenced the trilogy as a whole… I am not sure yet. It is still a bit early to say.
LM: How do you feel Quests acts to reinterpret/bring new audiences to appreciate the historic building?
TA: I think Quests did bring quite a lot of new audience members at the Borough Hall of Greenwich. I must say that Yann Seabra, the set designer, did such a wonderful work that it was difficult for people who had never been on site before to actually experience the “real” site. What they experienced rather is the “fictive” site. The character we superimposed on the site. It might be quite an interesting experience for someone who had not been at The Borough Hall of Greenwich to return on site. I am not sure they would recognize it!
LM: What (if any) have been the challenges of working in a Grade II listed building?
TA: The challenges were technical ones such as the limitations with power for example. Lighting the many spaces demanded to be creative and Genevieve Giron, the lighting designer, did a fantastic work. This is another parameter of site-specific performance making which I love. The restrictions a site offers are the key to finding original solutions and developing one’s practice in ways we wouldn’t have if they were no constraints.