Alexandrina Helmsley is one half of dance duo Project O and an Associate Artist at The Yard Theatre. Alongside Dan Hutton and Yard producer Ashleigh Wheeler, she programmed the open call-out artists for NOW 17 festival. Alexandrina initially performed in NOW 14 as an open call-out artist and was invited to return for NOW 15 as a mentoring artist. Here Alexandrina speaks with Rich Dodwell about his work, his process and what drove him to create PLANES. 

What led you to make this particular work?

Feeling hugely sad. Grief is one of those weird, messy things—particularly when it involves suicide. The shock of the absence is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before, and it risked paralysing me for a very long time. But it also forced me to reflect on my own story, perhaps more than I had anticipated. There is something interesting in Freudian thought about an internalisation of the lost object that produces the sort of melancholia particular to loss. I started out wanting to make a piece of work about how miserable the experience of suicide is, but, as I dug deeper, and encountered my own madness, it turned into a navigation of my own survival, and the strangeness of that.

When I saw an earlier version of PLANES I was really drawn to the spacious, almost tender re-telling of personal narratives. I had a sense of a live remembering and searching. How have you found working with autobiography?

I’ve found it extremely difficult and rewarding. Getting to the core of a feeling can be like climbing a mountain in a blizzard, especially in a time when we are all meant to be pulling our socks up and just getting on with it. I often get the sense that suicide, apart from how fucking difficult it is to live in this world, is about silence. It’s about what cannot be spoken or communicated at a given moment in time. The people who are left behind are stranded between all these questions about what exactly that person’s life was, who they were and what they thought about themselves; and I suppose that induces a kind of shame in the survivor; that you just don’t know or have the answers. With PLANES I had to challenge the shame that is so often silencing by allowing my memory or process of recollection to bring forward any random thing and allowing that to be part of the narrative, rather than beating myself up over some kind of forensic analysis of exactly who I could blame for how lonely I often feel at times. Instead I felt like the process of grief and memory, with all its random equivocation, pointed towards a kind of truth that perhaps makes more sense of my own struggle, somehow.

How would you describe the live performance landscape you work within/around?

I would describe it as a deeply stabilising force in being able to stand up and say these things at all. In all mental anguish and suffering I think we hope that someone will be there with an arm around us, and I first wanted to work with Timothy on that basis, and as a poet and composer who’s work I immensely enjoy and respect. I knew that I wanted a sound element; that I didn’t just want to be feeling around in the darkness by myself. The landscape of the score operates like the triangulation of the transponder equipment found on modern airliners. The transponder is the device that emits the signal that tells ground stations where the plane is located (outside of conventional radar)—it does this by communicating with a satellite, which then connects to a ground station. These ‘pings’ are recorded and relayed and somehow forms a triangular location of where the plane is in relation to these three points. They were also the final signals that the missing Malaysian airliner left hourly until it disappeared over the ocean. In a way the musicians are both transmitters and receivers of my information, like a transponder, helping to locate me in the space, and in the cold and empty air. But also they let me know that I’m not alone. If there’s hope in the work it’s the liveness of our bodies together, trying to hear each other in the dark.

In a searching show searching that navigates many paths what have you found along the way?

That’s tough! I would like to say something triumphant or that feels fully-formed, but I guess the failure to do that is why I’m here. I’ve learnt to grieve, or try to, but again I don’t really know what that means. And maybe that’s ok. Oh, and I’ve learnt to keep telling my story. No matter whether or not I feel it’s interesting or of any value. As the AIDS activism of the 80s so aptly put it, Silence = Death. I guess I want everyone I love to start speaking, and on a selfish level to hear something said back.