Julie Rose Bower talks with Alexandrina about her show The Foley Explosion

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 Julie Rose Bower about her work, her process and what drove her to create The Foley Explosion. 

What led you to make this particular work?

I put together the initial idea for the work quickly as a direct response to the open callout from the Yard for NOW 17. The content of the show has been percolating for a few years but this solo setup for working with audio where I blend Foley sound with looping technology is brand new. I am coming back from a career break having had a child and I am starting to think about what has formed me psychologically and I keep coming back to a year I spent in Russia when I was 19. Foley artists use audio to reassign meaning to sounds and this often a case of making sound using everyday objects but placing them out of context. I feel like I was an everyday person but placed out of context a long way from home, the meanings of things shifted for me. In a sense, this is a work about sharing memories, letting them echo and then allowing them to fade so you can continue on into the future.

There’s a lot of strange stuff happening right now around the media, fake news and Russian politics. It’s hard to talk about Russia because hardly anyone has been there and it is a country with a formidable history. As a result, anyone will believe anything about Russia, it seems. I could hardly believe it when Buzzfeed dropped the Trump dossier because it is so like what I am working with: an undefined mixture of fiction and reality that runs because it’s plausible. I worked as a journalist in Russia and I feel like I saw this era of dissimulation and 24-hour rolling news start to hit fever pitch with the embedding of news journalists during the Iraq war. After what I saw, I didn’t want to work in journalism. Last week I heard them interview Frederick Forsyth on the radio as if a detective novelist was the best-placed expert to put a narrative on the news. The illusion is explicitly coming apart and we get to watch it in real time.

Is working with sound in this way a departure from your previous works?

Yes, it’s a departure for me to do solo work performing sound. I have played in bands off and on since forever but strictly punk rock; I’m not a musician! This piece for me is as much about movement and choreography as audio and composition; it’s about a really intimate manipulation of objects to create sympathetic sounds. One memorable piece of advice I got when I trained at the Lecoq school was ‘objects will betray you’ (Les objets trahissent) so I guess you could say I am conscious that it’s a risky strategy for performance. There’s also the loop recording element which leaves less room the more layers you build. Then I tell a story to conjure a world for these sounds. I feel like I’m learning to drive a new kind of car and hold a conversation at the same time.

I have worked a lot with repeated, looping visual images and made live work that interacts with projections to create interesting depth effects but I guess previous works have more been a case of one idea, neatly expressed. This time I am starting with Foley sound, moving into audio collage and occasionally tipping over into a sort of bastard music.

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

I started out devising theatre work and making pieces for theatre buildings and then wanting to get away from traditional theatrical company structures and processes and going into site-specific and performance installation work, both solo work and collaborations. My solo practice has involved a residency at Smashlab Live Art Laboratory at the Book Club in Shoreditch where I debuted a triptych of costume pieces about transformation and how to disappear. I have worked a lot as Assistant Director to Director/Designer Geraldine Pilgrim and she is like the queen of the unconventional project, a really fearless auteur. I have collaborated with Lundahl and Seitl who make wonderful one on one performances using touch choreography and binaural sound and they are virtuosic, making unique and deeply moving work. I recently did a Live Art DIY with Stacy Makishi and it was very inspiring; she is supportive and serious but then she will turn on a dime and be hilarious. I identify with live art because it is often humorous, polemical and has ecumenical qualities – crossing disciplines. The people I love to be around creatively are musicians because they are often sensualists in very unusual ways.

When first speaking to you about The Foley Explosion, I had a real sense of the audience being drawn into the minutiae of not only sound but the associations we may have with that sound. And then encountering the potential for that sound to lose it’s meaning and gain mystery…a bit like zooming in on an object so much that it becomes something unknown. What do those moments hold for you?

For me, the act of listening is a leap into the unknown. Inviting an audience to make a jump from what they can see me doing in the space in front of them to the sound fitting into the imaginative world of a story I’m telling is a very subversive and playful dynamic. It’s an invitation for truthtelling which goes beyond the literal. Sound is something physical that you put inside your body, it’s a vibration that works on you on a deep flesh level. I was telling my friend and collaborator Rob Hart, who I consulted about sound design, about the scandal that nature documentaries (shock! horror!) do not use ‘real’ sound but instead use Foley artists to make the sound that goes with the tiger walking across the snow or the penguin diving out from under the ice or whatever. He said something really beautiful: “Of course; you can’t zoom in on sound.” It is such a profound idea: our sense of reality is grounded in how senses and thoughts are linked up and all the senses work on us in different ways. We are very complex and sensitive. We are also very susceptible to being misled. I want to talk about that.

Story #1: Greg Wohead & Rachel Mars in Conversation


There are a few points that I think are at the centre of Story #1 and our collaboration, most of which I know we have talked about before, but I’d be curious to know what feels at the centre of things to you. Really at the deep core of it to me is our relationship—we had an interest in trying to work together before we knew exactly what we wanted to make, and that came from being friends for awhile, each having solo practices and at various points visiting each other’s solo processes as outside eyes and critical friends. So I wonder what you would say makes that partnership spark. I would say there’s something intangible, which is just that we click (to be really inarticulate about it)—that’s something I recognised when we first met at Camden People’s Theatre in 2012 doing their Starting Blocks artist development scheme. Another thing is that—speaking for myself—I have a deep level of trust in you, so that enables me to try any old shit and throw out any crazy idea and I know that in the end you won’t let it be terrible, and you can make that idea better and bat it back to me. So that has allowed our collaboration to be reckless in a way I don’t feel I am in my solo process, and that’s something I think is at the centre of Story #1—a sense of recklessness. The other thing we talk about a lot that is at the centre of Story #1 is finding the possibilities for radical narrative, and I’m still not totally sure I can pin down what we might mean by that, but it’s something about fucking with realness and not-realness when it comes to stories—finding blurriness and slipperiness in that.


Yes. I think I recognised in you an itchiness not to just let the first idea stand. I work a lot from instinct and the collaboration has pushed me to throw that first instinctive idea at you and have it needled and sent back undone. That could be very unsettling, but actually it allows me to be bolder than I might ordinarily be—that recklessness you mention. I think our collaboration has been this odd mixture of absolutely prizing the intellect—making sure decisions are thoroughly robust, discussed, tested, and also embracing a wildness of ‘fuck it, that’s a totally impossible, absurd thing to do. We should do it.’ I think the partnership sparks because we put huge pressure on ourselves in our solo work and so the work we make together can be a testing ground for abandon. We also began making the show just, I think, as we had committed to a full, trusting friendship (not that we ever said that), so the trust you mention is vital—to know you can show the worst parts of yourself allows for that recklessness.
I wonder if we both tired at the same time of the modular way of creating work in pieces and sewing it together that devising processes can lead to, and got interested in traditional modes of story-telling. I began to feel that along with the political, post-modern, queer reasons for rejecting beginning-middle-end narratives, I was also rejecting them because I actually didn’t know how to create one. Stories are hard. It’s easier to sew bits together. I was interested in classical expertise. But then, you don’t want to re-present the same shit. And so I think that question of how can you commit to a traditional form and unsettle it at the same time it is where the question of ‘radical’ narrative came in. And now, more than ever, the way events are turned into stories, and the way stories are deemed ‘true’ or ‘not true’ is up for consideration. Where are you with notions of radical narrative at the moment?


Yes, the meanings of ‘true’ and ‘not true’ have absolutely been swirling around my mind lately with all the political propaganda being disseminated and the way that taking control of a story can feel like taking control of things that actually did or did not happen. At the moment for me, this pursuit of the radical narrative is about destabilising; taking something that is assumed to be safe and showing that it may have been unsafe all along. I think I’m fairly guilty of thinking of my life in terms of a narrative. I feel like it should have a trajectory. It should progressively get better and better with more and more success in every way until it reaches a satisfying conclusion. But in reality I know it’s just that a bunch of shit happens and then you die. Any story that comes out of that is something that our culture has told us it is (or should be), or we can mould that story of our lives ourselves for better or worse. That story gives us comfort, a feeling of purpose and structure, but maybe it can also be restrictive, oppressive and, well, not real. So I guess for me radical narrative is about both the danger and the extreme sense of possibility that might be found in fucking with narrative. In our marketing copy we use this quote from Tom McCarthy, which I think speaks to the danger element:

“Imagine a bullfight without the bull: it would be a set of aesthetic manoeuvres, pretty twirls and pirouettes and so on – but there’d be no danger. The bull, crucially, brings danger to the party… that’s what the real is: the tip of the bull’s horn.”


Right. The danger element. In this quote it’s the real, the bull’s horn, that can do damage. And in the current mad shit-show of politics, it feels like you can’t rely on the bull’s horn as being real. People who organised the bullfight—who orchestrated the pretty twirls of the manoeuvres—are sometimes insisting that the bull’s horn is not a bull’s horn, and at other times that it is a bull’s horn but that we should trust that it presents no danger, that the danger comes from elsewhere, that the real danger comes from the crowd watching the bullfight. It’s destabilising. I wonder what this context will do to the way the show is received.

In Story # 1 what is ‘real’ is constantly shifting. I think we are walking this line of trying to call attention to the show’s construction, to the fact IT’S A PLAY, whilst allowing stories to run without rupture for long enough for audiences to develop relationships with the characters. That’s also where the exercise of radical narrative lies. In many ways I feel it turned out to be the ‘unreal’—the imagined—which brings the danger. This show has got me into debates with myself about the ethics of the imagination in ways I didn’t anticipate it would. I’ve been surprised at my own mercilessness in writing stories involving living people. So I think want to ask you what you feel about the dangers, or the ethics, of the imagined space.


Right, yes, the ethics of the imagined space. One thing to say is that lots of issues around the ethics of the imagination didn’t occur to me until after we had made the show because in the process I was having too much fun making up stories that were extremely violent or graphically erotic or trashy. I still have a loose view on ethics in the show, to be honest. That’s not because I don’t care about ethics. I think it’s because we are actually specific about the form of the piece and the frame in which the fictionalised versions of real people appear. It takes place in a theatre and it’s framed as a piece of art, not the news. And within that frame, which I feel confident we have constructed clearly, we allow ourselves to be reckless, to have a lot of fucking fun and to flirt with danger. That feels reflective of our collaboration.

The last thing I want to ask you about is do to with putting ourselves in danger in the show, the extent to which we push each other with a sort of savage glee. In Story #1 we use existing ‘real’ people and take control of them in a way by fictionalising them as we wish. But I think I feel all the more justified in doing that because there are moments in the show when we put ourselves in that position too. Because we have a real friendship and we know a lot about each other, we have a lot of ammunition in the form of sensitive information to use against each other. Those moments in the show are new each time, and I have both a fear and a very real excitement when I’m being challenged by you. I don’t know what real information you are going to give to the audience that might feel scary to me for them to find out, and on the other hand I feel a wild—almost perverse—thrill that people in the audience might find something out about me that I have no control over. I know we’ve been talking about how we can even ramp up those moments when we do Story #1 at The Yard. How are you feeling about that?


A little bit delighted and a little bit sick, I think. It’s one of my favourite parts of the show to perform, both when ‘taking control’ of you—watching you respond in real time, moment by moment to the information I’ve chosen to share with the audience and the following task I’m setting you, and also when standing waiting to hear what you are going to reveal about me, and how you are packaging it.

Again, it’s a very carefully constructed moment in terms of the context we create—the way it holds and amplifies that personal information. I think I want to highlight that it isn’t just ‘the bit where Greg dishes the shit he knows about Rachel’ and vice versa- that would feel cheap and potentially damaging. It’s the interplay between the information and the form that makes it ticklish to me. The resulting task is physical. So there’s no words in the response to try to justify or explain or fix anything down, no comment. There’s space for an interpretation by the audience about how we feel about this sharing of information and facts of the information itself. That’s hugely freeing, and I think means we can keep getting nearer and nearer the knuckle with the information we share. I like to operate on the S & M principle of ‘No Permanent Damage’. A little temporary graze can be thrilling to give, receive and watch.

I think this takes us back to the abandon of the collaboration. In our solo work, we have the last say—as authors—about what we are knowingly revealing about ourselves. In this partnership, and in this moment, we pass over control to the other, trusting that they will push us (with a hand guided by both love and glee) to find out something new about ourselves, to try something daring and wild both personally and theatrically. I think we both know that the other, and the collaboration, is capable of more. That’s a hefty driver.

Vanessa Macaulay talks with Alexandrina about her show How to Come Out Black

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 Vanessa Macaulay about her work, her process and what drove her to create How to Come Out Black. 

What led you to make this particular work?

The work began from a confusion I felt by the assumptions that my body seemed to portray. When I enter a space, my blackness enters with me, whether I like it or not. So it was kind of my way of responding to that and my way of opening up a discussion to see whether I could almost out-fetish the fetish that I feel my body portrays. Within this work I wanted to explore the visible black female body and the assumption of her presence. If the black female body doesn’t appear as expected, what happens to its visibility? and also what happens in spaces of hyper visibility? These are all questions that I can began playing with in the studio. I was also heavily influenced by a number of things happening on social media at the time. The role of the internet has given rise to a thriving amateur community of creators which can be seen in the surge of make up tutorials or just tutorials in general that can be found. Videos uploaded on the social media platform YouTube are are easily accessible and facilitate a space for transformations in the privacy of your own bedroom, all of which were catalysts for this piece. This formed the idea of construction and polluting the image of the black body through my own constructions.

For me, the humour and horror of expectations placed on the black female body run alongside humorous and horrific experiences I have had as a woman of colour. I think of the humour as a private sensation that I share cautiously with friends and relatives who also experience being non-white. Laughing out loud can be a space of relief, of sharing and of being recognised. I hardly ever laugh about my experiences in public…Too often the recounting of racist experiences is met with defensiveness which in itself tenses and makes the retelling more horrific and over-exposing! I’m really interested that within How To Come Out As Black, you are holding both experiences and making them public. Could you say more about that and also, how you are moving between these states/compositions?

Yes, as I said, I think it’s necessary for me to create a space in which I could facilitate this kind of discussion for my own experience as a way of dealing with it. I intentionally removed the situation from a personal realm to address a more universal idea. I created the performance so that it plays with and confronts points of familiarity, then isolates the audience into rethinking the idea of race, gender and sexuality. The ways in which my body, real or performed, is already coded makes this treatment comfortable – funny-  for audience members. However through polluting that image, I wanted to transform the familiarity of sexualizing and feminizing my body into one of deep discomfort and confusion. I think also I employ humour as a way for me to be able to flesh out these often painful and just upsetting ideas. I move between the two states by adding points of failure, I don’t quite achieve the perfect hip hop honey.

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

I come from a dance and theatre background so the movement of the body  has always been the starting point for me. During this project I believe my work and practice has been consolidated to focus on the politics of black identity and how this is etched onto our bodies, lives and spaces. I work with film, text, objects and movement in order to explore these ideas.

Why do you think stereotypes persist?.. (Big question!)

In general, repetition. Cultural stereotypes are reiterated and can be tracked throughout history. The story of Sarah Baartman and the spectacle of her body in the 19th Century can be identified in the spectacle of the black body in music videos in the 21st Century; it’s repeated in a contemporary context. The black female body is bound up in a web of assumptions and expectations, this difference – sexual and racial – has been imprinted in the anatomy of the Other. I think Western society has a tendency to play along with the stereotypes because its easier than imagining or reinterpreting an alternative; everything else that could go against what we already know is quite often disregarded. So, all the messy stuff in between becomes marginalised and problematic.

Marion Burge talks with Alexandrina about her show Nebula

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 Marion Burge about her work, her process and what drove her to create Nebula. 

What led you to make this particular work?

I was led to this work by a feeling of discomfort in my own skin.Or rather a discomfort that I felt had always been there, that my mixed race body always feels separate in all of my communities. I wanted to investigate that yearning to belong that I have by looking at what it means to feel alien. I also happen to love sci-fi and space, so I decided to follow my impulse and make a sci-fi adventure about mixed race belonging.

Interviews have shaped some of the Nebula’s material. Could you tell me some more about who you interviewed and why? As well as what that process revealed to you (if anything)?

The interviews were very tricky. Mixed race people don’t often feel comfortable talking about their mixed-race status and what it means to them that they are more than one ethnicity or more than one race. I wanted to make Nebula originally because I wanted to explore my own feelings, but no person who is of mixed ethnicity has the same experiences as another. A lot of people struggle with their Mixedness and a lot of people don’t think about it at all. I didn’t want to make a piece that was trying to carve out a space to start the conversation, without allowing space for other voices too, so it made sense to insert narratives that weren’t my own into the work. More than anything, the interviews reminded me that the conversation isn’t being had enough for us to have found any answers to any of our questions and that in itself is important and interesting. The lack of resolution runs through my ideas now in a way that I am more comfortable with, because I have been lucky enough to share the work with these people who gave their stories to me.

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

My landscape as a theatre maker is very white and middle class. I’ve become more aware of it as I make more work. It isn’t something that will change soon either. I’m aware that making work about non white experiences is important but I’m also aware that I’m working with a white audience in mind a lot of the time, even when I don’t realise it. I’m glad that I make experimental performance, because I’m less restricted. I can show how hard it is to articulate things in my community by actively and consciously being ‘inarticulate’ on stage and having space to let these troubling or confusing ideas play out. More importantly this ‘live art’ landscape provides a place to have a voice, which is slightly harder in conventional theatre. Recently, I’ve been really encouraged by seeing more people of colour making experimental performance and testing the boundaries of the form and that so many of these artists are so unapologetic about it. I find myself worrying about how ‘accessible’ my work will be for an audience and its hard not to think like that.  I like that I can see more people talking about things that I didn’t realise I wanted to see being spoken about in performance. I think the landscape is changing and its exciting to imagine what it’ll become.

As a fellow daydreaming person of colour I’m interested to know, what tempted you or made you want to investigate flying away or flying beyond this world/ this reality?

I think I wanted to make something fantastic and spacey because those things feel more limitless. I’m drawn to afro-futurism because it imagines a better world or a more advanced, sophisticated ideal where we can leave behind all these traumatic or negative things that have happened to people of colour and we can start again. we fly away from white supremacy and patriarchy and societal rules that tell us constantly that we are ‘other’. In space we are all aliens building new realities. We’re flukes and coincidences. Space and flying away, for me are safer because I don’t know whats out there and I’m dissatisfied with what’s here. Human beings have always sought answers by looking out at the stars and the universe. That resonated with me when making the work because thats what I was doing. I may never get any answers but the idea or traveling bravely through space to find them is a hopeful one.

James Morgan talks with Alexandrina about his show DRAG ON

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 James Morgan about his work, his process and what drove him to create DRAG ON. 

What led you to make this particular work?

For a long time I’ve loved watching drag and getting dressed up to go out. But early last year I decided I really wanted to perform in drag. Then when my parents moved house they found my childhood collection of model dragons. I couldn’t bring myself to throw them away – they’re fabulously tacky. A friend pointed out the wordplay between ‘drag’ and ‘dragon’ and suddenly everything started to fall into place. For my whole childhood I had a fascination with dragons and fantasy culture, and as it turns out, dragons and drag queens have a lot in common!

I’m really drawn to the stereotypical ‘fierce’ drag persona but it always felt a little at odds with my personality. Merging the drag queen with the dragon enabled me to explore a lot of stuff to do with fierceness and the complexity of how we choose to represent ourselves as queer people/performers. I created a 10 minute cabaret act which I’m really happy with, but since then I’ve really got stuck into the research and it seemed natural to try and make something longer for NOW 17.

Tell me about dragons and hybrid-species!

What I love about dragons is that their mythical status means there’s no real consensus about what one actually is. The Chinese dragon is a symbol of good luck. It’s also a shapeshifter so it can take on any form and can make itself as small as an insect. So in Chinese culture no-one really cares whether it is real or not, because it could just turn into a butterfly and flutter away. In the west, the dragon is typically a malevolent force which needs to be banished to pave way for humanity’s success. For decades the Tyrannosaurus Rex was assumed to walk upright on its hind legs, a hangover from images of the European dragon, whereas they were actually much more hunched forwards. So we see that science and myth are totally entwined.

As for hybrid-species – we grow human organs inside rats and pigs – hybrids from multiple animals like a modern day Chimera. We regularly alter human and animal life with machines, from replacement hips to steerable drones made from living dragonflies, and corporations collect the biological data of animals, plants and humans with the same determination as when they harvest data about our spending habits. So I think it is important to acknowledge the hybridity of our modern world and to recognise that many of the divisions we take for granted are pretty arbitrary: organic/digital, human/animal, body/mind, real/fantasy and authentic/inauthentic. In many ways I believe we are all already hybrids.

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

It’s really hard to describe a scene which is so broad! My background is in contemporary dance, I love to watch live art, and last summer I was a part of Duckie Homosexualist Summer School at the RVT – a kind of crash course in queer cabaret. It feels like there is a really immediate and responsive communication between all of these art forms at the moment, so I’m happy to be inspired and floating around somewhere in the middle of all that.

In some of my previous works I’ve got stuck in a bit of a solo-bubble, so in this piece it’s been really great to work with other artists. A couple of years ago I watched Charlie Ashwell’s piece, ‘Becoming Witch’, which looking back I think was a massive influence in wanting to make this. Its great to work with her, share the research and have someone to get excited with.

How do you ready yourself/become monstrous/become fierce/become[…] to face the ‘modern world’ as your show copy mentions?

It takes about 3 hours to do the makeup/body paint for the performance, so I generally become the drag-dragon by frantically throwing glitter at my face and fighting with false lashes. But even after that I don’t necessarily feel very fierce or monstrous until I start performing. This sounds really cheesy, but there’s something magical about lipsyncing. I gain a lot of energy from channelling another performer on stage.

I’ve been thinking a lot recently that maybe I can just decide to claim fierceness and monstrosity and worry later. Obviously it’s always a little more complicated than just deciding to do something, we are all wrapped up in our own histories and habits. But I find there’s something empowering about the idea of ‘trying on’ performative states or feelings as if they were clothes – knowing you can take them off again afterwards if they don’t fit, or they make you look like a dick.

In The Cyborg Manifesto, Donna Haraway talks about the permeable boundary between tool and myth, between the tangible and the conceptual. She suggests that they both make up a mutual whole. So I’m trying to think away from the idea that fantasy/drag are the antithesis of (or antidote to) reality. Drag and Fantasy to me are technologies to discover ways of queering reality, claiming space, and dictating my own terms.