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.