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.