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.
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.