The Szene: Wales festival of Welsh performance art opened in Dresden with Jo Fong’s riotous contemporary dance piece.
For every festival there is a perfect opening salvo, and in Dresden, as the Societätstheatre prepares to welcome a week of Welsh performance art, Szene: Wales had its artistic call to arms from an irrepressible Jo Fong. If Germany wasn’t sure what to expect from Wales’ artists, then they can be in no doubt now. An Invitation… is a fun, funny, challenging, thoughtful, and eclectic piece that astutely sets up the sort of work that the following eight days has to offer. Scene:Wales may be many things, but it won’t be dull.
An Invitation…, of course, is a great deal more than simply not dull. Most arrestingly, it is entertaining in a broad sense. Fong and her co-performers, Laura Lee Greenhalgh and Luke Divall, are encouraging, personable presences on stage – and they have to be, as this is a space where the lines between performers and audience are blurred right from the start. An Invitation… is in part a Beckettian rehearsal, each segment evolving live from broken parts, parodies and experiments, and part cabaret. Divall has the task of drawing the audience in from the off, spinning the usual dynamic between artist and voyeur – we are not just part of the show, and we are not quite the show itself, but we ride the waves with an occasional dip to the seabed. The process we are witness to is a deconstruction of movement, and then a reconstitution. The performers run a commentary – it seems quite improvised but nothing this smart is ever off the cuff. Anca Huma translates to German, and helps the performers with their attempts at communicating in the native tongue, often to hilarious effect, but these stumbles and mispronunciations are as tightly choreographed as the dances. But the trick is not allowing the room to step back from the idea that anything can happen, anything can go wrong.
Most overtly, the invitation of the title is one to take part in the joys of physical movement, it is an invitation to be a part of the fun you’re seeing before you. It is an invitation to let yourself go, to be free. But in here is something more profound than simple escapism – there is an invitation to explore yourself in that letting go, and this is where Fong’s piece learns to fly. This is not about casting off the shackles of repression in order to breathe lighter, it’s about making connections with other people. “I see you dance,” Fong says toward the end when parodying the old stand-up schtick of the dad-at-the-wedding-reception, “And I feel like I know you better.” The whole show hangs on this line, really, and ironically, it’s the only point at which An Invitation… feels definitively scripted. The entire show suck inwards to this punctuating moment.
If the audience here in Dresden started off a little unsure of the surroundings and the performers – from the off, one wonders not just where are we going with all this, but where are we coming from – the sheer personality of those on stage is what wins the day. An Invitation… is a brilliantly funny physical dialogue between dancers and audience, a tireless journey through the potential of dance to edify, to force us to grow within and without, and it’s the perfect choice to open a festival that promises to showcase a selection of thoughtful, dissident, but bold and entertaining work, in a time when Wales desperately needs to assert itself as a distinct cultural presence as Europe tries to figure out the shape, size and smell of whatever the UK pile is going to look like post-you-know-what. Szene:Wales is a positive move, and it could not have had a better opening than in the hands of Jo Fong.
(Image credit: John Collingswood)