Gary Raymond talks to Caroline Finn about the resurrection of her solo show Bernadette, which forms part of the National Dance Company Wales Roots tour which kicks off in Cardiff on November 5th.
Gary Raymond: Tell us a bit about the origins of Bernadette.
Caroline Finn: Back in 2007 I was working in Munich with another dancer and I wanted to make a solo show for a third dancer; I wanted to create a character – this was the beginning of my love for creating new characters. I decided we needed a task, something for the character to achieve – so I said, randomly, why not have them bake a cake? But that’s not enough – we need something that creates hurdles; so we thought what if she’s a bit OCD, a hint of Brie from Desperate Housewives.
I went online for some inspiration, thought I’d Google some apple pie recipes or something – and then I came across this radio show from the States where people call in and ask for help with their culinary conundrums. I found this wonderfully honest conversation between the professional and this woman calling in asking for help with her apple pie. And then there was this moment where the host suggested using Granny Smith instead of Golden Delicious because they hold up better to the high heat of the baking process, and there was this palpable air that she’d been wrong-footed, something had changed in her – she hadn’t thought of it, and this simple suggestion had altered her way of thinking in a deep way. So I thought we could have some fun with a character inspired by that.
Bernadette was very different at first, wasn’t it?
Caroline Finn: Originally, I made this piece for a man. I like the idea of the contrast of having this woman’s voice but having it played by a man. And it was called Bernard, and as we were doing it I could see I wanted to play it myself – I wanted to get my hands on it, and go deeper into that character. So eventually, in 2009, I had another opportunity to rework it and to develop it from within and it became Bernadette. I changed the music, and changed it choreographically, but the concept stayed the same.
Can you walk us through a bit of what the piece does?
Caroline Finn: It’s a woman who listens to this radio show, begins with her setting up her kitchen, and she’s incredibly pedantic about where everything is, and these intrusions keep happening, and you’re not sure if they’re from the outside world from within her, and it just descends from order into this chaos and the stage ends up covered in egg and milk and flour. It’s funny, but as a performer there was always a point where I couldn’t stop myself from crying – she ends up crawling under the table, wanting to escape from this all. It’s funny but also tragic.
It sounds, for a performer, like a very risky undertaking.
Caroline Finn: It’s difficult because you have to create this organised chaos. If an egg falls in the wrong spot you can end up on your arse.
There are rhythms to baking of course – the mixing and kneading and construction. Does this natural correlation come through?
Caroline Finn: There is precision to both dancing and baking. As a performer I like to go wild and let go and allow there to be zero form, and I also like the absolute precision of it. This character is incredibly expressive, and there are also times when it is just about the meaning in the turn of an eye.
And I’m teaching it to Cami [Camille Giraudeau], which I’m very excited about. But I’m very precious about this piece – and she’s only the second person I’ve taught it to. The last dancer, who was fabulous – I started by thinking yes of course you’ll bring your own style to it, but ended up being, like, no your left eyelash isn’t right.
That’s a very different way for you to work, isn’t it? You normally invite in a great deal from your dancers.
Caroline Finn: Yes, that is very true.
Do you think there’s another level going on there, another connection with baking? You can of course make your own cake, but it will never be like my mother’s recipe? Make your own cake, but it won’t be the same as the one that is connected to my soul.
Caroline Finn: Yes. With Bernadette of course it’s not about the cake. The process is a means of something else. It’s about that thing you’re getting at. It’s also about striving for perfection, for a connection to something. This is just a tiny part of her feelings of inadequacy. You imagine what her life is like offstage, outside of the kitchen. She feels unable to step up and be as perfect as she thinks other people want her to be. Thereis the real tension.
It’s part of the Roots tour. What are Bernadette’s roots?
Caroline Finn: She is incredibly British – even though the radio show is American. I felt I could connect with her so much because of her stiff upper lip, that keep-the-smile-on attitude. I connect very much to my mother when I do it.
So there is something in that idea of passing down recipes – the connection of mother to daughter.
Caroline Finn: Yes. But that’s also funny because my mother never baked – she’d do a crumble. But in my mind, Bernadette goes through this process every Sunday. It’s a Groundhog Day repetition – she hopes, maybe this time it’ll work. If she does use the correct apples, it’ll be okay.
My mother did hand down a lot of recipes, but not baking. Shepherd’s pie was her thing.
Did you see any profound developments when it changed from a male to female character? Food has become a very masculine thing in order to make men feel okay with it – it’s all about glazing ribs and deconstructing and shouting obscenities – where as with women it’s still about cupcakes.
Caroline Finn: The original male character was quite sexless. And I did feel with me doing it, it was in danger of being clichéd, dressed as a 1950s housewife. The male version was more funny – there was still the element of tragedy – but as a woman it became more tragic – you feel this woman trapped in the domestic environment.
That’s a whole new dimension though, isn’t it?
Caroline Finn: Well, yes it is. The male version was just weirdly quirky.
Once you make it about a woman it becomes a political statement rather than just an exploration of movement and stagecraft. Were you aware of that the moment you made that decision?
Caroline Finn: No. I don’t think politically. I was aware I was playing with a stereotype in a way I wasn’t doing with Bernard. It really wasn’t a conscious choice to create a political piece. I just wanted to get my hands on that role and see what I could do with it.
You’re about to come back to it now – do you feel the current global political climate is going to influence it in any way?
Caroline Finn: I will know that more when I get in to the studio. When I rehearse myself I’m not thinking in those ways – I just think about the physicality – but now I have to transfer that to an alter ego in a way, I will have to find a language to communicate the ideas.
And reference points.
Caroline Finn: Yes. Although what they will be I don’t know yet, because I haven’t started to vocalise it.
I’m going to be aware of this in the process now we’ve had this conversation.
Sorry, I didn’t mean to mess with your head.
Caroline Finn: No, I’m now just sad for Cami that she has to go through all this [laughs]. But, no, really I’m so excited and excited for her.
What’s it like working with food?
Caroline Finn: It’s great, but it’s like maybe working with children or animals. I love it. It’s unpredictable. The first time I did it, I accidentally dropped an egg exactly where I stand, so it got under my shoes and the rest of the performance it was like I was on an ice rink.
The performer has to give the illusion of these impulses sending Bernadette into this chaos, but at the same time I need to know the flour will land exactly there. There must be things I can hang on to so I know the mess ends there, and I can move around. There needs to be just the right amount of milk, so when it goes flying it only goes so far.
So there is a correlation between making the cake, and making the show.
Caroline Finn: There is. Amounts. And timings.
But do you end up with a cake? Spoiler alert?
Caroline Finn: Do you really want to know?
No. Actually don’t tell me.
Details of the tour for Roots, which includes Bernadette, and tickets are available here.
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Gary Raymond is a novelist, broadcaster, and editor of Wales Arts Review.