In More Up A Tree, drummer Jim White plays drums and dancer Claudia De Serpa Soares dances, both in a mirrored box. Artist Eve Sussman originally designed the box and built it in New York, but due to some error, the freight ship went to Singapore and missed the deadline, so they had to use a different mirrored box instead. Now, I work at the Substation where this show was performed, and in fact I actually helped the artists build their (different) set. I’m writing this review on my phone sitting at the bar, while the show plays again upstairs. Of course I always have my own interests and biases when writing reviews but in this case it seems appropriate to lay them out on the table.
The performance is interesting as an exploration of how interdisciplinary collaboration works or might work – a blueprint for a shared practice. Each artist is very experienced and brings plenty of ideas to the table. We still get a glimpse of Sussman’s visual work through the gorgeous lighting concept, which uses the reflective surfaces to create unexpectedly rich and textured palates of light and colour. White casually plays complex and evolving rhythms with a hint of cheekiness, and Soares moves her body to, with and for the beat. She is chaotic and kooky, cutting and folding and threading and popping.
What becomes very quickly clear is that the performance is dictated not by narratives or themes but by strong and interesting artistic relationships. The performance is a glimpse of their collaborative process, with improvisation, spontaneity and pleasure leading the charge. The rhythmic motifs are constantly changing in form, in tempo, in lifespan – repetitively additive or subtractive, rarely sticking to a simple time signature, and the same can be said of the dance, which weaves itself in time, different every night. It’s fun to watch them make their work under the illusion that they are alone. We can see in their faces the comfort with each other, the joy of dancing and drumming, and we can almost hear the little things they say to each other, but we can’t.
The show was designed to be experienced from every angle, with mirrored glass on every side of the box; however, the new box only allowed this from one angle, forcing a more traditional audience-performer division of space. It was also their intention that people can walk in and out, go to the bar or toilet and return, but given the narrower new setup, audience members were more inclined to sit down out of politeness to the people behind them, and hence they became a fairly stiff and didn’t move. The tension and resulting lack of audience agency unfortunately made the piece a little boring, because the stakes of watching were higher. It would have been ideal to be able to leave and return without worrying that you would lose your premium viewing angle; it would have made the whole encounter more casual and friendly.
The lighting was a big player, externally controlling what we see while the drummer and dancer simply kept performing. It was easy to imagine the snap shifts as cinematic cuts in a music video. Beyond my expectations, the lighting took us to many lonely, liminal spaces: a wide streetlit carpark in the dead of night; an office cubicle; a haunted jail-cell; a rolling neon landscape; a lamp-lit study in a suburban home. The rhythms and the dances revolt against these desolate worlds with gusto and fury and ecstasy.