This is a long overdue review for a piece I saw in June at Hackney’s Apiary Studios: MAS Productions’ Lady Vendredi’s Urban Rites: Battle Cry! The results of a week-long, intensive workshop in ‘Secular Ecstatic Art’, this was a chaotic and riotous music-theatre-happening led by Lady Vendredi (the Afrofuturist alter-ego of performance artist and musician Nwando Ebizie) and her band The Vendettas. It was also fantastic, although — as a thoroughly immersive and genuinely genre-ambiguous performance — I’m going to have to resort to my own very personal experience of the event to try and explain why it was so good.
As someone who’s internalised most of the dominant left-wing art and theory positions, and equipped myself with all the necessary critiques, it is relatively rare for me to feel challenged by an artwork. I’m talking about those artworks that really force you to consider, redefine and justify your attitudes, in the way that so much art would like to do. For this reason, I’m especially excited when I find one which, like Battle Cry!, seems to demand critique and then immediately resist it.
Described as ‘a cross between a spirit possession ritual and a backyard fight club’, Battle Cry! is a ritual about ritual, and the possibility of creating ritualistic spaces in a contemporary (post-)multicultural city like London. Most of all, it is about the ecstatic transformation of the body through ritual, and the piece had something of a pedagogical quality to it: “How to… make yourself an ecstatic body”. (Here’s one I made earlier…)
The show began with a series of highly ritualised actions centring on the figure of Lady Vendredi — dancing, sharing food and drink, eventually being slaughtered — which surrounded and enveloped the small crowd, and established the realness of the ritualistic frame. This was not the representation of a ritual, but one that was actually occurring, in which we were present as actors: a ritual that, without our complicity, would fail to achieve its intended function. Integral to the performance throughout was the possibility of participation, heightened by the presence of the other performers — the workshop participants — who remained at a remove from Lady Vendredi through their whiteness and the comparative amateurishness of their movements. As the show progressed, more and more of the small audience revealed themselves as plants, stripping off clothes or suddenly convulsing with movement, until eventually a large portion of the crowd (myself included) were dancing.
The intimacy of the environment, the roughness of the production, the physical seductions of the superb music and the clarity of the ritual actions meant that this possibility of participation was rapidly transformed from a kind of threat (that extraordinary anxiety policing the border between performer and audience, which characterises most Western performance genres) into an invitation to enter into a fundamentally different performance paradigm: the kind of behaviour-altering ‘heterotopia’ that might be more characteristic of a rave or an orgy.
This ‘amateurishness’ — the sense that the dancers were included with us, the (predominantly) white urban audience, rather than as ‘initiates’ — was integral to the following section, in which two of these female dancers underwent their own transformations, donning strange costumes of junk, wigs and jewellery. From what little I know of African/diasporic syncretic religions, and the ritual personification of gods and ancestors, I recognised in this the combination of such a spiritual manifestation with a feminist-informed ‘handicrafts’ aesthetic: the collection and transformation of everyday objects and personally meaningful accessories or trinkets into an entirely idiosyncratic assemblage. Thinking back now, the scene also evokes memories of childhood dressing-up: the redeployment of assorted clothing articles with little understanding of their intended function, resulting in an earnest parade of naïvely genderfucked apparitions.
Throughout this sequence, I was fascinated by the sense—when seeing the dancers flagging slightly, struggling to keep dancing—that if they stopped moving with the music, they might lapse back into their former selves (with the accompanying risk that they’d start to feel ‘self-conscious’ and stupid). There was a sense that they were constantly pushing themselves into dancing in order to turn their body into a kind of blank slate for transformation.
This strenuous and tangible effort contrasted starkly with Lady Vendredi’s subsequent transformation into a kind of reverse-minstrel drag — white face, cigar, top hat, bulging crotch — a gurning, marauding Uncle Pennybags. It was one of those quintessential ‘performance art’ gestures that might have seemed obvious were it not executed so perfectly, with such brilliant-looking results. It was the absolute, magnetic intensity that she maintained throughout the sequence that made it into so much more than just a symbolic, conceptual action.
After a climactic musical performance, the steady flow of ritual intensities was interrupted by a far more ‘performed’ sequence: a man (in the guise of a Catholic monk?) entered with a woman in white slung over his shoulder, and proceeds to change into a gown and perform a Handel aria, while the woman dances with a flower. It’s a sort of performative grotesque of the earlier ritual, with all its elements in negative/inverse — white for black, male-to-female for female-to-male, Christian for ‘heathen’, operatic aria for rap — that functions as a refreshing interlude before Lady Vendredi returns to the stage for a music set and, whipped up in a frenzy, proceeds to grind and maul members of the crowd as they succumbed to the dance. For me, it felt inescapable and very necessary to join in, and a relief (because the music was so irresistible), but also that we owed it to the performers — whose commitment (and subsequent vulnerability) had been so extraordinary — to go some way towards joining them and shedding the frankly uncomfortable feeling of distance/restraint that we were maintaining by standing still.
The sheer, earnest commitment of the performance, and the calculated conditions of the performance — the noise and the heat and the naked bodies — makes it not only very hard to resist this kind of participation, but it also makes any such resistance feel rude, overly stubborn and defensive, like the incursion of an inappropriate mode of spectatorship (that of detachment) into a secret and sacred space. And yet the challenge of Battle Cry! is just as inescapable; paradoxically, it is this very dissolution of the boundary between performers and audience — the necessity of participation — which implicates both us and the piece in the nebulous mire of cultural appropriation. Much more than a performance by a solo performance artist (who is clearly engaging deeply with a whole swathe of African/diaspora tropes, styles and aesthetics, both radical and popular), Battle Cry! confronts us with a group of almost exclusively white, middle-class Hackney hipsters who’ve taken a crash course in Haitian dance and are now enjoying conjuring up their own ‘modern deities’ in a gallery on Hackney Rd — and the audience being physically included without any formal contextualisation or instruction at all.
The inappropriateness of white performers recreating elements of African diasporic ritual practice for a white audience (i.e., completely removed from its original cultural context) hangs heavily in the air, but it also makes significant thematic incursions into the piece itself. The aforementioned inappropriateness of detached ‘anthropological’ spectatorship in this new ritual environment was emphasised by an excessive number of posters prohibiting photography. A female photographer, who spent much of the initial dance section taking photos of the crowd, proceeded to strip completely naked in a subsequent section. Later, when another member of the audience refused to stop using his own camera, the saxophonist came down from the stage and threatened him with expulsion (an event that may or may not have been planned). What taboos were these measures respecting? The vulnerability of the performers in their lack of control, the nakedness of their bodies, or perhaps the visible indulgence in ‘extreme impulses, unacceptable identities and prohibited thought’ that MAS Productions mention in relation to their notion of ‘Secular Ecstatic Art’ as a ‘temporary autonomous zone’.
Elsewhere, director Jonathan Grieves has described their approach — which feeds martial arts, butoh and Haitian Vodou dance through Jerzy Grotowski and Guillermo Gómez-Peña — in terms of ‘artistic syncretism’. To an extent, I felt that the structure of the piece collided the positive concept of syncretism with more militant, antagonistic forms of cultural appropriation (both blaxploitation and Japanese exploitation genres are invoked), that rely on a ‘minoritarian’ dynamic for their political power. The first sequence of rituals, up until the reverse minstrel act, held together so convincingly, because — rather than borrowing and redeploying visual semiotics from African practices — they departed from a sincere inquiry into the functions of the practices themselves, and their translatable human value, in a manner that is quite common when it comes to Western approaches to Asian philosophy: not only the inclusion of East Asian philosophers in philosophy canons, but also the prevalence of yoga, martial arts and meditation practices.
However, whether planned or not, there was then a strange shift in the energy of the piece, introduced by Lady Vendredi’s bizarre stage banter — “Hello Latitude!” — and a moment of (feigned?) confusion — “Can someone tell me what happens next? I genuinely have no idea”. This was particularly disruptive because we’d been so reliant on the establishment of the clear and consistent (if arbitrary) ‘rules’ of the ritual. Some of the safeness was compromised, along with some of the ‘autonomy’ of the performance space. The following scene — the grotesque and self-consciously comical appropriation of a more culturally powerful Western trope, the virginal woman in white singing a Baroque aria — was also a conscious performance of this appropriation. It was a performance of tragic and queer failure — of a sorry mix of lost identities trapped within the body — in contrast to the ferocious, triumphant exteriority of Lady Vendredi’s drag.
The overall result was the feeling of an event with a clear logic that was nevertheless constantly being obscured. The show made gestures towards the ramshackle/amateurish, but there was an intention behind all of it that was actually quite unsettling, because it constantly folded these ‘amateur’ moments back into what seemed like a total plan/scheme that I didn’t/couldn’t fully understand. Markers of identity — clothes, faces, gestures, voices — shifted in value and consistency. Instead of a concrete heterotopia in which we could all be ‘other’ together, we were left with a multiplicity of attempted coups against identity (what MAS Productions have referred to as ‘self-exploitation’), always returning to the very real fact of the performers’ bodies in front of us, practising the material actions of their hurriedly-rehearsed transformations. It was a testament to Ebizie’s incredible experience and skill in her own transformations as Lady Vendredi, setting the bar incredibly high, that such a broad range of approaches were opened up in the vast space between her and the more reticent members of the audience.
When I think back on the piece now, I’m tempted to assert that the sheer dominance that Lady Vendredi exerted over the entire space was enough to excuse the piece from any charges of appropriation. However, there are other parts of me which still cannot reconcile certain elements — which still feel almost viscerally ‘wrong’/taboo — with what I believe to be its value and its truth. While I was not offended by the piece, it’s also true that I lack any of the personal experiences and background that would make me sensitive to the particular kind of offence and outrage at injustice that cultural appropriation as a rule engenders. (And at the same time, who am I to wade in with a load of learned critiques and assume vicarious offence on the part of some theoretically more vulnerable, more offendable Other? I guess the fact is that I have no idea how I’m supposed to feel about it, which I always find quite exciting…)
What I can say is that the piece revealed quite strikingly some of the functions of ritual — and the ritual functions of music and dance — that I hadn’t really perceived before, and it was only able to so directly and affectively, through induced participation rather than observation and explanation. Some of these ritual functions were familiar to me from clubbing environments, which are very much the legacy of Afro-diasporic influences on European dance culture, yet the exploration of the more intense, extreme ritualistic practices and their recreation in Battle Cry! was surely a more respectful illustration of the radical importance of these practices in their ‘original’ context than their pale, privatised equivalent in contemporary British clubs and music festivals.
If reproducing African spiritual practices seems so much more exploitative than reproducing Buddhist or Hindu spiritual practices, like Zen meditation and yoga, why is this the case? Is it because these powerful cultural institutions are deemed the intellectual and political equals to Western philosophies and practices, in a way that more ‘primitive’, body-oriented Afro-diasporic philosophies and practices aren’t? Is it something to do with the vulnerability of a set of practices that is less formalised and codified, and therefore easier to misrepresent, contaminate or destroy? Or could it be because (similarly to drug-taking) their fundamental tenets are far more disruptive to late capitalism, where identity is sacrosanct and practices like mindfulness re-condition the brain to adapt to the greater demands of flexible, precarious labour, just as imported fitness regimes encourage the worker to take responsibility for their own wellness?
In the face of all this, I’d much rather indulge in some regular Secular Ecstatic Art (as long as I didn’t think anyone would be offended). It certainly has less of a comedown than most drugs.
Battle Cry! is being reprised for the single launch of Lady Vendredi’s ‘What Time Is It?’, at the Roundhouse, 22nd & 23rd October 2015, co-produced by nitroBEAT. Battle Cry! is based on a scene from a forthcoming show at Soho Theatre, The Passion of Lady Vendredi, in Spring 2016, also co-produced by nitroBEAT.