Interview: Project O 'Voodoo is a space where we ask the audience to agree to join us outside of the conventions of organised time'

Thursday 11 May 2017

Image by Katarzyna Perlak and Jack Barraclough

In their latest work, the thought-provoking duo Project O revisit how dance can explore, heal and challenge the violence and oppression that haunts our society.

We talk to the duo Alexandrina Hemsley and Jamila Johnson-Small before the premiere of Voodoo tonight at the Lilian Baylis Studio studio.

How did your collaboration Project O come about?

Alexandrina: We met during our postgraduate at The Place and realised that it was really galvanising and affirming to talk to one another about the crises, joys and outrages we were encountering amidst a predominantly white (dance) world. We also shared an interest in choreography and improvisation as ways to compose a space that can move/speak/gesture/move towards our black and mixed race bodies, resisting objectification by being a multiple and subjective site of our lived experiences.

The work you produce is described as ‘performative fruits of conversations’ tell us about what conversations lead to the making of Voodoo?

Jamila: We had been talking about how the world had changed since we first started working together on O, our first show in 2011 and also about how things had shifted for us. We spoke a lot about changing tactics, how instead of resisting by refusal what if we resist by acceptance? What happens when we accept when we encounter people, when we encounter language, we may come with all the black people that that person has ever known across the world and through time. Because blackness is historical, the ‘one drop’ rule ties billions of bodies together through time and across geography, what happens if we are channels for these histories?

Do you think it’s important that dance/movement addresses difficult issues?

Jamila: I wouldn’t say that dance chooses to address ‘difficult’ issues but that it inevitably does, because placing a body on stage in front of an audience comes with a history of performance, representation, identity politics and political ideologies. I’m not sure if difficult is the right word – maybe complex is better. What we do with our bodies will always be political and it’s unfortunate that two brown bodies on stage is often seen to be more difficult that to see white bodies there. If we aren’t working to address the problem of the pseudo-neutrality of the white body and the way this oppresses our own bodies, the work would be subject to a stifling repression.

Alexandrina: I would echo what Jamila is saying and add that it’s so important when viewing anything, but particularly when viewing a body, to be aware of the position it is being viewed from. Using an example from a preview of Voodoo, one white audience member found elements of the work confrontational, in that it confronted the audience member with a direct critique of ‘whiteness’ or a ‘colonial gaze’ that felt unsettling. Another audience who was a person of colour found elements of the work comforting or ringing true. She was able to see herself within it. Being underrepresented feels difficult, confronting and alienating so perhaps this is why we aren’t afraid to make work that addresses these things and feel like it is important to do so.

How do you create a sense of losing time with the audience and how do you think this helps the audience to consider you message?

Jamila: Voodoo is a space where we ask the audience to agree to join us outside of the conventions of organised time. We bring into the space, memories, histories and different landscapes, disrupting the usual accepted linear flow of time. It’s an immersive experiential work, when the audience gives into this, their experience of time has to shift. We wouldn’t usually speak of having a ‘message’, as it’s probably more a combination of affirmative, clashing and contradictory emotions, questions and demands for respect and acknowledgement. It is important for us that our audience leaves knowing that they are implicated and that things are complicated but there is no dogma.

Alexandrina: I think too, that we wanted to create an expansive performative world full of a sense of displacement and encountering the unfamiliar. This then becomes an environment within which images and sensations form, degrade and reform. The work’s eight hour duration becomes a mutual invitation to ourselves and an audience to lose time and this sense of slow disorientation helps hold the choreography and its intentions (as opposed to message).

Voodoo is a durational piece that runs for eight hours in two hour sequences, with the piece developing each time. How do you approach this? What changes do you make?

Jamila: A lot of the work is improvised, so within the choreographic frame we are deciding every time what movement to perform, our bodies are open and responding to the energy in the room, the growing histories of the work and the ways we are feeling in ourselves. We speak about channeling, so we don’t decide to make any set changes as such, we just go with what we feel!

Alexandrina: We have been performing duets together since O (2011/13) and are calling upon all of those experiences! While the frame of the work repeats every two hours, this is our most openly structured work in terms of movement. We fully dive into being present, to being with ourselves, each other and the audience. It’s a lot of responsibility but a satisfying way to approach such an a duration.

Voodoo premieres on the 12 May 2017 at the Lilian Baylis Studio.

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