Review: Wendy Houstoun - Pact With Pointlessness

Performance: 5 & 6 June 2014
Reviewed by Lise Smith - Wednesday 11 June 2014

Wendy Houstoun 'Pact with Pointlessness' Photo: Hugo Glendinning

Performance reviewed: 6 June

Performer-choreographer Wendy Houstoun is frequently called a brave artist. Against a background of large ensembles performing the works of offstage choreographers, Houstoun stands out with her intimate, self-exposing solo work; in a world of abstract, plotless works that engage with themes drawn from mathematics and the natural sciences, she is one of the few artists willing to give voice to passionately-held personal and political principles. And it’s a bittersweet truth that showing an older body onstage performing what is still very much viewed as a younger person’s artform is also regularly remarked on as brave. Although Houstoun rejects the term “maverick”, her works plough a very individual furrow that is as warm, witty and poignant as it is courageous.

Pact With Pointlessness can be seen as a sequel to the award-winning 50 Acts, the next instalment in the performer’s tragicomic dissection of disgruntlement and disillusion at the modern world. Although Houstoun repeatedly dismisses her own solo as “just a short thing…just stuff,” Pact With Pointlessness avowedly sets out to ask the “big questions”, from a showstopping “why are we here?” to the philosopher-bothering question of free will. These are endlessly mangled in a stream-of-consciousness monologue that segues free will into the trivia of Free Willy and Where’s Wally?; the big questions endlessly broken down into tinier and tinier fragments that the whirling script barely holds on to from one moment to the next.

Pact With Pointlessness is also a tribute – and in places a stylistic homage – to Houstoun’s late friend and fellow performer Nigel Charnock. There is much in the piece about absence – an empty chair, a missing partner replaced by a fire bucket for a riotously funny folkdance, files not found on the computer display projected on the back screen, a lack of sound from a microphone. Houstoun performs a “dance of nothing” and it’s absurd, but also absurdly beautiful, the dancer’s limbs rippling through space like forest streams, fingertips floating towards some other plane. Although the short sequence has the form of a joke, a parody of expressionist dance and the kinds of tasks that dancers of a certain time and place were expected to indulge in, the punchline is that the “dance of nothing” is moving because it comes from a visibly authentic place.

Despite the palpable, almost visible, sense of something missing runs poignantly through the piece, Pact With Pointlessness is also frequently very funny. The work revels in the pointlessness of its own title – a garish projected animation on the back screen sends the word “pointless” streaming and spinning out above the performer’s head, while Houstoun herself runs in aimless circles. The piece sends up the absurdities of performance itself; in one sequence, a disembodied voice narrates what goes through the dancer’s mind when trying to show – to perform – various states of mind. If Martha Garaham’s maxim was “movement never lies”, then Houstoun’s might well be that mere truth doesn’t necessarily stop movement from making a joyous fool of itself.

Towards the end, Pact With Pointlessness makes a break with humour as Houstoun narrates a joke-that-isn’t-a-joke about body parts packing up and leaving a pub, organ by organ, giving the onlooker at the window no chance to say goodbye. It’s a moving finish to a witty, affecting performance that addresses (boldy if chaotically) the questions, big and small, that make us human. It might just be Houstoun’s bravest yet.

Photo: Hugo Glendinning

Lise Smith is a dance manager and teacher who writes about dance for many publications, including Londonist, Dancetabs & Arts Professional

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