What is A String Section? As long ago as 1958, Tynan observed that, for the critic, the history of twentieth century drama was the history of a collapsing vocabulary. The crutch of categorisation has long since been cut from under us. The bowl is broken and leakage is the rule. Reckless Sleepers – Belgian, formed in 1988 – are well at home in this cracked, inside out world of melt and flow. They describe their projects not in terms of dance or theatre or installation, but in terms of hazard, mishap and opportunity. So what is A String Section? It is the art of staging an accident.
Five performers enter the Malthouse bagging room stage right: Natalie Cursio, Caroline Meaden, Alice Dixon, Chimene Steele-Prior and Leen DeWilde. They’re dressed in stylish but not impractical short black dresses, with heels and lipstick. And although this is standard concert apparel for classical musicians, there’s something intriguing about it. The group’s costumes appear carefully curated: each dress has a different style of hem and a different style of neckline. Even the slits vary. Immediately we recognise a spirit of playfulness and invention, a sense of medley leading into melody.
Is there a cultural mythology of the little black dress? Modern beauty, efficient and protestant, industrial but not without its poetic appeal? The performer in black, Piaf, Damia, the silhouette, the abstract?
The work is as simple and as strange as the program notes promise. There are five women, five wooden chairs, and five wood saws. The women sit. Then, while sitting, they begin to saw at the legs of the chairs.
Like the dresses, the chairs are all different. There’s a bentwood chair, a sturdy kitchen chair, an upholstered straight-backed chair, a Windsor style chair and something else I don’t remember.
We’re told the performers are instructed to follow a number of simple rules. Do such rules describe the function of the work? Or do they relate only to the destruction of chairs? Choreographer Leen DeWilde of Reckless Sleepers does not elaborate.
Ideas are given a chance, and a second chance, and pushed so that they become uncomfortable to do, uncomfortable to listen to and uncomfortable to watch.
Thus Reckless Sleepers. Thus their mission. But why might A String Section be uncomfortable to watch? Is it because we, too, in the audience, are sitting in chairs? The obviousness of this is appealing. The more you think about them, the more uncomfortable chairs seems.
This is a wooden fugue for five voices. Frederick Seidel would, I think, enjoy A String Section. He would appreciate the obviousness. And the comedy. And the mischief –
He sees the child lift the half-size violin
From its case, and take the bow,
And fit the violin to her shoulder and chin,
And begin to saw, sweetly, badly…
This sweetly, badly sawing demands a violent athleticism. The more dysfunctional and unstable the instrument becomes, the more violent the performer needs to be in order to complete the fugue. The strain of this passion is imperfectly concealed by the performers behind mask-like expressions of neutral grace. This comment on how women are expected to hold themselves in times of great stress is a pointed one: the players try to appear calm and composed at all times. Their stares are inward. Their smiles are distant while they saw.
The mutilation of the chairs is thus a necessary index. The chairs make visible the passion of the players, sweetly, badly.
Or to prod Shakespeare codwise toward a fetish:
Nor do not saw the chair too much, with
your hand, thus, but use all gently; for in the very
torrent, tempest, and, as I may say, the whirlwind of
passion, you must acquire and beget a temperance
that may give it smoothness.
Go gently, gently into softly smoothness settled sawdust. The passion of the fugue releases the body of the wood from the prison of the chair. The wood is awakened – too recklessly – from its machined sleep. It leaps, spurts, clouds then settles. Yes, settles, but no longer sedentary, no longer sedent, no longer within the given form of seatness. And it’s these spreading pools of sawdust which make this string section so profoundly musical. Dust blooms as the women sink: a descending movement amid a gradual swelling dynamic.
For the wood it is also tragic, this flight from beneath steel teeth. It is a kind of expulsion. Does the saw mean a second chance for the idea of wood? We don’t know anything about these chairs. We don’t know where they came from and we don’t know where their remains will go. There is the possibility that they will go straight into landfill – complete wastage.
As a closed metaphor or symbol, A String Section is easily exhausted. It would be enough to say: a representation of the female experience. After their chairs are cut up, the women sit calmly amid the wreckage and wait. But there is also the bare form of the thing, its sensual appeal: the legs and sawdust, red lips and destruction, descending figures framed by ruined wood, blades working, the variable hum, serene masks. This is what is unclosed. Wholly open. Wholly surprising. A thing which escapes metaphor and registers as a mere thrill. An erotic implication: albeit a desipient erotics, dependent on a pratfall.
A String Section, Saturday 18 July 2015, Leen DeWilde, Nat Cursio, Alice Dixon, Caroline Meaden, Chimene Steele-Prior, Bagging Room, Malthouse Theatre, 113 Sturt Street, Southbank