Active Ingredients

This blog was originally published by Run Riot on 29 October 2018.

Suzy Willson is the Co-Artistic Director of CLOD ENSEMBLE. For over two decades with composer Paul Clark, she has developed a highly original performance language which ‘defies categorisation’, creating provocative, finely crafted work, ambitious in scale and concept. From performances in Tate Modern’s vast Turbine Hall to Sadler’s Wells auditorium and stage, their work has always pushed at the boundaries of form and encouraged people to see things from a new perspective.

I would describe my roots as being in theatre. I was a teenager in the late 80’s – blown away by the work of Michael Clark, The Fall, Leigh Bowery, Brecht, Augusto Boal, LIFT, Welfare State International, Eastern European and Russian work at Lyric Theatre, Gay Sweatshop, Pina Bausch, DV8, The Cholmondeleys, Complicite, Berkoff… I went to France and studied with Jacques Lecoq as I was interested in the things that could be said without or beyond words through movement.

CLOD ENSEMBLE began with a collaboration between me and musician Paul Clark – a meeting place of music and movement. I’d say our work is visceral, highly visual, and operates in a poetic register rather than a narrative one. We are as interested in what can be said without words, in group dynamics and exploring the knots and patterns that people get themselves into and out of. A review of our first ever show in 1995 described us as resisting categorisation – we didn’t deliberately set out to do that – we just do.

We don’t have a hard and fast boundary between the form and content of our work. Both are developed together and meet each other. So, the kind of performers we work with (actors, dancers, musicians, performance artists), the space it is presented in and how that space is used, the structure of the score, whether there is text or not – all of these choices emerge together with the ideas in the piece. This leads us to some interesting decisions as we try to find the right tools and venues for the job. For example, in An Anatomie in Four Quarters – a piece about how we see human bodies in different ways depending on our perspective – we took a small audience though the huge auditorium in Sadler’s Wells to watch a performance from four radically different viewing positions. Under Glass plays with the idea of living within our limits – so all the performers are literally confined in glass cases, with the audience free to walk around the space. Red Ladies – featuring 18 identically dressed women – is a celebration of collective action, freedom of movement and solidarity and has been performed in the centre of towns and cities, including Oxford, Porto, London, Margate and Hastings. In Snow – a woman is haunted by the absence of someone who has betrayed her – in this piece there are no live performers at all.

That CLOD ENSEMBLE’s work is difficult to define has certainly presented some challenges; not so much in imagining the work it but in producing it, programming it and reviewing it. Over 20 years our pieces we have been described as physical theatre, dance theatre, music theatre, dance, live art, participatory art, public art, immersive, interdisciplinary, trans, cross, visual, experimental, site specific, sci art…

Of course, our work typically crosses many of these categories – as does much work being made in the UK. So it is strange to sometimes find our productions placed in, for example, the dance section of a venue brochure or arts pages, but not in the theatre, music or art section.

We have been lucky to work in galleries, dance houses, theatres and in public spaces – so clearly there is a way to navigate this landscape. But this tends to rely on the interests of individual producers and commissioners – who are ready to push the boundaries of their form or venue and have faith in the broad taste of their audience.

For the rapidly increasing number of interdisciplinary artists who feel limited by definition or by binary ways of thinking, it can be all too easy to fall through the gaps between one form and another – so it feels important to nurture this in-between territory as a powerful space of possibility.

We recently hosted an event at the Barbican for artists, producers, programmers, funders and reviewers to talk about cross-disciplinary work and the challenges it presents. It’s clear that audiences don’t care much about genre categorisation but organisational, editorial and funding structures often find it hard to place or market work that is difficult to label. This can be as frustrating for producers and reviewers as it is for artists.

This week our new piece Placebo opens at The Place – a venue known for presenting contemporary dance, but with a real interest in work that crosses boundaries.

The piece is performed by seven extraordinary dancers from very different backgrounds and an eclectic original score by Paul Clark ranging from euphoric club tracks to chewy classical fugues. Costumes are designed by acclaimed non-binary fashion label Art School, with text written by legendary New York performer Peggy Shaw (Split Britches). It was developed through research and conversations with doctors, neurologists, philosophers, poets and patients many of whom feature in an accompanying season of events called The Power of Placebo – including a symposium ‘Agents of Change’ at Wellcome Collection on Saturday 3 November.

The placebo effect describes a response when an ‘inactive’ drug or sugar pill is given but creates health benefits regardless. Long ignored by the medical profession there is a growing interest in how placebos work and how we can harness the power of this response.

Our show takes the form of a series of experiments, all of which are danced. This idea is both the form and the content of the piece – there is something fascinating but also absurd about looking at dance through a scientific lens. The piece explores both the beauty and also the limits of this scientific way of seeing.

What expectations, beliefs and aesthetic preferences do we bring to our encounters in healthcare settings or our theatres. Is a red pill more powerful than a blue one? How does the packaging affect the potency of the pill? What are the active ingredients in a treatment? Does it matter whether it is fake or real? Our minds have the ability to powerfully change how we experience things – for good and ill – and to transcend reductionist ways of thinking about our own bodies.

Perhaps we also need to find new ways of describing performance work in order to cross pollinate audiences and encourage artists to push formal boundaries. I want as much encouragement as I can get to park my preconceptions, expectations and judgements of what a particular art form or venue will present me with.

Does it matter what something is called as long as it makes us feel good?