Dance @ Summerhall

Indian Soldiers in Belgium, Shared love of Sia and Mele Void on Dancing J.G. Ballard’s Concrete Island

By David Pollock

As ever, dance performance is an integral party of Summerhall’s Festival programme, with a number of shows which take new and intriguing approaches to storytelling through the medium. Among this year’s highlights are Akademi’s The Troth, by director and choreographer Gary Clarke, which tells the story of young Indian soldiers sent to fight in Belgium during World War One; and Boaz Barkan’s quirky May I Speak About Dance?, in which one performer dances and the other explains what dance is all about.

Other shows, meanwhile, use dance amid a range of other forms to tell their story. For example, there’s Company of Wolves’ solo reimagining of the myth of Achilles through storytelling, movement and song; 21Common’s The Ballad of the Apathetic Son and His Narcissistic Mother, which unites the characters of the title through their love of dancing to the multifaceted pop star Sia; and Prime Cut’s East Belfast Boy, which merges street poetry with movement fuelled by pounding techno music.

Below, we hear from Glasgow-based performer Mele Broomes about her dance piece VOID, which is inspired by the JG Ballard novel Concrete Island:

“Void’s gone through quite a development in terms of what it is and what it means to us (performer and choreographer Broomes, AV lighting designer Dav Bernard, performance director and costume design Bex Anson). Initially the book was a stimulus, in terms of thinking about what the essence of the book means to us today and to my character, keeping it relevant to me as a person. We premiered at Tramway two years ago and it got reprogrammed at Dance International Glasgow as a site-specific work under the M74 motorway next to Shields Road underground, on an embankment, a void wasteground space.”

Void isn’t a direct adaptation of Concrete Island – what’s the relationship between both works?

“Concrete Island is a survival struggle and an inner conflict, and from that I was trying to think about the relevance to me as a Black woman onstage right now, even though the book’s main character and author is neither of those things. Just to be clear, this isn’t a piece about race, it’s about looking at the same ideas (as Ballard) but coming from a different perspective. We took The Undercommons, which is a piece of black studies writing by Stefano Harvey and Fred Motens, and which is a lot to do with the idea of fugitive space. We saw this void in the book as being a fugitive space, a limbo land in which the character crashes – arguably crashes himself – after having a deep inner crisis with the life he’s leading.”

Who are you, in the work?

“The character I’m playing leads a certain lifestyle, earning lots of money at the top of their game, but actually feeding into a system which they don’t want to be a part of. This feeds into their own individual oppression, and the realisation emerges that they can no longer be part of this structure. They hit a fugitive space, which is a non-space where you can create a movement, an action, a change. You can’t create change within the system, within a structure which holds hierarchy; in my case I’m a Black woman, and the only way to create change – which is a constant battle – is to be outside that hierarchical space. In the run up to being a ‘fugitive’ there’s a lot of anxiety, which is frowned upon – you’re not allowed to look ‘crazy’, angry or confused, because our society expects you behave in a certain way. I don’t see this as negative, but as a necessary journey for development. Ballard talks about a human survival struggle which we can all relate to, an inner struggle – survival means something different to each person. Concrete Island allows you to get to a space which is no longer in an active system, it’s a space where you can go through trials to figure yourself out or to be submerged in your anxieties forever.”

How does everything you’ve described manifest onstage?

“As a performer and choreographer I go on a physical journey, where the movement swings between gestural and experimental contemporary movements which requires a lot of power and strength. I do a lot of thrashing and throwing of my body, I appear as though I’m not in control. I create a lot of angular, erratic shapes, and I use high heel stilettos which are part of my costume to climb a walled metal fence, so my attempts to escape are very physical. The fence is microphoned up, so it creates a sound score as I hit it and Dav manipulates this sound through the desk. I become the void using the debris that’s there and the contortions of my body, and the visual palette is very 1980s, with lots of AV projection.”

What do you want the audience to take from the piece?

“I would like the audience to feel a sense of empathy, but to feel rattled and shook-up, to feel perplexed and confused. I want them to root for my survival.”