At the weekend I was back in Manchester. On saturday I joined a friend of mine, Dani Abulhawa, in doing some research for her latest project. Dani is a performance artist, and lectures in performance at Chester University. She is also undertaking a practise-as-research PhD, concerned with 'alternative gendered practice' within public places and the skateboarding sub culture.
Her latest research project 'Play in the City' involves using the city as a child would - jumping, hopping, skipping (or what ever takes your fancy) over the urban landscape.
Its not a 'performance'. (Well, that was my experience anyway).
I really enjoyed my play in the city. It was just what I needed. I despise English town centers on Saturdays. There are way too many people, mindlessly consuming more and more. Fake tanned and spandex legging wearing sheep. It makes me sad that people don't do something different with their Saturday afternoons. I had been in Manchester a while before it was time to Play. And I was getting to my 'depressed get me out' stage.
We started in Piccadilly Gardens. Dani and I climbed on the outside of a little bridge, fitting our feet between the railings, and our friend, Lauren, walked down the centre of the bridge, careful not to step on the cracks. I came back on the inside of the bridge, which, because of the angle, was much harder, forcing me to hang on like a monkey.
As I made my way a long a man laughed at me and said 'what you doing love?' I replied 'climbing'. 'Er, ha. climbing'. I think the man realised the stupidity of his question. I doubt if a child was doing the same thing he would have asked them what they were up to. But somehow, as a twenty three year old woman (thats what my age implies)/girl(thats what I think) its not possible that I was just climbing and playing.
Next we played on the waterless fountain, jumping from grid to grid, and inventing games on the stones, for example taking it in turns to give directions 'jump four stones left. two forward'. It was interesting to note that after we left there were children playing there also. There was non when we had started.
We finished up by spending a good chunk of time on the steps leading up to the Arndale Centre, a huge indoor shopping area. The staircase has about seven or eight shallow steps and is quite wide. It has handrails, that are like a big loop, in the middle.
Due to the transitional nature of the space I think it was important that we stayed in this place for a while. I walked the entire staircase going from left to right with just my toes on the very edge of the steps, my heels hanging in the air. This caused me to walk with very small sideways steps and sometimes loose my balance. And I had to duck under the handrail every time I passed the center of the steps. About half way through I could have given up - my calfs were hurting and there seemed like loads of steps left for me to totter along. But something inside of me made me continue.
Afterwards I realised completing the entire staircase was important to make the action complete. It was because of the time span that it became 'something'. And it was quite satisfying to get to the end.
As I mentioned earlier, this was not a performance, but before doing the project I had been worried that would be embarrassed, and have to view it as a performance for my self. But after a while I became engrossed in the playing and forgot about the public. So for the majority of the time I didn't engage with people much. I feel that this is an important element of the process. Its not about cutting people out but more about being totally involved in what you do, not watching for reactions. Therefore the reactions from the public were more natural between themselves, rather than directed at me or Dani.
Although I did get some food thrown at me, and a comment of 'that ket must be good'.
But for me the best bit was when a juicy couture tracksuited, fake tanned scouser (those are just my chosen descriptives words..derive your own meaning..) asked me 's'cuse me, what ya doin'?' 'Just playing' I told her. 'What? Exercisin'?' I smiled. 'No. Just playin'' 'Oh' she replied. I'll never forget the look of confusion on her face. I deliberately chose not to say 'performance art' or 'research project' as I feel that this would give people a chance to dismiss it as 'those weird/arty types'. And why is it so weird that I am playing?
For me seeing that reaction, and how people responded when Dani crawled down the stairs, was worth the effort and sore calves.
I left Manchester feeling much better and happy that we'd offered people an alternative option of what to do with their Saturday afternoon. That we'd broken the Saturday ritual of shopping and consumption.
Hopefully the little bout of confusion we caused also provoked a few thoughts, if only on a subconscious level. And for me making people think is what dance, and art, is all about.