Productions

Drop Dead Gorgeous

Vincent Dance Theatre / Dada Von Bzdulow Theatre (Poland)

2001, 75 mins

‘The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting’ Milan Kundera

Drop Dead Gorgeous is a piece for six dancers, performed on a tonne and a half of slate stone. The piece explores how pain acts as an instrument for shifting consciousness, how doubt acts as a fuel for testing long held assumptions. Taking place in a stark and broken landscape, bombed out by men with guns, missiles, bombs and hate, six people move, talk, dance, attack, tell tales, act out their worst nightmares, hide in the shadows and share secrets and lies.

Drop Dead Gorgeous was created in the Wybrzeze Theatre, Gdansk, Poland and at Yorkshire Dance, Leeds, with a production week at Arnolfini, Bristol. Drop Dead Gorgeous was commissioned by Arnolfini Live and Yorkshire Dance and funded by Sheffield City Arts, City of Gdansk, Zak Club Gdansk, The British Council, Yorkshire Arts and Arts Council England. This work is dedicated to Lea Parkinson, Henryk Tomaszewski, Terry Weltner and Andrea.

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Director's Notes

Drop Dead Gorgeous takes place in a precarious, harsh and shifting landscape of dust and stones. Made in Poland and England over the summer of 2001, we were busy staging our own multiple deaths when time froze for a day, and the dramatic events in America overtook our imaginations. 11.09.2001. A day the earth stood still.

Our exploration of ‘the demolition of a man’, (as described by Primo Levi in If This Is A Man), researched within our creative process and placed historically in time, seemed suddenly overshadowed by more contemporary, real events. Overwhelmed by a new reality of war and death, with our subject matter brought up to date with terrifying poignancy, we shared a moment in time that we would never be able to forget. Our efforts to comment on the subject seemed puny, dangerous, tasteless, even.

Where to draw the line? How to have something to say that isn’t overstated, sentimental or melodramatic, but which stays truthful to our thoughts, feelings and personal experiences? How to allude to the death and destruction we live with, without recreating images that should never be resurrected? In Greek tragedy, the worst moments are always unseen, off stage (‘obscene’). So, what to show? What to hide behind the wall? As our ability to play in the current climate became more loaded, so the act of performance becomes more hazardous – physically risky and emotionally confusing. How to translate the information? How to maintain humour and find something to believe in, in this fragmented and mind-blowing moment in history?

Drop Dead Gorgeous was half formed when the planes flew over New York. But now, as we step outside the studio and into the ‘real’ world with our work, there is a wild wind blowing through this city.

Charlotte Vincent 2001

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Context

Poland is the point where rival cultures and philosophies of our continent confront each other in the most acute form, where the tensions of European drama have been played out on the flesh and nerves of a large nation. Falling between the hammer and the anvil, Poland is the heart of Europe, a heart that has been ripped and shredded, mangled and bruised by events that remain astonishing both in scale and human cruelty.

Six million Poles died in the Second World War and the map of the country was redrawn. ‘Poles see themselves as heroes’ a fellow choreographer, Lezsek Bdzyl, said to me in an underground artists club when I was there. ‘Its written into our consciousness as a nation’. He talked about the need for freedom of expression with a weight and sincerity that I can only appreciate now I have read about the country ‘s history. The place seems fertile, and the people rich with a collective experience that we in the West may never understand.

There’s a long wooden pier in Sopot, Gdynia, Poland, disappearing off to somewhere far, far away. The sea freezes over in the winter, and the swans hide, but in the summer the wind-knarled trees bloom, the sun shines and the swans preen themselves proudly as they bob and glide on the water. I have been to Sopot’s sister town Gdansk in both seasons and the pier represents for me two contradictory but co-existing images of Polish culture – a seaside town filled with beautiful, hopeful, courteous people and a poor and barren place with a shipyard that launched a million dreams. The moment I looked out over the frozen expanse I knew I wanted to make something that reflected this place, and the generosity of these people. Something to do with power, honour, courage, humility.

When a feeling seems untranslatable – this seems the point at which creativity begins.

Solidarity’s political attempt to ‘salvage Poland from ruin and society from poverty, despondency and self destruction’ was born in Gdansk’s shipyard, where the nation’s soul waited patiently for freedom. Reflecting on the time I spent there, I am struck by the warmth and connection I felt with both the environment and the people I met. I think that Sheffield and Gdansk share a bleak beauty – the sparse shops; the sense of gritty persistence; he weight of history etched into people’s faces.

Drop Dead Gorgeous aims to create a dialogue between artists from differing national heritages. To engage physically and politically, ‘not to teach others, but to learn with them what our existence, our organism, our personal and unrepeatable experiences have to give us; to break down barriers, to free ourselves from the lies about ourselves which we manufacture daily, to destroy the limitations caused by ignorance or lack of courage, to fill the emptiness within us.’ Grotowski, Statement of Principles.

We are the product of everything that has happened, and the seed of everything that will happen. I think of Kosovo. I think of Palestine. I think of Rwanda. What do I think of England?

I imagine a city, bombed out and broken, where everything is forbidden and nothing is permanent. I wonder how I would begin to map out a future there. In a place destroyed by men with guns and missiles and bombs and hate, could I fall in love? Could I show humility? What would I believe in? In an imagined country, where life gives women a purpose, and death seems to give men one, would I raise a child? I think of little Anna Climbie, bagged up, beaten, and cigarette stubbed to death by her aunt, and it’s not so easy to blame men for violence anymore. How do women collude in destruction and abuse?

‘Suppose we had time and no money, living by our wits, telling stories – which story would you tell?’ Pierrot Le Fou, Adrienne Rich

Suppose you stood facing a wall of photographs from your unlived life, scenes from an unlived film, in a country torn apart by war – what gifts would you offer your compatriots, in the chaos of these times? What alliances would you make? If you discovered each other for the first time, stripped of everything but your self, what action would you take? Would you ward off bouts of depression with displays of brilliance? Could you be patient?

Drop Dead Gorgeous will look at how pain acts as an instrument for shifting consciousness, how doubt acts as a fuel for testing assumptions. As British artists can we truly appreciate the exhilaration of personal and cultural freedom, when we have always had it? Notions of honour and courage are etched into Poland’s DNA. What is etched in ours? I cannot comprehend war. I am an artist. I am not a politician. I am not a professor. I am an artist. This piece is a woman’s confession.

‘I do not know
Who I was when I did those things
Or who I said I was
Or whether I willed to feel
what I had read about
or who in fact was there with me
or whether I knew, even then,
that there was doubt about these things.’ Dialogue, Adrienne Rich

Photojournalistic in style, and stripped bare in design, Drop Dead Gorgeous is a dance piece without text. It explores the visual and the physical, the use of light and liquid, athleticism and abstraction. The set is stark – a planked wall downstage, separating audience from performer (a real fourth wall), to be dismantled as the work progresses, a planked, raised platform upstage.

Drop Dead Gorgeous is a collaboration between three Polish performers I met whilst working in Gdansk (Lezsek Bdzyl, Patrycja Kujawska and Aurora Lubos), and three British collaborators (TC Howard, Peter Shenton and myself). What distinguishes these Polish dancers from the many I met whilst there is their commitment to developing a voice for contemporary work in a country still creatively bound by tradition and the multi-faceted nature of their performance skills – Patrycja is a well respected violinist, Aurora is a painter, and Lezsek is as much an actor as dancer, and often employed as such. These three artists share a vibrant desire and ability to create physical work that crosses boundaries, which somehow transcends the narrow training of ‘pure’ dance artists both in the UK and in Poland.

Charlotte Vincent
2001

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