Barmaid rhythms

Erin Brannigan drinks in Wendy Houstoun’s Happy Hour in London

Viewing a lot of dance videos while in London recently, I decided that solo dance on film was my favourite. The intimacy specific to the camera is best employed dealing with these discrete subjects, who may not have spatial relations to anything but the camera (become its very own creature). Seeing Wendy Houstoun perform her new show, Maid to Drink presents Happy Hour, first at Jackson’s Lane and then at the Purcell Room at Royal Festival Hall in London, I realised that solo dance itself is the intriguing thing, with or without the camera. A spoken monologue on film or stage has words hanging in the-space-between; the solo dancer, particularly the performer/choreographer, invites you in closer to where, in the best examples, the body cannot lie. By the end of the show, I had Houstoun’s particular physicality tucked away as if we had actually spent endless nights making the most of Happy Hour. She had become my very own creature.

Houstoun had me peering through the dark, straining to close up the space in an effort to catch every nuance of her intricate dance. As has happened before, my eyeballs dried out with looking. Choosing the theme of drinking, she is able to explore a range of movement that is located beyond normal motor-sensory activity. A technically virtuosic performance, Houstoun recovers and plays with action from the place beyond physical control.

What is also remarkable about Happy Hour is that the spoken word dances as well, has the same qualities—half-formed, murmured, lost phrases and words, carefully chosen and deployed. When Houstoun invites us into the piece—“what’ll it be…what’s your poison…?”—her eccentric barmaid gestures swing and bounce along to the rhythm set by her words. These same gestures repeated with different dialogue become, not the habits of work, but a struggle; the ‘job’ becoming a problem under the weight of new discordant words. At another time, the precarious joke-telling skills of the inebriated give Houstoun a spoken rhythm of joke fragments that accompany her hysterical poses—“no…wait…wait… wait”, “this one’s going to kill you”, “what do you get…”, “this one will make you scream.” The failing, senseless joke ‘bits’ create a tragic pattern, an eternal parade of misplaced punchlines accompanied by desperate postures.

Like alcohol, Houstoun mutates from seductress to mate, from abuser to comforter, from sentimental to political. This happens as quickly as a drunk can ‘turn’, but it’s never as simple as this either. It’s always the transitory moment, the where-did-that-drink-go moment when logic dissolves and anything is possible. The improvisatory nature of the show heightens this giddy feeling. In Happy Hour, inebriation provides a model condition in which to move between these various states. Houstoun’s physical mastery recreates the malleable moment between confusion and realisation. A sentimental Houstoun builds up her friend—“you’re so lucky, you’ve got everything”—falling to pieces herself as she works through the list. A dance sequence with accompanying bites of conversation is repeated with reducing facility, Houstoun never losing control of her movement but the character losing a grip on her life.
In one of the final scenes, humanity’s ambiguous relationship to alcohol is given a striking image. Houstoun bounces herself out of the bar—“who do I think I am”, “if I knew what was good for me I’d head out that door right now”, “what do I think I’m looking at?”, “I’m not going to tell myself again.” At the Purcell Room, this scene was stretched to the limit, as was the joke scene, the discomforting pathos becoming painful in the way only a drunk can be.

The observational backbone and kind of realism that this brings to Happy Hour is shunted sideways by the sophisticated and intricate use of movement and text I’ve described. But, while the spoken word intrigues, it is Houstoun’s movement that seduces. The loose, malleable body of the drunk is combined with a skilful crafting of each ‘character’ that creates an uncanny effect—lost and found all at once. The peculiarities of Houston’s physicality carried across the work make this a journey and it’s our increasing familiarity with, and investment in, this particular way of moving that takes us with her. A delicate and minimal Hawaiian dance with a gentle rocking rhythm and repeated, intricate gestures that swing softly now, unlike her rather frantic barmaid dance, is dropped into this ‘bar scene’, as a quiet oasis. There is also a disturbingly lonely disco dance at the periphery of a spotlight.

When Houstoun announces that the bar’s closing and we have to leave, no-one wants to for fear of missing something. I’ve never felt an audience so caught in indecision. Should I stay or should I go? Maybe just one more for the road.

Maid To Drink presents Happy Hour, created and performed by Wendy Houstoun. Royal Festival Hall, London, September 28 – 29. Invitation-only performance, One Extra Dance Company, Ice Box, Sydney Jan 23.

RealTime issue #29 Feb-March 1999 pg. 29

© Erin Brannigan; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 February 1999