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Deep Freeze - Interview with Laurie Booth

by Donald Hutera

September, 2003

Veteran British dance artist Laurie Booth’s new solo Ice/Dreams/Fire can lay claim to one of the festival’s most original settings. In the hour-long piece, premiered at last May’s Brighton Festival, Booth shares space with an elaborate yet simple mobile of ice sculptures devised by the talented young Brighton-based (as is Booth) visual artist Thomas Richards.

Booth spotted Richards’ work at an exhibition. ‘I liked Tom’s way of using real time both in performance and in the art object itself.’ Asked for a description of the stage environment, the dancer replies, ‘White shirts, dyed red and jammed into tupperware boxes. They’re frozen and come out as red cubes which are then hung up on black wire. What you get is a spiral of these suspended red blocks, with metal vats underneath to catch the drips as they thaw. Some of the vats have contact mics attached, to catch the sound which is fed into [composer] Nick Rothwell’s digital console. It’s very interactive, with an organic, visceral feel. Over the period of an hour you see these frozen blocks, they’re like huge slabs of meat, changing shape, expanding almost imperceptibly.’ How does Booth avoid being upstaged by this unusual collection of objects? ‘I have to move in a manner which creates focus.’ Simple answer and, for this exceptionally magnetic performer, maybe not so hard to achieve. Booth has been on the scene for more than a quarter-century, compiling a body of work sprung directly from his strong, wiry frame and a style based on having no single style. ‘I haven’t defined myself in relationship to a particular technique,’ he says. ‘I made it a point to research and develop my own movement language and vocabulary.’ Among influences he mentions Buster Keaton (a nice surprise), martial arts, ballet, contact improvisation, release technique and gyrotonics.

The last is important to Booth, who has become an instructor in this American body training system. ‘Its closest living relative is Pilates. As well as its use in training, it has a tremendous rehabilitative function.’ Increasingly, says Booth, people were making parallels to his dance practice and gyrotonics. And, as he discovered, ‘It’s dovetailed very nicely with what I do.’

Aside from the aesthetic link, Booth has taken up gyrotonics as ‘a way of establishing another model of economic and artistic survival, so I can maintain a certain level of independence. I’ve always been an independent artist. I don’t live or create within an institution.’ He was therefore free a few years ago to elect to drop out of the UK dance circuit. ‘I’d kind of decided to remove myself from dance because I felt I wasn’t getting any kind of major support for the work I was doing. If you don’t fit into a dance agency programme, or if you’re not part of a funding structure, you become marginalised.’

It was Nigel Hinds, the Associate Artistic Director of Brighton Ferstival, who lured Booth back into performing. Hinds offered to do all the administration and funding, Booth says, ‘at which point it seemed churlish to refuse.’ He has no regrets. ‘Having moved away from dance for two or three years, it was far more enjoyable to make this new piece. I didn’t feel like I had to do it. You can get on a bit of a conveyor belt in dance: another year, another project. It’s very pleasurable not to have this one thing be the be-all and end-all of your life.’ Ice/Dreams/Fire nevertheless has a personal resonance for Booth, in that it ‘revolves around an incident, or story, that I’ve been thinking about for a long time.’ It seems that, last century, Soviet scientists found bodies which had lain frozen in the Siberian tundra for thousands of years. ‘Some were covered in tattoos,’ Booth says. ‘I have some on my own body. They’re wonderfully hybrid animal forms: eagles, horses, goats, leopards. They’re abstract as well, with a vibrant, dynamic sense of movement.’ These totemic creatures became Booth’s kinetic springboard, his mission to ‘bring them to life and let them run’ through his own flesh and bone.

According to its maker, the performance is structured in three phases (at first dark, hidden yet revealing; elegant, almost classical in the middle; then faster, dynamic and raw before the close), each with its own qualities of motion and light (designed by the redoubtable Michael Mannion). For Booth the thawing of the shirts and the background story of a frozen ancestor unite, creating a sense of discovery that can be applied as much to himself as to the primal seeker he embodies onstage. ‘It’s about revealing an identity which has a number of sources. It seemed like an incredible metaphor for my own process, a look at a movement identity or movement as a life process and a philosophical position.’ Booth views Ice/Dreams/Fire as ‘a scientific and artistic experiment’ and Richards’ contribution as ‘incredibly elegant. It’s so simple, and at same time very sophisticated in terms of how it’s behaving. A lot of attention has gone into the detail.’ He, Richards and the production team have discovered just how much water and what kind of dye to use, how long to freeze the shirts, how long they take to hang (what was a five hour process has been streamlined to about forty minutes) and how long to thaw given the combined heat of Mannion’s lighting and the audience’s collective body heat. ‘We’ve had to find the optimum moment in the life cycle of these things when they can be seen by the public.’ Adding to the sense of anticipation, Booth says, ‘We’re going to introduce elements of thawing in other parts of Greenwich Dance Agency.’

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This article first appeared in the Spring 2003 edition of Dance Umbrella News

Donald Hutera writes regularly on dance, theatre and the arts for
The Times, Time Out, Dance Europe, Dance Now and Dance Theatre Journal.
He is co-author, with Allen Robertson, of The Dance Handbook.

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