Riverfront Studios, London
06 November 2013, 14:12
New York’s bohemian hotel was until recently under threat from property developers so the latest production from the Cardiff-based Earthfall is bang on the money. Immortalised in films (Warhol and Morrissey’s Chelsea Girls) and in songs by Leonard Cohen, Janis Joplin and Joni Mitchell, the Chelsea Hotel has seen residents such as Dylan Thomas, Tennessee Williams and Patti Smith pass through its cockroach-friendly corridors. It is a house of boho ghosts and Earthfall’s multi-media performance conjures dead souls and living spirits.n
The trio of multi-instrumental musicians keep the soundscape fluid while the quartet of performers act out vignettes inspired by residents famous, infamous and anonymous. A large video screen depicts whirring ceiling fans, corridors, lifts and rooms and the characters on stage; an onstage camera allows each performer to deliver a poem, a song lyric or a comment on the place. Fragments of memory gradually build to an impressionistic portrait.
Bookended by the arrival and departure of a young, innocent European couple the interplay of men and women, men and men and women and women and their offbeat emotional transactions is conducted with a physical bravery bordering on recklessness. A junkie OD’s in an elevator, two girls in long Victorian dresses flirt and play like overgrown, sexualised schoolgirls; Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen roll about on a bed in abandoned, eternal foreplay; Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe tear each other asunder – flinging each other around the stage with centrifugal violence. The musicians, powerfully evoking the mood (if not the period) of each scene wander in and out of the action, integrating themselves into the performance. Chiming guitars, clattering electronic drums and subtle shifts of tone enhance the heady atmosphere, pungent with a kind of curdled romanticism and the decaying, hallucinatory innocence that makes the Chelsea Hotel unique. A very cool tribute.
Wales Millennium Centre
“This hotel does not belong to America. There are no vacuum cleaners, no rules and shame. The high spot of the surreal…” – Arthur Miller.
A stubborn weed in the garden of the American dream, the Chelsea Hotel was, is, and forever more will be a raw and true counter-cultural heartbeat behind the romantic façade that is Manhattan. In its most reveled days of the mid-twentieth century, the Chelsea provided physical and artistic shelter for the spark of a revolution in expression.
Acclaimed radical dance company of Cardiff, Earthfall, translates this snapshot in time to a fervent and emotion-flooding performance of Chelsea Hotel, remaining faithful to its policy to “forge radical choreography with live music and strong visual imagery.”
With every chord and beat that reverberates throughout the audience comes the lyrical echo from the lips of Dylan and Joplin through the Chelsea halls. With every rebellious stomp into the studio floor comes the drunken footfalls of Thomas after a night of eighteen whiskies. With every intimate breaking of the fourth wall via strategic stage cameras comes the mad philosophical exchanges of Ginsberg and Corso under endless Beat stars. With every flash of original projected photography, comes a gaze down the avant-garde lens of Warhol and Morrissey. Chelsea Hotel does not emulate its namesake, but rather becomes, in all aesthetic and audible dimensions.
Though inhabited by such an eclectic array of heads and hearts, the Chelsea miraculously forms a structure without internal boundaries. No walls, no doors, and no inhibitions have separated those who have called it home, whether for a night or for life. It is this aspect wherein Chelsea Hotel truly inspires.
The featured cast reminds the audience of human connection and identity in its most basic form, and the accompanying emotions which are felt by all, regardless of environment. Self-discovery begs for companionship. Chelsea Hotel sheds this light of humanity beautifully, honoring the Manhattan monument which, returning to Miller, has, “…a scary and optimistic chaos which predicted the hip future and at the same time the feel of a massive, old-fashioned, sheltering family.”
Riverside Studios, London
The Public Reviews Rating:
If walls had ears, so they say, and maybe eyes too, what stories would they have to tell? The walls of few buildings in the World can hold as many juicy secrets as those of Manhattan’s iconic Chelsea Hotel, home at various times to writers, musicians, artists and actors. Delving into this rich source of material, Earthfall Dance Company here sets about revealing some of those secrets and bringing to life the hotel’s inspirational effect, through dance, music, poetry and ﬁlm.
Two men and two women are seen on a large screen at the rear of the stage, ascending in the hotel’s elevator. They are entering an artistic melting pot, where genius is fuelled by kindred spirits from past and present generations, mind-altering substances and free love. They have soon forgotten what “normal” looks like as they become immersed in a Bohemian lifestyle, accepting that, if they are, as artists, to represent the values of life, they ﬁrstly have to live.
Images of the hotel are projected on the screen throughout, the scenes spanning more than a century. On stage, we see two girls from the 19th Century, dressed in frilly petticoats, dancing provocatively and ﬂirting with what would then have been unthinkable. Perhaps they met Mark Twain at breakfast. They make way for a modern day gay couple ﬁghting, followed by a pair practising sadomasochism, another pair involved in an intense and violent relationship and then two people coping with the after effects of drug abuse.
Although spanning eras, the predominant feel, both visually and musically, is of the 1960s when Andy Warhol, Janis Joplin or Tennessee Williams would have walked these corridors. Or perhaps Bob Dylan – he took his surname from Dylan Thomas who died in a room here in 1953.
The four performers are Ros Haf Brooks, Jessica Haener, Sebastian Langueneur and Alex Marshall Parsons. Occasionally, they speak in verse to a camera, when their faces are projected on the screen in close-up, but mostly they rely on movement and dance to convey images of the hotel and of the people living in it. They are all superb, whether dancing freestyle or coming together, precisely choreographed. Lara Ward and the entire company, take credit for the choreography and the text.
The original rock score is also outstanding, being performed by the three composers, using electric guitars, a synthesiser and percussion. The only criticism is that it is not easy to make out the lyrics in the few sung sections.
In the course of 70 absorbing and, at times, breathtaking minutes of physical theatre, the performers are able to suggest to us many things: that deﬁance of social norms can be integral to achieving artistic greatness; that the creation of art is a continuing process crossing generations; and that spirits from bygone ages can become embedded in a building. This show is as intoxicating as the place that inspired it.
Chelsea Hotel is a vivid evocation of what it might feel like to stay in the legendary titular dwelling. It’s also an impressive piece of physical theatre performed by an inventive and risk-taking group of dancers and musicians.
A double bed on wheels, a table and chairs and an iconic American cooler are the elements set on-stage whilst a screen presents a series of static and moving images of the cast or objects to complement and contrast with the live action. To one side of the stage is a live relay camera to which the cast perform monologues or hold up hand-scrawled messages, at once secret and open, new and old.
The show is inspired especially by Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe’s experiences of living at the Chelsea, but the history of the building is a often a dark one, providing an embarrassment of riches in terms of source material. Jessica Cohen and Jim Ennis have chosen wisely in deciding to focus on creating mood, impressions and intense fragments and thus avoid the risk of being over-whelmed by the volume of narrative material that many have explored in relation to the real Chelsea and its place in 20th century American culture. The show feels like a stay in the hotel might, a brief, intense and ambiguous experience, as if a guest had found a forgotten and very personal photo album under the bed revealing the lives that other people had lived in the room they were now renting.
The movement in the show has a number of distinct styles. The company work in a collaborative creative process with Cohen and Ennis selecting and editing the work to shape the show. This produces some contrast in performance style and pace, but that is especially effective for this topic as it mirrors a sense of the different lives that people live in very similar spaces when occupying hotels and apartments. All of the company are impressive in the range, execution and originality of their physical performances. Ros Haf Brooks and Jessica Haener are fantastic as two Victorian apparitions moving between loving each other and teasing the audience. Sebastian Langueneur and Alex Marshall Parsons play with an electric sexual chemistry that ignites in one sequence that captures perfectly the violence of the attraction their characters feel for each other with a dance sequence that is breath-taking.
If there is an element that works less well, it is the monologues delivered to camera and relayed on to screen. Leaving a blank stage for the audience to watch a face-to-camera live relay is a high risk strategy: an audience does not come out to the theatre to watch youtube. The brevity of these pieces means that the action is not suspended for long, but their dubious rationale and patchy execution make them the least successful part of the show.
Chelsea Hotel is like renting a room and lying in bed to absorb the vibes of the space and then dreaming the most wonderful, colourful, expressive dream. A real achievement.
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