Friday, March 23, 2018

Catacular – not to be confused with Spectacular

25 February - 4 March 2018
Auckland Fringe Festival
Produced, created and performed by Caitlin Davey and Sarah-Louise Collins

To get to see the dance performance Catacular, first you need to find the venue.  Once you locate the exact alley way towards the bottom of Queen street, the next step is to look for a door with a small sign that leads you up a flight of stairs to the cat café - BaristaCats.  I manage to get quasi-lost despite attending the same venue a year ago for Catacular when it premiered at Auckland Fringe 2017.  This potential for disorientation is totally worth it though, because … CATS!  The mission of BaristaCats is to provide refuge “from the hustle and bustle of city life” for humans and animals alike, check out their vision at  Catacular in part seeks to promote BaristaCats, where a big chunk of the doortake goes back to support this organisation in providing sanctuary for rescued cats, particularly hard-to-adopt-out cats from a number of animal rescue organisations around Auckland. 

Being a nontraditional performance venue, as audience I am not sure how we are expected to behave in BaristaCats, so I am looking for clues as I arrive.  There is a short briefing by the owner on handling the cats and certain vulnerable felines, then we are led to the big back room of the café where a human-animal interactive scene is already underway.  Cats are crawling, sniffing and pawing all over and around a very still reclining human figure, Sarah-Louise Collins, who appears in a state of peaceful ecstasy.  We also see the second performer, Caitlin Davey, moving around the edges of the space, delivering pieces of paper to attendees and welcoming folx.  I notice a cat with no eyes, ginger cats, white cats, a three-legged cat, black cats and multiple tabbys, they are mostly older cat and cats with disabilities.  This is clearly a space that celebrates the social, a scene of curiosity, delight and enjoyment.

I notice the cats are searching out and eating little treats that have been scattered or hidden in Sarah’s clothing and hair (I find out later that catnip was also rubbed on Sarah to intensify the commitment and physical closeness of the cats).  This strategy centers our attention on the social choreography of cats and the human-animal relationship.  It is a human designed encounter, which seems to be bringing the performer, a self-proclaimed cat lover, a huge amount of joy, AND, the cats get treats, which they clearly desire in this moment.  Mutually beneficial?  An equitable exchange?  I see cats vying for space and food, a clustering of sinewy bodies, with coinciding moments of apparent unison, rhythms of flinches, diverse nibbling styles, and movements of avoidance, resistance, and union.  I wonder if Sarah acquired many scratches in the rehearsal of this scene….? Finally, she makes a small movement, and the cat choreography dissipates. 

There are about 20 humans of various ages and sizes attending Catacular who sit around the edges of the room on couches and chairs. The objects in this back room are normally more dispersed, but here the center of the space is cleared becoming a performance arena.  I notice there appears to be about the same number of cats as humans occupying the space.  The humans are visibly delighted to be here.  I am not sure what is behind their smiles, but for me this performance event is a much-appreciated opportunity to spend some time around animals.  Spaced around the room are multiple cat towers, playgrounds, tunnels, cat beds, toys, ticklers, balls of string, scratching poles, perches and cushions.  My attention is drawn into the elaborate and creative architectures for cats, where multiple levels are created with bridges and walkways to enable trajectories around the space in the ways that cats like to move – around the edges, up high, into the corners, preferring less visible and less physically exposed spaces to dwell.  I am reminded that cats are predators and hunters, yet can also transform in an instant into a flaming queen.  In this way the wide-open space in the middle of the room serves as a kind a cat promenade – a runway to prance and twirl and roll, to be admired as the stunning and elusive cat that you are, slinking from here to there, choosing to interact with the humans or avoid them all at will. 

pussy galore
Sarah shifts into a process of slowly peeling back a surprising number of socks from her bulky feet, each newly revealed sock is presented to us with pride as a dazzling treasure.  No wonder her feet appeared so thick, I think I counted 14 sock layers on each foot?!  The peelings demonstrate the endless variations of cartoon representations of cats, where the loveable qualities that humans prescribe to ‘domesticated’ cats are on display. These same cat qualities seem to be reflected in the personalities of the two human performers.  We are watching live CUTENESS in action.  Adorability is also emphasised by the performers costumes with soft fabrics, sleep wear, eye masks and slippers creating an environment of cushioning, comfort and homeliness.  The sense of touch and tactility is indicated, with the furry cats nudging at our limbs and hands for pats, and these soft fabrics that envelop the dancers’ bodies.  I note the occasional sniff of Sarah socks by passing cats, prompting me to think about smell and the prominence for cats of certain perceptual modes.  I ponder to myself about how the sense organs of humans and cats are wired differently, with different functions and purposes.

Catacular has a clear episodic structure, where ideas are tinkered together, moving between more dancey sections, like ‘Cat-Mmitment’ & ‘Snazzy Dance Moves!’, to participatory tasks such as ‘Quiz – Catular’ and ‘Anthem’.  This structure works well to keep us attentive and engaged, Catacular is animated, fun and playful. 

In the next section, a large spindly drawing of a cat is laid out on the floor made out of brightly coloured pipe cleaners.  I learn this pipe-cleaner cat has a name, Binglebob.  With Binglebob so neatly placed, I am fashioning an impression of the creative partnership between Sarah and Caitlin.  Fond memories of antics with my best friend in high school are sparked, of hours spent laughing at absurd and outlandish things that we did or created together.  We are asked to read out loud the cat facts that were handed to us on paper.  The 10 facts are written out as a list on a huge flipchart, which are then composed before us in real-time as a choreographic composition.  Each fact has been paired with a pre-composed movement, repeated based on the number of cats we see in the room.  The outline of Binglebob becomes a spatial element that the performers negotiate in this responsive dance.  We see a flurry of cute movement details, delivered with personality and a tone of comfort between Sarah and Caitlin.

At the conclusion of the Binglebob section, we witness one of the cats gently place its paw on top of the pipe cleaners as Sarah attempts to clear them away.  The cat plays innocent, but as will clearly become an evident feature of Catacular, the BaristaCats cats perform repetitions of ‘accidental’ interruptions which pull our focus and attention (sitting right in the middle of the performance action is common).  Not to sound cold, but I’ve never been one to soften to the psychological attention-seeking games that cats play (I’m a dog person). However, in this context, sitting at a distance watching, I find the power play between cats and humans endearing and intriguing.  I want to experience each cat’s personality play out at a certain point in the performance, perhaps as a durational low-tone soap opera, or a reality TV show with multiple series (episodes featuring Black Beauty, Orson, Goldie, Bryon, Wednesday, Miss Molly Snugglington…).

Friendship based choreographic practice
What I am personally struck by with Catacular, is the way in which these two intelligent dance artists frame a friendship-based approach to choreographic practice with ease and confidence.  I am thinking here of other friendship based performance collectives such as Berlin based Female Trouble, who, like Sarah and Caitlin, are addressing questions about co-authorship, and the role of the audience.  A company of two, Sarah and Caitlin establish a way of working that foregrounds kindness and mutual support as integral to the performance making and choreographic material.  I sense layers of trust and respect that must have been built over years, a friendship that I assume to have been enabled through proximity and shared experiences in the local contemporary dance scene.  But maybe their connection goes back further, to high school, or even primary school?

There is one episode in Catacular which stands out for me when thinking about friendship-based modes of making.  The blindfold ‘solo’ by Caitlin, which ends up in my mind as an interesting example of an ensemble choreographic form.  I witness a multifaceted relationship between Sarah, who upholds the dance as a cat caretaker and with constant thoughtful presence, a cat (Banksy? Mango?) who inserts them self into the action, playing the zone of attention, and Caitlin, who exquisitely articulates full-bodied dance phraseology whilst holding another cat lovingly in her arms.  This ‘solo’ begins with attempting to locate the cat that Caitlin has pre-selected to carry.  That cat though must have other ideas, as it is nowhere to be seen.  Into the scene steps Lady Mary Clawley, a mighty white feline who doesn’t seem completely convinced about being carried around but does not fight the invitation in any way either.  Other cats step into the action (clearly blocking the pathway that the dance will take), softly setting themselves in the middle of the space as Caitlin begins her dance with the emotionally evocative song Toxic by Yaël Naïm.  These cat obstacles present a very real possibility that one of them will be stepped on by the blindfolded human dancer.  This potential for harm sets in motion a feeling of nervousness in the room, revealing the material tension built into this performance section.  Risk, protection, care, love, empowerment – contrasting energies swirl inside the interrelational performance score, a scene that stirs a mix of empathy and anxiety in my gut.  Sarah blocks with her arms Caitlin’s steps when necessary to protect the cats, yet in doing this she also enables the dancer and dance.  Is she a safe guard for the cats’ well-being, or an empowerment unit for dance?

In the section called ‘Cat-mmitment’, we learn of Caitlin’s allergy for cats, and her use of anti-histamines to manage her body’s reaction to cat fur, so she can follow through on her commitment to physically connect with these cats.  Her love is strong!  Catacular promotes itself as “an interactive contemporary dance show about friendship and a love for cats”.  I would add to this in contemplating what Catacular produces – that of an appreciation and understanding of human-animal and human-human companionship.  The performance event sets up a shared space of appreciation, generating a feeling of gratitude, for the rescue cats in particular.

Catacular is a choreography of personality textures, the friction of psycho-physical engagements between cats, and between cats and humans.  In Catacular/BaristaCats, every cat is loved unconditionally.  I feel a parental instinct kicking in somehow as I sit into a shared space of cultivating adoration for these companion animals without question.  These cats are accepted in the totally of who they are, their quirks and obsessions and edgy temperaments embraced.  So why don’t we do this for each other as humans beyond our childhood years?  Why are human behaviours that are considered eccentric or odd shunned or pushed to the edges of society, dismissed, rejected, ignored?

Human-animal performances
I have approached this writing about Catacular as a space to consider interactions between animals and humans in performance, in this case cats and humans, a common companionship-based relationship.  Internationally, there are many examples of contemporary performance experimenting with human-animal relationships.  Artists are developing methods for performance to understand animal experiences and convey these experiences to human viewers, with the goal of generating empathy for and identification with the animals.  I wonder though, how might society at large move towards a non-anthropocentric way of relating to animals, such as is seen in the work of Krõõt Juurak and Alex Bailey who have been performing for pets since 2014,

In Catacular, I see cats sitting and watching humans from a distance.  I also see cats sleeping, lying around, paw padding, and brushing up against humans or moving into closeness but not touching.  I see cats getting in close to look at the dancers, indicating a desire for pats, and gettin amongst the performance action.  So, who is performing for who in this work?  Are the dancers performing for the audience, are the cats performing for the humans, or are we humans all actors in a performance designed for and by the cats themselves?  We know that the model of spectatorship has traditionally occupied the distance between, where a hallmark space-between stage and audience indicates a theatrical performance, distancing observer/viewer from performer.  It is also common place to now conceive of performance participants as active agents, co-constituting the work.  Fischer-Lichte (2004) discusses the “feedback loop” between spectators and performers, defining a reciprocal relationship where the performance cannot exist without the spectators’ presence.  So, is the ‘starring’ gaze of cats in Catacular a performative gesture, a feminist statement perhaps, or something else altogether that can only be articulated by cats?

"I often ask myself, just to see, who I am - and who I am (following) at the moment when, caught naked, in silence, by the gaze of an animal, for example the eyes of a cat, I have trouble, yes, a bad time overcoming my embarrassment"
-Jacques Derrida

Cats are visual hunters, biologically wired for observing and watching. When we see a cat unblinkingly looking at a human from a distance in this choreographic work, is this a sign they are expressing interest in the performance or asserting their dominance?  I wonder if we paid more attention to their meows, purrs, tail waves, fluffing of fur, head butts, and ear positions, what might we learn about a cat range of expression and communication? 

Cup choreography
There is a traceable development of cup games in recent years, and a longer history of children’s games that harness rhythms, clapping, and the flipping and passing of cups.  The well-known “The cup song”  for example became popular after the film Pitch Perfect in 2012.  I read the final section of Catacular as a contemporary dance version of a cup game.  It opens (and ends) with Caitlin and Sarah simply sitting quietly side by side on the floor in front of a coffee table with all the cups lined up in front of them.  I imagine the hours spent developing this section together, the laughter, the frustration, the discoveries and billions of shared mistakes, and labour to get it perfect.  A tribute to the culture of cafés, or to BaristaCats specifically, Caitlin and Sarah move and flip and slide the many many cups and mugs creating complex patterns and rhythms with their colours, and snazzy moves.  It is mesmerizing.  I think of all the rehearsal time spent together developing this section, and Catacular at large, and how this would strengthen the intuitive resonance of their shared friendship.  There is such a welling of joyfulness felt in watching this cup choreography, and the work as a whole, invoking the satisfaction of simply being together doing fun things.  A sustainable joy driven choreographic process.

by val smith