In the back streets of Cardiff’s Roath, arthouse coffee shop and performance space Cardiff MADE is easily lost among the long rows of terraced Victorian houses typical of turn of the 19th Century. A search on GPS gets you to the corner and the window frontage shows a few tables and seats, a coffee bar, random cakes and a few artistic things on head-high shelves. There’s also a crowd of people struggling to get in to see the advertised performance in probably the smallest theatre in the world.
It’s an improbably impossible space, with a performance area as big as a small living room with about 10 loose seats arranged in the front and a standing space for the audience that is left to fend for itself at the back. People either squeeze in on the floor, get a lucky seat or bend their necks to catch what’s happening.
Introduced by the personable MC, Nick Russell, the evening opens with performance artist Rebecca Jayne Hammett drawing on paper while wearing an exoskeleton of metal helmet and wobbly wooden arms with crayons attached at the ends. Hammett motivates what seems to be an elemental monster to put its mark on the environment through shaky and fragile mandibles, while the creature staggers almost like a helpless baby on wobbly legs. It’s a strange spectacle, as if it were a primitive life form learning to explore its environment for the first time, learning to walk and inadvertently creating marks as it hits on what’s around it. Simple and unpretentious, the audience loudly claps its appreciation of something so unexpected and unusual.
Choreographer Eleanor Brown follows with Be Still, Wash Over Me Anew, a film and dance work that has been widely seen in Cardiff over the last year or two. For Cardiff Made, she packs five dancers into the tight space in front of her film of the seashore with a lonely dancer standing in the water, some kind of mermaid or Selkie spirit who embraces the air on her arms and water on her feet. Gentle and ethereal, the stillness of the film encourages the viewer to become at one with the physicality of the seashore and the faerie spirit in the water. Soon the live dancers turn, twist and lunge in empathy with the faerie, leaving mysterious trails of feminine vibrations on the scene. Seeing the piece so close up makes the audience feel as if it’s on the beach with the dancers, absorbing their spirit and energy as they move with the wind and water. At the end, another cheer resonates through the crowd.
After a short break, MC Nick Russell offers up four songs from his upcoming album Flight of Birds. With only a small electric piano and microphone on hand, Russell has a delicate and self-effacing approach to his material and seemed overly-modest in his performing manner. The singer seemed hesitant as if unfamiliar with his own songs of existential angst, but perhaps that’s part of his charm as it all comes on as heartfelt and sincere. Female members of the audience felt emboldened to shout out encouragement to the singer and the atmosphere seemed warm and happy.
Concluding the evening was an excerpt from Time Lapse, a new work from choreographer and dancer, Sarah Vaughan-Jones, composer German Bello and dancer Vicci Viles. A chopped up projection screen masks the front of the stage on which Vaughan-Jones performs an extended dance solo with a tight and muscular technique. Overlaying the solo is a projected film of rural roads, New York vignettes and a dance studio where a dancer, maybe Vaughan-Jones as a young student, goes through her paces. Vaughan-Jones eventually blends her live solo with the dancer on the screen, perhaps suggesting some kind of chase for a memory of her own quest to be a dancer. In one short scene, she continually throws jets of talcum powder through the dancer on the projection which is a perplexing image, but the smell of the powder reeks strongly in the audience’s noses. Dancer Viles enters casting rose petals around to make an entrance like an Isadora Duncan in Grecian mode. Viles is a beauteous and slender presence, nicely counterbalancing Vaughan-Jones’ more tough physicality and they give each other a contrasting framework on which to work out anxieties. The dance ends ambiguously with a high speed unwinding of the film and Vaughan-Jones reassembling a book which she has previously torn to pieces. The tight claustrophobic space both gives and takes away from the performance and it will be good to see it when it resurfaces at the Wales Dance Platform in June in the more spacious Chapter Theatre. She’s a choreographer to look out for, though she offers no easy answers in her work.