Sadler’s Wells Theatre
Reviewed – 25th June 2021
“Everything is carefully designed to overturn any preconceived ideas”
Christopher Matthews’ curation of Wild Card: my body’s an exhibition is a medley of sensory experiences that begins the moment you step into the lobby at the Sadler’s Wells Theatre. You quickly find that you have been invited, not so much to a dance performance, but a series of carefully curated events in which you, the audience, are performers as well. The act of self-guiding yourself through the entire theatre, including backstage, with the assistance of some friendly signage, purple balloons, and the staff of Sadler’s Wells, becomes an act of performance. But this perspective is just the easiest way of accessing the show. Christopher Matthews specializes in the art of queering, and in their own words, characterize the show as “a dialogue between performer and viewer and those roles are not stable. At times flipping the experience of the audience from being the spectator to being on display for the objects themselves, [is] in a sense queering the theatre or theatrical experience.” In the notes accompanying the show, Matthews is quick to explain that they have no judgement on whether a person is ‘queer enough’. “Queer is about openness, and relies more on questions than definitions.” You are warmly invited to share, and to be part of, this queer performance.
As you move through the exhibition there is irony around every corner. Everything is carefully designed to overturn any preconceived ideas. Disembodied limbs are reassembled into randomly placed collages. Polaroids are encountered, tucked coyly into stairwells. Tiny stickers, with tiny print, instruct you to push or pull on the door in front of you. You walk up and down a lot of stairs, with friendly messages inviting you to continue, “hun”. Choices have to be made about when (and where, and for how long) to sit. Mirrors are encountered which serve to guide, confront, and yes, block your passage. (It would be unsafe for you to continue.) And mirrors are also where you have to confront the reality of your body (not the dancer’s ideal). But this experience is also fun. There are disco lights and music and darkness to soften the sharp realizations, and Matthews’ own words to reassure. Because Wild Card: my body’s an exhibition is also autobiographical. The artist is describing their own journey— from feelings of rejection because they failed to meet the dance world’s uncompromising assessment of what a dancer should look like—to a conscious creation of art that takes this judgement and turns it on its head.
But of course, the walk through the Sadlers Wells Theatre is just the warm up. Further investigations reveal that Matthews has taken the title for this show from a lyric in Janet Jackson’s song Feedback (2008) “my body’s an exhibition, baby”. There are a lot of pop culture/club culture echoes in this show. Matthews has brought together a truly diverse group of people, some dancers, some not, and each piece in Wild Card reveals something of their queering process. Particularly noteworthy is the work of Fenia Kotsopoulou who plays with the “normative codes of the feminine” in Purple Dance (in the Foyer) and Self Portrait: Deviant. Their filmwork plays with the normative codes of performance, as well. In “Self Portrait:Deviant” it is the camera that does the dancing around the dancer. As spectators we are drawn into a complex multiplicity of perspectives that don’t just challenge what we see, but how we gaze. For Songhay Toldon, to take another example, the performances are about nostalgia and joy—memories of club dancing to a techno beat. In the exhibits featuring live performance, we encounter comparisons—in my body’s no.1, are these two dancers so different from one another? (It turns out that the plinths each is standing on in the vast open space behind the curtain at Sadlers’ Wells, plays subtly with perspective. They are closer in height than it appears.) Art versus sport? Not for Matthews. Two Adidas clad athletes create their own dance that uses technology and social media (via Instagram) to create a work that is constantly changing and never ending.
There are twenty four installations in Wild Card: my body’s an exhibition, and a constant stream of sensory input as you move from one to another. If I have one criticism of this show, it is that there is too much to take in, really, in just one viewing. (Matthews also comments on the part his ADHD has played in his work, and people familiar with that perspective on life will feel right at home here.) But others may find themselves wishing they could return to it over and over again, much like visiting a museum. Then again, perhaps the point of this show is to capture a particular moment in time—a dance history, if you like—while waiting to see what Christopher Matthews produces next. Recommended.
Reviewed by Dominica Plummer
Photograph – Myrid Carten (Ireland) for Christopher Matthews’ Wild Card
Sadler’s Wells Theatre until 26th June
Other shows reviewed by Dominica this year: