Making Roots

For a while, a few years now I have had the privilege of being able to visit some of the places where my ancestors came from, and where my parents grew up. As a white English woman I was perhaps late in life to identify as a second generation migrant, after all, three of my grandparents lived in England. Yet when I submitted a script of a play I’d written about my family (a very different play) in 2009 to the writers’ department of Soho Theatre, the feedback I received was to make more of my cultural background, and to connect with the diaspora of my people. This was not what I had expected, however I realised that a few lines had been misinterpreted as indicating my perceived Jewishness. It was an eye-opener that served to illuminate further to me how unusual my background was, and also to be aware of how I may be read so that I could then be more in control of that.

I had lots of research to do on the places and people I actually come from, and various pieces of the story emerged at different times. Some were already known to me. In 2008 I can’t remember why I decided to start reading the memoirs of my maternal grandfather (known as Gramp), and as well to type some of them up so that we would have a digital copy. The copy we already had was faintly typed on very thin, yellowing East German paper. We’d had it for years, since my childhood and for some reason as I approached my 31st birthday I gained an interest in the papers. Gramp was still alive and nearing his 97th.  Then suddenly a few months later, out of the blue he died, and we travelled to Berlin for his funeral. It amazed me that he’d died just as I was getting interested in his story – which was long and I had only tackled a small part of it. Well, he had been very frail for years, in fact I had visited him 10 years before in 1998, sent by my Mother to be her ambassador as she was too unwell to visit him. On that occasion it took him a while to determine who I was. Hearing my voice he asked in his American accent, “Are you from London?”

His memoirs cover most of his life, from birth including what he knew of his ancestors, up until his early 70s when with long hours alone he wrote them. There were passages which did not really interest me, but then it was like striking gold when a cluster of paragraphs stood out describing childhood scenes on a farm, or being on the run from conservative agencies during the McCarthy era. It was fascinating social history and information about some of the forces that even shaped my life. Unfortunately my pursuit of the long typing needed faltered and I only recorded a few sections that year, but nevertheless I knew the material was waiting and my appetite had been whet.

Pictures of Moletai in May 2018

Last year my partner Steve and I visited Lithuania, and spent time in the town which had been a village, where one of my great grandmothers came from. Moletai (pronounced Molyati) had been about 85% Jewish in those days, including this branch of my family at the turn of the last century. We have no family or connections there now, as my family left in 1911. The fear of pogroms was very real, and Jews who did stay were rounded up the following year by the Soviets. Some were later freed, but in years to come the situation worsened, culminating in the Nazis finishing off all Jews in the area in 1941. I had not known all this prior to visiting, however the town is blessed with a cultural centre and local history books tell the people’s story.


Rivkah Notlevich in Lithuania, 1908

There were old photographs which reminded me of the style of photograph we have of Rivkah, my great grandmother. There was also a letter printed, by a man bearing Rivkah’s same surname, albeit with one letter different. She was née Rivkah Notlevich, and he was Yudel Nutlevich; and I thought having seen all the graves inscribed with Hebrew, that there may easily have been inconsistencies in translation, also from Russian/Lithuanian. Yudel wrote shortly before he was to be shot in 1941, and entrusted the letter addressed to his family with a Christian neighbour. To say it moved me is an understatement. It described how everyone they knew had been murdered, he himself had hidden for 16 weeks in a pit before being found.

“This is my last letter, one of farewell, I am writing to you from prison, condemned to death. Barbaric murderers have condemned me, a victim who is innocent of any crime. Thousands and thousands of people have perished. The blood of those slain will not be silenced. It hurts to leave this wonderful world… you won’t know where our bodies will end up.”

Imagining him as a distant relative I suddenly felt connected with a deep lost strand of my history, and for the first time in my life felt some Jewish identity, or rather it weighed on me what that could be like. Rivkah herself was not interested in religion, instead politics drew her and she became a committed socialist from an early age, whilst in Lithuania. Judaism was not passed on by her as she married out and only had sons.


Jewish cemetery at Moletai

There were many memorials to the thousands of Jews killed and I learnt just how large an area they had been eradicated from, throughout many parts of Eastern Europe. I have always felt critical of Israel’s anti-Palestinian policy and still do, but a change occured in how I felt like approaching the subject. I was overcome with compassion as I understood to what extent Jews had lost their lives and homes in several countries, and it would have been very difficult for them to feel safe.

Rivkah’s family eventually settled in Johannesburg, South Africa which I have not been able to visit yet. It is high on my list as there are many places there I would like to go to as that’s where my Dad was born, and his Father’s family had had a presence there for almost 200 years. A missionary called Jabez set out to preach Methodism, and a mission named after him – Old Bunting, later Buntingville – was established in 1830 on the Eastern Cape of South Africa. This character was known to me by a plaque unveiling I attended as a child, in a square in Angel, London where he’d lived, as well as a severe if smiling portrait of him at my grandparents’ and later my parents’ house. A further detail was revealed when during an English A Level class his name appeared in the introduction to Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights! A strict and unkind priest was based on him.

As if to redeem the family from this authoritarian presence, some generations later when the family had already become more liberal, his great grandson called Sidney went a few steps further, and became a radical black rights activist and politician in South Africa during the 1920s. He succeeded in shifting the South African Communist Party’s policy and focus to being led by black South Africans (it had been all white and not keen to embrace the native population), however this was an extremely tough battle which ultimately cost him his career; life even. It is a sad story yet Allison Drew’s ‘Between Empire and Revolution‘  beautifully shines a light on all aspects of his life and tells the whole story in detail. This book had been in my possession since my Dad gifted me it when it was published, though I only read all of it last year when my trip to Lithuania ignited my interest in any information about Rivkah – who became Rebecca. The only documents about her relate to her husband, Sidney and there were a few sections that were pertinent in the book, as well as in Sidney’s ‘Letters to Rebecca‘, which also includes one letter by her. Theirs was a most extraordinary and inspiring tale, and I feel enormous pride when I think of Sidney and Rivkah.

The Roots play follows the stories of Rivkah and Sidney from my Father’s family, and of John and Mary who were my maternal grandparents. All the sources of writing were fascinating, it is just unfortunate that neither woman left writing in her own right. That is only partly because of the time they were in; with Sidney and Rivkah it is true that women at that time and place were not in such prominent positions yet. For John and Mary however in the socialist world a generation later, she had just as many if not more opportunities than him, career-wise. It was rather that he lived longer and was more alone in those years so had time to record his memories. I think he also had more reason to, since his journey was more dramatic, living in exile from the age of 37. Without his words, his descendents would not have knowledge of their ancestral past, since the cold war climate had separated us long ago from his living family in America.

Mary was an artist and fashion designer when she moved back to London, and left many embroideries, tapestries, drawings, clothes and jewellery. Reading between the lines and sometimes directly from Gramp’s memoirs, as well as what I remember of her, I identify a great deal with Mary’s vitality, creativity and strong spirit of independence. She was also a socialist feminist! It therefore seems odd perhaps that she doesn’t have her own voice in the play, unlike Rivkah whom I had penned a monologue for shortly after my visit to Lithuania. Writing the play was partly piecing together sections of text I’d written and collated over several years in fact, and rereading all the letters. There may be unfinished business, but in a way, my own voice may be closest to Mary’s which may account for the absence.

Coincidentally both families partly moved to London in 1963, to the same unique part of Highgate – Holly Lodge Estate. It is through this connection that my parents met, and I believe that the stories contained in the play may partly explain their attraction; on some level recognising shared and unusual family pasts of extreme left dimensions and political persecution. It is also true that both my parents, coming from these activist origins, did not feel drawn to continue such a path. Growing up in families where politics may have been more important than family, and where you’re on the losing side even if righteous, may sometimes be a strong antidote to choosing that oneself.

Presenting the play with my usual life drawing formula was a stretch with subject matter not remotely relating. I used some costumes but also opted for nudity quite a lot. It is my natural medium, however a few audience members rejected the approach as inappropriate. Others appreciated the art interpretation, and perhaps that my own passion for nude liberation is in some way borne of this earlier family idealism. The life drawing did also fit well with much of the text being audio based; static tableaux could be drawn whilst the audience listened.

I performed most of the show solo, and as well for a few scenes invited friends and audience members to join in whether nude or not to create group tableaux. It was very helpful to have a man posing to represent my Grandfather, whilst at other times scenes were illustrated by enactments of famous paintings from the time. We recreated ‘American Gothic‘, and I posed alongside works by Chagall and Popova.

During the first scene, about Rivka’s life in Moletai, I played a video I had made there of myself performing a menstrual ritual in one of the nearby lakes. Pouring my own blood into the water of my once Motherland was a way to connect with a place now lost to us. This practice has been part of my work for a few years, such as a time I was on the trail of a Grandmother not included in this show, when she lived in Tanzania.

Finding the voices for the male characters didn’t come straight off. I was fairly quick to pick up on Dad making an excellent Sidney, but the American voice was harder. I searched and people answered, but I wanted personal connection, feeling a little precious of my project. There were a couple of guys who nearly did it, then didn’t, and as time was running out I wasn’t sure what to do. At short notice I asked my brother, and to my very pleasant relief he came good and we discovered a previously unknown (to me) talent! Recordings were crafted and I selected music to add in the mix. Steve kindly created these with great care and fine tuning. I fell in love with those recordings! Like a movie soundtrack or a radio play I wanted to keep listening to. Which was lucky as I had to rehearse fast and the lines weren’t coming quick enough.

I had overstretched myself and foolishly gotten Steve booked for another gig the same evening as my first performance. So I was on my own and this was a very technical show – projector, sound and visuals to coordinate with live action cues. I was a bit stuck but luckily my friend Anastasia agreed to help. She was at first unkeen, being unfamiliar with these things, but I was desperate and the main thing was having a mate there. On the night it was a bit chaotic, but we did it and had an amazing audience. The show was part of a festival of events and an exhibition called ‘We Grow into the Forest‘, as curated and organised by my friend Judit.

For the second performance at Telegraph Hill Festival, it was a smoother flow and it was great to have the opportunity to see that version of the play grow through the duration. I think there is much I would like to add to it, from the voices already included but also more about the women, and other characters and narratives that didn’t make this cut.

Why Roots now?

Judit asked me about a year ago to make a life model based performance and workshop for this event. I had suggested myself as the model since it was unknown if there would be funding, and besides I have a few images of myself with trees, or nude in natural surroundings, which related to the theme of trees and nature that ‘We Grow into the Forest’ was about.

When we returned from Lithuania in late May last year, Mum was in hospital and died ten days later. This shook my world, our family’s world, and grief is a long unfolding. While this is still so raw, and in fact she has been the subject of much of my art over the years, it felt easier to go back further into the past this time and untangle some of the knots. I mean, on the one hand Mum has been very much on my mind and with me these last months, but on the other I am not ready to make her the subject directly again.

I have learnt a lot from this gathering of information and still there is much more to do.

Here is an audio version of the Roots play.

Oreet Ashery’s ‘Party For Freedom’ ~ nude art performance

film still

film still

I went to a show that was billed as containing full nudity and sexual content, it was at The Asylum in Peckham. An old stone chapel of a mental hospital creates excellent atmosphere with evening sun pouring through high windows. Audience could sit on scattered seats, benches or rugs and were told the action would move, so they could too. Beer and mojitos flowed from a mobile bar.

Once settled the party began. A crew of white clad folk (three men and four women) strode in distributing props, assembling apparatus. Some of the clan wore a grey uniform instead. It was not long before one by one they started to undress, apart from one of their number. Clothes were neatly folded and hidden or bestowed upon audience members to look after. A camera was passed around the audience and we were told it was the only means by which we could photograph the event.

Film and narrative, prepared by Oreet Ashery, were apparently loosely based on Vladimir Mayakovsky’s 1918 play Mystery-Bouffe, and explore performances of liberation and political nakedness. It responds to the changing landscape of Dutch politics following the assassinations of Dutch politician Pim Fortuyn in 2001 and film director Theo van Gogh in 2004, and the ensuing popularity of Geert Wilders, the Dutch politician and leader of the far-right Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom).

Pieces of film rolled on a screen. Naturists frolicking outdoors on a trampoline and other oddities accompanied by audio description of government position on nudity in different countries, how it is treated in the law etc from what sounded like archive recordings, BBC kind of voice. It was not always easy to hear the narrative and the images were quite a roughly edited assemblage of old clips and actions filmed specifically for the show. They added to the atmosphere though and gave an effective backdrop to the semi-improvised feel of the performances.

The performers (most of whom were graduates of performance theatre courses and had been assembled for this show) randomly paired or grouped to move and make noises together. Each body was of course different, though all fit, young, toned; what you might expect of dancers. I imagined them all living together in a commune, but it was just the effect of rehearsing intensely, intimately. It was surreal, the nudity and not knowing what would come next intoxicating. I waited for the sexual, was turned on by women doing press ups nude, and the closest they got was a couple writhing albeit in a contact movement kind of way. Nevertheless I found the whole show a turn on as it pushed a boundary of what we are used to, and in a most sincere and simultaneously bonkers way! The performers moved gracefully, with a confident physicality, each quite unique apart from the others, and all as a group. They occupied a dinghy in the middle of the space, tumbling over each other in a mixture of control and abandon. We didn’t know what to expect when they heralded us onlookers to undress too, but a few of us went with it. A commentator with a megaphone informed us by the second which items of clothing were being removed around the room. Hilarity! Shoes were thrown to the centre of the space, and the first member of the audience stripped was applauded! We wondered if more interactivity was on the cards, it felt as if anything could happen, and that was the magic!

daygloface_0

As for how the show explores currencies of perceived threats to Western freedom… I had to think about this. The nudity with movement and dancing was not Western in style, more Dada than Gaga. But the openness of the performers which would be forbidden in some other cultures, is possible in our society. Are we collectively afraid of getting nekkid? Does the idea actually really excite us? If we lost our right to nudity, how much would we lose? Looking into the political backdrop of the happening, it is about artists and politicians taken against Islam, speaking openly about it, in Theo Van Gogh’s case making a film criticising Islam’s treatment of women. Assassinations ensued. So this fear, of loss of freedom led to a racist mentality.

Further performances are planned over the coming weeks at venues to be decided. After the show the audience mingled with the performers and the director and there was a great sense of mutual experience. It made me want to get out there performing on a stage with movement and in the company of others…

About Party For Freedom – including a link to further performances

‘The Famous Lauren Barri Holstein’ reviewed by a male life model, and Esther

I’m a big fan of performance art. Truth be told much of it is dull, some of it is interesting and a few performances are inspirational. The main thing is that it is never predictable. It usually involves a degree of exceptional self exposure by the artist/performer – either physically or emotionally. It requires an open mind to enjoy it and it pays to be non-judgemental. Nudity has become an important part of performance art with a lot of artists using the human body to make a statement or using it as a canvas for their performance.

Esther and I went to see the “Famous Lauren Barri Holstein” performance at the Barbican Silk St Theatre on 4th April.

As life models we were intrigued by the prospect of her physical performance.

The fact that she uses the word “Famous” in her title perhaps tells you something about Lauren’s persona. Shy and retiring, no. Enjoys attention, yes.

I’d seen some of her work on Vimeo and thought it was going to be exciting and worth watching so there we were…

The performance consisted of four or five set pieces, rather like a cabaret with song and dance a key element.

The style of her performance is dead pan but also crazy. Standing in her underwear with a knife held at her crotch slicing small balloons with red paint exploding from them, hanging upside down from the ceiling while singing, fairy tales with orgies, wandering around the stage dressed as a naked deer, and inserting dildos into her vagina. Ballads and dance music performed naked in a trapeze – it was all there. Near the end she was joined by a group of twenty or so dancers, in various states of undress for a group dance culminating in a vast number of toilet rolls being thrown onto the stage while Lauren was dragged sideways across the stage – you have to see it for it to make sense ! The whole performance was a feast for the eyes. The packed house clearly enjoyed it.

The message seemed to be part self-expression – “I am a woman and proud of my body” while also exploring the surreal and crazy elements of human life. It was enjoyable to see a woman explore her creativity so indulgently and clearly having no inhibitions….

As a life model it made me think that our passive role is rather tame and how nice it would be to be involved in performance where nudity is integral to the performance, not gratuitous but striking nonetheless. The unpredictable nature of the performance was also refreshing – compared to the formula of the life drawing class – five short poses and then a long pose etc. Imagine a female life model posing with a dildo … or a male with an erection…. That would be a change … may not be on the cards but it is good to see radical performance art alive and well on the London stage.

Esther says:

I liked the way she was simultaneously sending up porn, reclaiming a porn aesthetic, funny, thought provoking, very confident physically and performatively, and sexy. She was also kind of ground breaking for the context of her piece in a mainstream establishment. Beautiful and moving, the cheesy power ballads (Leona Lewis’ Happy was one) worked in this show.

Her vagina was explicit, and she controlled what went in and came out of it, in this case fake blood, dildos, plus she urinated on the stage and on a fellow performer (apparently one of her set pieces I gleaned from her interview on Woman’s Hour). The show was messy though well tidied up as it went along, by all her helpers. That was one of the points, that real life is blood, piss, cum etc; it’s time to give up being so precious perhaps. This show made us so aware how we all hold back so much of the time from expressing our truest selves, because of fear and society. Blessedly Lauren does not hold back and this makes for outstanding and truly inspiring theatre. We see her having so much fun whilst working really hard (pushed to her physical limits) with friends (my assumption of her fellow performers) close to her. She is having her cake and eating it.

Naturally there is a strong feminist element to this show and Lauren’s work in general. In the blurb it states that she has been doing ‘vagina based work since 2009’. One of the skits involved a bikini clad babe practising dying theatrically. She was instructed to do it in various styles; like Rhianna with her violent ex, in the zoo, sexier and more exaggerated. Each time the death throes became more like sexually explicit movements and thrusts.

When spurting fake blood from her vagina, Lauren aimed in the mouth of the same bikini’d woman who was on the floor, then kissed it off her. Throughout such sequences Lauren peppers them with ad hoc deadpan remarks like, “Oh no we ran out of ballons” to break the mood, followed by ordering about her minions, kind of sending up the diva mentality and showing female power in quite a bitchy way. She made us laugh as she rained rude and dismissive remarks on her tribe, but we knew it was in jest.

To balance the more extreme visual antics, she also did a beautiful solo ballet routine, with point work. It took me a while to realise it was the same performer as the Lauren covered in blood, wearing an animal head, dangling from a rope naked and opening her vagina for us!

On the body image front, the troop of dancers for the finale were all shapes and sizes, though generally young. They appeared from nowhere, some nude, others with a pair of pants etc, what a joy to behold.

all images of Lauren Barri Holstein found on the internet

all images of Lauren Barri Holstein found on the internet

red shoes are a motif

red shoes are a motif

fake gore

fake gore

beside the cauldron of tomatoes - tomatoes came to symbolise vaginas in the show, and were casually expendable as she sliced and threw them one by one into the pot

beside the cauldron of tomatoes – tomatoes came to symbolise vaginas in the show, and were casually expendable as she sliced and threw them one by one into the pot

1st & Second Skin with ‘Quills’

It was a thrill to see Andy and Nika as Marquis de Sade and his last love Madeleine during his dying days in a lunatic asylum. The Marquis can’t help his debauched imagination and the need to communicate his sordid tales to as wide an audience as possible. Upsetting the chief doctor and the priest who determine to silence him, he is relinquished of his clothes, his wine, bedsheets and finally he is separated from his hands, tongue and cock. You see they would discover his manuscripts which were exceedingly popular, and so they removed his quills and ink so that he might write no more.

Undeterred, even spurred on in his role to push limits, he used his own faeces and blood on the sheets, vestiments and walls. His fans – fellow inmates and the servant girl Madeleine, aided him in transmitting the obscene messages, but being mental, the chinese whispers passing of words caused more than a stir. One deliverer acted literally on the violent intent conveyed, and such was Madeleine’s sad demise. But in this tale some karma is realised in death as both Marquis and Madeleine return to haunt and taunt those who judged them, and of course to flirt as well! The nature of human desire is unpicked, and the tendency to judge where not we have ourselves inquired fully. The doctor and the priest are revealed as hypocrits, in particular the priest getting to know his inner sadist as the punishments advanced.

A sense of destiny is strong on several levels with this performance. Punishing the Marquis teaches the pain givers new lessons their censorship would otherwise lack. It is said more than once that this particular lunatic is running the asylum – and his genius has been misunderstood by those in authority. That artists’ and writers’ words of magnitude do live beyond the grave as the play certifies. That while the greatest imagination may conjure the realities of some powerful/elite/sorry few (i.e. e.g. paedophiles and their victims which are a theme in this show), it also resonates with widespread human desire/lust which although unrealised in many cases (depicted especially through the virginal Madeleine here and even with the Marquis himself) needs to be allowed expression, purely for its rightful place in the imagination. To limit the artist’s mind is a crime; the troubled feelings/ideas set alight in another’s head/heart are not the artist’s responsibility.

To see Andy perform this role felt so apt. Though stepping in at last minute, having to leave temporarily his position of director while sudden line learning was thrust upon him, it appeared from an old friend’s view point as a call of destiny. I cannot imagine another better suited to the role, knowing Andy as I do. For what he has always stood for and stood by, even before I i knew him as an actor, it fitted him perfectly and brought him to act opposite his real life love Nika for the first time in years.

Andy was literally stripped bare on the tiny stage before us, for daring to uphold the boldest most revolutionary ideas, and his character bore this apparent humiliation with amazing grace and charm, ennobling him further. In fact I found him gain in confidence and power as he strode and strutted nude before us, just a metre or so from the front row. Intoxicating lines well crafted by Doug Wright and uttered from the heart did mesmerise. I thought, ‘he could do anything now!’ and I believe he will. It is wonderful to watch friends flourish and bloom. I will add that the whole cast and production are spectacular; the passion is evident.

http://secondskintheatre.com/pages/

http://secondskintheatre.com/pages/?page_id=17

Still Life in Brighton

Henrietta Moraes

Henrietta Moraes (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Photograph of Henrietta Moraes

Photograph of Henrietta Moraes (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Henrietta Moraes

Henrietta Moraes (Photo credit: Wikipedia) by Bacon

Sue MacClaine wrote her one woman show ‘Still Life’ about a life model of the ’50s called Henrietta Moraes. She performs it and poses while the audience draws. We went to Brighton on Sunday to see her.

Moraes’ world is a basket of name-drop; she dined with Francis Bacon and posed for him regularly, knew Lucien Freud and was Maggi Hambling‘s lover until she died. She wrote as well as taking her life modelling very seriously, fitted a few kids in, worked as a cat burglar, caravanned across Wales and Ireland in the ’60s with hippies and drank copiously. Like other alcoholic artists she tended to maudlin lament then startled with insane fiery presence. I thought MacClaine caught particularly well the in-the-moment quality of a psychedelic trip; the sense of continually re-arriving at the same point as it is pushed into our vision relentlessly. This worked with our need to keep Looking at her and really looking as we simultaneously drew. She wasn’t a mechanical model which is what I have found off-putting about the usual life drawing class; she was running the show and poses became infused with personality as we got taken on her trip.

She broke up the flow not always timing herself, sipping wine which convincingly loosened her, wandered into the audience, staring into our eyes. It was the relationship between watcher and watched reassessed and I loved being on the other side. Philip Herbert a life model and actor of today has his own one man show which is biographical, ‘Naked Splendour’ with its own essence being very much himself. I love that too. It’s good to see what others do to remind me how I am different and where our themes naturally overlap. I am going to return imminently to my own life drawing play.