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Earthly Delights

Based in Glasgow, Mhz are a dynamic, award-winning visual theatre team, comprised of Bex Anson and Dav Bernard, whose collaborations with dance artists are rich, thrilling and multilayered. They can never be second-guessed, having brought circus, clubland vibes and dancehall to festival, outdoor and theatre spaces. Previous work includes “Kid X,” “Liquid Sky” and the Total Theatre Award-winning “Void.”

Their new show “Ruins” is similarly ambitious in scope. Lorna Irvine caught up with them to find out more about the collaborative process, and how the strands weave together.

MHz's “Ruins.” Photograph by Brian Hartley

You're working with an exceptional team. Please tell me about them and the collaborative process.

Yes sure, we feel so excited and inspired by the team. Musician  Maria U Rossi known as “Cucina Povera” was the first artist we invited into the project, we were hypnotised and kinda obsessed by her music for a few year now. Originally from Finland, she has been living in Glasgow and part of the underground music scene until moving recently. Using her voice, synth and field recordings, Maria’s sculpts haunting and otherworldly compositions that oscillate between noise, vocal abstractions and strange ecclesiastical hymns; Her songs are often improvised and feel like stream of conscious postcards ruminating between the clash of nature and technical living. We find them achingly beautiful and have spent hours on hours getting lost inside her tracks, drawing worlds and birthing strange creatures, hahaha!

We have also been admiring (or fan-girling) our movement collaborators for a while now too. Suzi Cunningham for her ritualised and primal movements rooted in her extensive Butoh training and her transformative solo work, Phillip Alexander for his fluidity, athleticism and extensive dance experience with other companies (Paraorchestra (Bristol), Wendy Wheelman & Basil Twist project (NYC) and Joey Arias) and Rita for her arms, oh her wild arms, the way she fuses her waaking practice, battling and hip hop theatre training. Rita is also studying PHD in chemical engineering at Edinburgh Uni (swoon!).

For us all to find each other, we created a research dossier and invited a handful of Scottish based movement artists to a paid workshop/audition. The cube is only 3x3 meters and it you are totally immersed in a visual world. It can be quite disorientating. We invited them to respond to our research and create a human critter hybrid  alongside a Cucina Povera track. What was revealed was that we were excited at the prospect of not just one but three bodies connecting in the cube to shape shift between human and nonhuman lifeforms.

After years of working in theatre spaces and tied to their schedules, we luckily landed our own rehearsal space so our cube could stay up. We scheduled our rehearsals to give plenty of time to reflect and work on visuals worlds in reposes to movement and vice verse. This allowed us to rely more on intuition and improvisation rather than planning in the way we perform: eg the lighting is operated live with no cues to enable the performers to move around the space in the moment and imagery created with real-time hand drawn techniques, and blending for the art forms of lighting, projection and shadow play. Devising with the body and technology concurrently from the first rehearsals, the effects it has on performers as they are fully immersed and become in a trance like state in the cube.

Other methodology-specific themes like collaborative devising and working with impulse, gesture and imagination inspired by Anton Chekov technique, as well as creating inner landscapes inspired by Suzi’s Butoh practice in response to Haraway's writings.

I guess we were collaging our movement, ideas and visuals scores at the same time which felt important. a kind of osmosis, learning by proxy together, naturally absorbing ideas, knowledge and technical wizardry through exposure to each other. a kind of unconscious assimilation. Haha!

The in-between times was spent with our dramaturg Lou Cope, who helped us structure our themes and build an emotive score as things started to emerge out of our material. Jack Webb joined us to help shape the choreographic language as well as our long term costume maker and  collaborator SaeHee Simmons who offered us materials to pupate and squirm in. Musician and sound designer Jamie Grier brought us some extra synth soundscapes and Womp and, of course we can’t forget our brilliant long term producers Jill and Kat from Feral.

MHz's “Ruins.” Photograph by Brian Hartley

“Ruins” explores complex themes about climate and human resilience. How is dance instrumental in exploring and embodying such themes?

Our piece is loosely inspired from Haraway's theories around ways our era will confront its arrogance and superiority and humbly make kin with the biological critters coming from under ground [“critters” refers promiscuously to microbes, plants, animals, humans and nonhumans, and sometimes even to machines]. Her book Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene encourages us to engage with the challenges of the present, rather than seeking nostalgic purity.

If the world is in ruins how do we live in ruins well together? It is these shared spaces or haunted landscapes that will allow us to have different ways of perceiving, becoming, living, and dying together. Haraway invites us  to create new stories or speculative fabulations that embrace an “on-goingness” that shake off the “techno fixes” and “game over“ attitude. Inviting us into a messy, monstrous beauty that celebrates the complexity and imperfection of the Anthropocene.

Her dense but poetic theories danced off the page and landed with us physically. We wanted to build visual worlds around her ideas that explored the sensual and corporal manifestations of multi-species sympoiesis (human + non human hybrids), the physical metaphors of string figure “cats cradle” games as a mode of moving and embrace a way of making in the studio that is led with feeling and intuition rather than intellect which she calls tentacular thinking. Through the body we can embody states that  embrace notions of isolation, grief and vitality, experiment with movement that plays with the ideas of re-composition and assemblage as group ensemble work.

We asked ourselves do we need to become inhuman to find humaity. Do you need to go to your lowest point to begin growth?

The body is better placed to help us think and feel. Becoming more critter lets us metamorphosize, loop around and through each other, forge extreme collaborations and adapt. Our metaphor is about joining together in a tangle of threads and tendrils emphasizing the interconnectedness of humans, machines and environment.

MHz's “Ruins.” Photograph by Brian Hartley

Obviously, your work is highly visual. What can the audience expect to see, in terms of scenography?

A shape-shifting Illusion—we hope that the audience won't be able to make up what they are looking at. We've been working with multi layered projection, shadows, home-made lighting and live control of all these elements to accompany the bodies' explorations in dynamic ways that are closer to Vjing/Light Busking (standard to clubs and live music, where Dav developed his style) and we're hoping to re-create this tension on stage to present a combination of movement and imagery that feels truly alive and mutated.

The image making process has been largely led by movement techniques and inspired by action painting and surrealist cut up processes—applied to basic digital tools like scanners and drawing programs.It's quite low tech, really—but we've spent a lot of time to figure out the relationship between the image and the performers, how they can blend but the bodies always retains the central focus in the composition, and the imagery can accompany this as fluidly as possible.

With the anarchic nature of the compost as an inspiration, de-constructing and messing up the technology as much as possible seemed a fitting process. (Oh, and it's all taking place inside a cube.)

Describe “Ruins” in five words only.

Hypnotic, chaotic, ecstatic, subterranean, alive.

“Ruins” is at Cumbernauld Theatre on Feb 2nd, before the performance as part of Manipulate Festival on February 11th at Edinburgh Festival Theatre.

Lorna Irvine


Based in Glasgow, Lorna was delightfully corrupted by the work of Michael Clark in her early teens, and has never looked back. Passionate about dance, music, and theatre she writes regularly for the List, Across the Arts and Exeunt. She also wrote on dance, drama and whatever particular obsession she had that week for the Shimmy, the Skinny and TLG and has contributed to Mslexia, TYCI and the Vile Blog.

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