Julie Cunningham ‘fire bird’ – review

Words by Katie Hagan.

Nothing felt more appropriate than watching Julie Cunningham’s fire bird on Brexit-day night. Where clouds and grief hung in the air for many, others celebrated the coming of something that really belonged in the past. Cunningham’s piece, for 45 minutes, led us back to what it means to be human, to ‘be’ together in a space. It truly brought shelter from the rain.

First, its staging. The Yard’s brick wall caked in white paint is the backdrop of our scene. Stage right and suspended on its surface is a variation on Malevich’s Black Square, perhaps connoting something about our ‘time’. A pair of pastel green high-top trainers are at the wall’s base beneath the square, minute in comparison with everything else. Red threads are strung across the stage like laser beams stopped in time. It’s understated, incidental, and serving some kind of purpose for Cunningham’s play.

A figure (Cunningham) emerges at the back of stage left, moving across stealthily. Sometimes shifting cautiously, sometimes not, cat-like Cunningham does a full plie/box split with a face full of brick, experimenting with the texture and sound of clothing against the tactile surface.

After experimenting with the wall, Cunningham comes into the centre, where the Cunningham technique comes into full force. Rhythmically, Cunningham (Julie not Merce) conforms and then spins off Stravinsky’s score and Merce’s technique, contorting the torso, extending the arms and legs. There are variations on a fourth position; wide-legged and often with the torso twisted to the back. There are lots of clean, anti-turned-out arabesques and flat-footed turns.

Julie then interacts with the red strings, placing weight on them wherever they intersect to test the body’s weight. Queer music icon, JD Samson, pops up on the Black-Square-cum-TV-screen, mimicking the music whilst taking bites from what seems to be quite a bitter apple. Clearly influenced by this sketch, Cunningham picks up a microphone and sings softly, wistfully; then dazedly, half-heartedly floss dances into a full plie. As with most of the unpredictable events in fire bird, this was one example of Cunningham’s movement morphing into something completely unexpected. The fluidity and discretion of Cunningham’s fusions are woven beautifully.

The fire bird’s charming incongruencies give it a distinct taste which I couldn’t help but yearn for more of. There are moments where Cunningham just stands, engrossed and thinking about whatever is in their mind. We are absorbed in these moments; piecing things together, reading objects, extending limbs (figuratively), listening to the music altogether in the same space. Every movement felt like a discovery and an affirmation of what feels right.

As Stravinsky’s score reaches its climax, like a sparrow that cries “I am an EAGLE!” Cunningham faces the audience, conducting her way to resolution. The fire bird can generate all manner of interpretations, but for me it felt like dancing, being, moving in its purest form, stripped of illusion and full to the brim with the peculiarities of human experience. Humorous and touching, its delights are dolphin-like. By god do we need this type of art right now.

Image: Christa Holka.