a weekend at Transform Leeds
Best way to start a festival - open space on a Saturday morning with a coffee and a conversation. Conversations about where people made their art, and why. Conversations about accessibility and what we mean by that. Conversations about the importance of community, about lack of and surplus space, about the challenges of negotiating access, about investment. Conversations about frustration with those who don't recognise the richness of what is already in the city. Not only in the centre, but at the edges, in unexpected places, among many different communities.
As a festival, TRANSFORM focuses on bringing international work to Leeds, and giving local makers a platform which is also a step up. Investing into new work, work unmade, investing in ideas. It identifies spaces to share work, to create a community, to talk and listen and discover and reflect.
Amy Letman, who curates (and creates) TRANSFORM in Leeds, says she doesn't work to themes, that they always emerge nevertheless. Hats off to the small TRANSFORM team who work tiredly to bring international work and to invest directly into the art and the artist. An invaluable platform for bold new work in the face of ever shrinking pots for experimentation. A beacon firmly planted in the north!
The first weekend of this year's incarnation was a series of provocations on power. It began, for us, with Luis Garay's DAIMÓN. It's a piece for one female performer, the Argentine Taekwondo artist Maia Chigioni. We entered to find her on a platform, a kind of boxing ring without ropes, already punching and kicking at an unseen opponent.
Her clothes were casual: sneakers, ripped jeans, a crop top and hair drawn into a brilliant long pony tail. Her attitude was anything but.
The piece was a demonstration of a body honed by practice, an exhibition of stamina, precision and strength. Despite that, it was also a kind of freedom: a series of performance instructions followed to allow every performance to be different, an evolution of the work.
The evolution we witnessed was a world premiere of a sort, since Chigioni broke her leg shortly before the piece was due to be shown for the first time, and was replaced by another athlete. The questions around performance, and its application to stage work and to sports, helped soften the boundaries of talent and discipline just as a sudden turn transformed the performer into her own opponent. This erasure of difference at the same time as drawing attention to it was possible only because of the studied intensity of the work, which was not made by the (male) artist on Chigioni's (female) body, but as a collaboration between them, exploring the relationship of her martial arts and kick-boxing training to language. It's what she describes as dynamic communication.
The same interest in the space between ideas we can name was in Motus' MDLSX as it dissolved ideas around binary gender, and in 70/30 Split's bYOB, inviting us into places between aggression and tenderness as it explored masculinities. It came in more challenging form in nora chipaumire's #PUNK, which replicates and twists stereotypes of the black body, turning the language of racism and colonisation back on its creators. A powerful hour in the presence of the future.
The works all reflect the challenges of contemporary identities, the compulsion to find a label we belong to, the struggle to shake off labels we find oppressive, the knowledge that value systems are learned and taught and reinforced.
Action Hero's OH EUROPA spoke to this too. A touring caravan collecting love songs of the people in Europe. It's a beautifully simple idea, lending a family singalong equality with a local musical legend. Their work -- collecting, mapping, remembering the songs -- goes on, but throughout the festival, they're sharing their experiences. Video from their journeys, carefully printed maps and books, songs to listen to ... and the challenge of cataloguing it all. How to describe usefully without imposing their own values? A remapping of Europe, a remapping of self, a remapping of perceptions.
A festival brunch on Sunday picked at these ideas, the hierarchies we adapt to and those we resist. Live performance can be a game of 'what if?' and these were pieces that invited us to redraw whole worlds and histories. Jamal Gerald's IDOL did that too, with the searingly honest story of responses to his skin, ritual and religion.
From all this, we were left thinking about balance. About strength and freedom, and space and community. Punk may have given us the Sex Pistols' "No Future", but now it's a historic part of American and European culture. We struggle to change the rules from inside the world we inherit, and even to understand them. We value the past through personal and communal histories, often focusing on their horrors, while repeating the divisions and selfishness which led to those horrors. If we are to stop history repeating itself, where next?
TRANSFORM seems like a great start.