St Leonard’s Church, intersecting Shoreditch and Hackney, appears to be an awkward island of Georgian England in a sea of proto-gentrification. Round the back, however, is another story. Here the chic shops peter out, the grimy buildings give way to red-brick grandeur. The church garden blooms. This was the perfect starting place for Egle Budvytyte’s Choreography for the Running Male, a promenade performance that will take us through patchwork environs of the city.
As we hang around, a squad of six men stride out of the church garden. Dressed in grey running attire, conspicuous by its emphatic inconspicuousness, they promptly jog up Boundary Street. Fortunately it is easy to follow their regimented pace. The men halt at the entrance of a side alley to enact an exaggerated warm-up routine, shrugging shoulders and rotating heads as if tugged at by invisible strings. Throughout their march across Hackney, they intermittently pause to perform these strange and exaggerated gestures. Budvytyte’s Lithuania was part of the Soviet bloc, and the piece references state-social control of the body.
From the beautiful, sun-dappled crown of Arnold Circus we stream into Hackney. From atop this grand, leafy arena, the implacable rhythm of the men is only more eerie and alien. There is a neat comparison here with the festival’s opening performance, Shapes of States, which examines a similar theme with a Western industrialist slant. Both are circumspect about the continued influence of these practices in today’s world. Much as Nyberg’s piece forebodes a totalitarian, all-encompassing control of the body, so too does Choreography for a Running Male seem to also parody our modern obsession with the fitness regimen.
Onward we go into the back-end of suburbia, winding into side-roads and back-alleys, under the puzzled onlookers’ gaze. Budvytyte’s piece might reference the USSR, but it reveals how our own spaces and places are no less defined by social convention. Alone, these men might seem quite normal – or at most acceptably eccentric. In unison, they become unnatural and begin to disrupt the usual rhythm of a Sunday afternoon. Only in the concrete backyards and courtyards, drab and grey non-spaces, do the men seem familiar.
As we pass into the green spaces and avenues, what started as a gaggle seems to have swelled into a procession. In the livelier parts of the borough, the occasional onlooker becomes a crowd of faces: quizzical, concerned, laughing, dumbfounded, scoffing. The absurdity is positively infectious. Bustling after these men, I feel less certain where the voyeur ends and the performance begins. As we enter a final courtyard, the men covering their eyes, the Panopticon seems ever more present.
When the ramble ends, with the men scattering out of sight, I felt a sense of eye-opening completion. Everything about this piece – the public reaction, the adventure through London’s innards, the simple pleasure of a sunny Sunday walk – was a pure pleasure. Budvytyte’s choreography, uncanny in its simplicity, effects a far wider performance out of the multitude around it. In doing so, Choreography for the Running Male tranforms the city, and transcends the premise.
Performance Reviewed was kindly invited to the performance by Block Universe.
Block Universe, London’s international performance art festival, is back for the third year running, from 29 May to 4 June 2017, with a programme of newly commissioned performances, UK premieres, talks and workshops.
Taking place at renowned institutions, including the Royal Academy of Arts and Somerset House, as well as unique locations across the city, the week long festival presents work by some of the most exciting UK – based and international artists working in performance art today.