A little while back this section of the Guardian featuring Sleaford Mods‘ Jason Williamson’s Cultural highlights caught my attention, especially his praise for the 2017 album ‘Party’ by singer songwriter Aldous Harding (Hannah Sian Topp of New Zealand). It led to seeing a couple of Harding’s videos and the fascinating way that dance is used in each, as connective tissue of expression, as visual stories resonant in singular, powerful ways.
The first (above) is for the beguilingly lovely song ‘Blend’ from the same album Williamson references. On introduction the video is simple enough, Harding in a short two-piece cowboy outfit dancing alone in a white space – the song’s words an apparent yearning for the return of an estranged lover (‘You’re the perfect blend’).
Then through a sense of the familiar, it was clear we are seeing costume and choreography that closely resembles a scene from Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 epic of cinema Apocalypse Now, set during the Vietnam War. It comes at a point when that film’s decomposition of socio-normative realism is at one of its surrealised junctions and in communication with which, this video and its song now weave fresh and artful resonance.
The Apocalypse Now scene in question features protagonist Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) and the crew of his transport motorboat – having travelled up the Nung river on a covert mission, rounding a corner to the Do Lung Bridge, location of an advanced US Forces outpost. There they find a helipad-outdoor stage-set built on the river itself, surrounded and lit by a slew of stagelights and a giant empty amphitheatre of seating.
‘This sure enough is a bizarre sight in the middle of this shit‘ remarks crewmate Mr Clean (Laurence Fishburne).
A short while later in front of the amphitheatre – now full of hundreds of raucus soldiers, there transpires a short-lived but impactful appearance from three playboy models. To loud rock music and the baying of the assembled men, the women are helicoptered directly onto the stage, they dance and gyrate for literally a minute or so, riling up the assembled troops to the point where they begin to storm the stage and the models are immediately helicoptered back out again.
It seems unlikely that Harding and director Charlotte Evans (as well as whomever else was involved) have chosen by accident to use this costume and a choreography close to that of the Playmate of the year from this scene. In fact, from the white formlessness of the space in which Harding’s dance takes place, an acute purity of focus can arrive – body, covering, dance (sound and words); image and form (re-)connected in extraction – both from the Apocalypse Now scene and from the ’empty’ space around it, becoming its own new-old story in tableau of expression and relation.
Also summoned to mind at this point is the typically ‘bodified’ representation of music song and performance (and its particular application to female musicians) from stratifying image-pushers of the corporate entertainment industry, continuously attempting to re-sell libidinality itself, subsumed in the sexual.
It is necessary here to remember that Coppola’s film is itself a kind of telling of Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novel Heart of Darkness, in which the voyage of central character Monrow is to the heart of an African wilderness jungle up the river, simultaneously into a mode of power that is a capturing by and through modes of capital organisation that becomes synonymous as per Kurtz’s dying words in the book ‘The Horror! the Horror!’
Willard has been journeying up river, on a trajectory that goes through a tidelike diminshing of the western world’s contemporaneous structures of social-reality, occasionally punctured in return by state-corporate assemblages (and their agents), whose productions while creating new (or normalising) instantiations come to appear as stark derangements in their war-territory-context (also the precise reason for their existence). Willard is largely immune to the pull of these, structured as they are in Apocalypse Now to mirror the many trials in the story of Odysseus – he is an observer whose objective places him outside the cultural statements and interchanges of even this milieu. He is the trans-liminal weapon with which the state attempts once more to destroy a (re-)emergence of rogue tribalism and an unmediated ‘visionary’ war-leadership. Something made clear as ongoing or repetitious both in the story where Willard has had a predessessor who has gone rogue and joined their target Kurtz, but also more widely in the state’s instantiation as an opposition to exteriorised tribalism/nomadic structurality.
In fact Willard explains at one point that these interjections, the show, the snippets of ‘home’ become more alienating the closer they come to the reality they seek to enjoin. Earlier on his journey he uses the surfing fixation of pugnacious air cavalry Colonel Kilgore to gain access to the enemy controlled mouth of the river – Kilgore commanding his men to surf while they are shelled by the Viet Cong from the nearby treeline. Kilgore played to perfection by Robert Duvall with the famous rejoinder ‘Charlie don’t surf‘ among others.
In the Do Lung bridge scene, while the playmates dance, inciting the assembled men with priapic gun-play and the occasional vocal or gestural affirmation, we briefly see a row of Vietnamese villagers watching on from behind a chainlink fence. Another vector of understanding that this ‘show’ has a dimension of the alien installation about it, rendered through these indiginous, fenced-out locals, displaced and exteriorised in relation (facing-inward) watching on with indecipherable expressions, living ghosts of the American war machine’s surreal and deadly instantiation.
In the festooned luminosity of the outpost; the brief arrival of the USO’s showbiz pop-up event (Odysseus’ Sirens) to sexually electrify ‘the men’, a business savvy injection from the pornography-entertainment assemblage. The models accompanied (‘handled’) by an impressario-hustler character that introduces them and then extracts them when the show is beginning to boil over. Never breaking sweat in his leather jacket and shades.
For its part the ‘Blend’ video harks to the mode of ‘the show‘ but with a sense of a something emptied and perfunctory, there is no softness or intimacy, a kind of rote-ism dominates – from which Harding appears almost removed in expression, as if she attunes us to a system or form of mode ontologically that runs independently or as part of a different intent, although simultaneously requiring to be seen as being on the part of (or simply part of) her body. The dance as an expression contextualised as the prodded interjection of specificities of instruction and control, compounded by this storifying from Apocalypse Now, its backdrop – the stimulating libidinality in the war force organised from a command that for a moment, takes the men out of themselves in a basic and understood direction.
The entire scene and its components can be more strikingly rendered as an outcome of the capacity to inject (even the most fantastically-staged and itinerant) shows that normalise their human-social world and re-ratify the rule-code of its inception and insistence (the entertainment complex of the industries of everyday life) and provide the reflection of the culture of normality, the show, lights, music, stage security, an announcer. Occuring even at the point that this can be understood only as fleeting, unsustainable and somewhat unhinged – in the face of a war-zone that extradites intensities in the face of death for its participants (in the name of the state cause).
The thought occurs that Topp/Harding is exceptionally able in specifically making more with less and for being through unifications of spaces and productions, alliding altogether as a dreamer’s work.
The second song/video was ‘The Barrel’ from a subsequent album on 4AD – 2019’s ‘Designer’. This time an entirely different mode of dance and choreography is in place. Harding with a kind of warm minimalism of motion and tone which is spare, gently rendering lightness to the field and expression of character of the body. A different kind of minimalism perhaps, in a way even more at work than on ‘Blend’ gently shucking poised shoulders, slow arms, stemming in part from a rootedness (necessitated by ginormous platform boots) and yet a confidence of invitation-in-being.
Dance being what we have always somehow known, an expression as deep in motion as life, but importantly – different kinds of life and experience in that context, different questions or (to use Nick Mulvey here) different answers. If we are all to some extent making a dance to the meaning and dreams of our reality, then it is fascinating to see how Harding is able to make dance feel so specifically an expression of a way of being. In ‘Barrel’ The scenes change, the dances and costumes change – although we are more or less always within this soft lit and folded space of fabric. A reminder perhaps that while we came originally (and individually) from the most seminal of interiorities, even at its most static and contained, there is still a dance at play, while we are incurred through nutrition, through sound and through the motion in space. Membranes are ever parting and occurring, moving through and emerging. And sometimes this takes the form of life.
Considering how much pop music and dance have been entwined, it is strange that its spaces of choreography so seldom seem to delve beyond a kind of confection of body in motion, rooted in aesthetics, the synchronic and symmetries of expression, ostensibly cutting off wider dimensions of connection. It is rare that the choreography of this kind of work even brings to mind the possibilities or expressions in the dance and its interaction with music. Of course there are exceptions, Thom Yorke’s Ingenue video choreographed by Wayne McGregor for one; however, even at pop’s height, where dance is an essential component of the show, there has been little that has seemingly broken through to some form of artistic equivalence with the music itself. Perhaps Madonna and the creatively entangled Beyonce need to also be considered differently, with a more encompassing compositional understanding, but I remain struck by these pieces of work from Harding (and her collaborators), their differences from each other, their simplicity of approach and relative uniqueness, even where the choreography may not be as tooled and as professionally engendered. A different kind of atunement seems to be at work, a lot of which also come through beyond the modes of movement of the body, stemming from the image of expression including set, costume and any lineages.
It feels like where Blend is a ‘routine’ communicating with the instantiation of forces of attraction, partly looped within differentials of compulsion of control; the compulsion for sex and its concommitant relation to installed depth-level instructions to reproduce (the individuated body becomes also the species-body), the control of soldiers libidinality. They entail, much like the fixed expressioned rendition of Harding (a main difference from the smiling original performance from Cynthia Wood) that prevailing forces at work, on one level are simply uninterested in the personal reality of its actors – they are pre-existing intents that one might encounter, that may find expression within our bodies and beings. And that in the sex-less acting out of the imagistic of the sexualised, we find again the emptiness of the void, within which the dance takes place. That of those specific commands, from within, from within the human sphere – are much of a species in their specificity in the attempt to control. To control towards an act and its repetition, to control others towards an act and its repetition (and in so doing, further their capacity in violence).
This is in such contrast to ‘The Barrel’, where the dance is gentle (‘as a poet, i knew to be gentle’) less engraved or rigid as a ‘routine’. Resonating more with the simplicity of a child-like being. Purely as a spatial phenomena, it gestures with a simple joy also. A sunny break-out of poise in rhythm, minimal yet entirely expressive. Again the costume and styling seem to strike a note, perhaps calling to The Holy Mountain’s Jodorowsky and with it an overall sense of some contact with the Americas to the South (‘I made it again to the Amazon‘ is the opening line of her song ‘Treasure‘ from ‘Designer’).
I cannot help but also feel in this way, a correlation with the discovery of a music group a friend tuned me into a couple of years ago, the extraordinary Fémina from Argentina.
They touch upon the shamanic in this video for song ‘El Amunche’ from 2011 and have an off-shoot group Weste one of whose songs is this beautiful piece which as I understand it says ‘time is not important only intensity‘.
My friend who shared discovering Fémina with me, had come across them while recovering from a very serious medical incident and it was clear that their energy and direction and expression were helpers indeed in her recovery, much as they have inspired me also in the interim. Gracias!
And as if by strange design, I received this recommendation from my friend as I was writing this piece (the first time we’d mentioned Fémina between us in a year or more), this being a recent offshoot from one of their number. What a fantastic song, carried along beautifully by its refrain. It has a haunting quality to its presence…
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