If Only…! The Festival…!

C James Fagan looks back at last weekend’s If Only Festival at the Bluecoat…

The last weekend of April brought the conclusion of the Bluecoat’s current live art strand If Only…! The final act saw a two day festival using the adventures of Alice in Wonderland as a thematic device. As I sit in the garden sipping coffee I wonder what awaits me down the rabbit hole?


I turn up at the Bluecoat for the daytime strand, which is comprised of two elements; one being a collection of avant-jazz musicians. They play throughout the afternoon and through the public spaces. Their presence reminds of Erik Satie’s wish to create music to fill in the gaps between conversations. The second is a trio of dancers, twirling loose interpretations of the imagined adventures of Alice.

I am not exactly sure what’s going on and I think the performers feel the same. There are some stand-out moments in the piece: an attempt to dress in the middle of the hub, when the three dancers move in unison along the Espresso partition, allowing a member of the public to engage one of dancers in a lengthy conversation.

They utilise the space well, as a playground, but there are times, without a specific ‘audience’ when it seems to get self-indulgent. The whole afternoon has been odd; a lot of what I’ve seen has been incidental, something to be caught in the corner of the eye. There wasn’t a sense of a festival, of an entity called If Only…! Maybe this will manifest in the evening’s more formal part.

As the evening gets underway, we’re confronted with a brass band. Within the confines of the Bluecoat’s Hub it’s like opening your toilet door to discover Napalm Death playing there.

The overture leads us towards the performance space for the night to begin. First up are the Rat Pit, a duo who present a piece which touches on the strange hinterland and collusion between adolescence and adulthood. Their enactments of children acting as adults chimes with some of the interpretations of Carroll’s novel. After some audience interaction with The Queen of Hearts (Mandy Romeo) the next act, Wounded Knee, demonstrates the versatility and power of the human voice. He is a highlight of tonight as he was the last time he appeared at If Only…!

He is followed by the graceful oriental dancing of Fenfen Huang, swiftly followed by the mentalist Paul Brook who is likable and amuses with his trickery but isn’t a patch on his Victorian prestidigitators. Once that’s over we’re ordered to leave by royal command to find ourselves outside BBC Merseyside to listen to an operatic singer.

“It’s like opening your toilet door to discover Napalm Death playing there”

The first night is over, it’s felt quite brief and though I’ve seen some intriguing and beautiful pieces I feel that there’s something missing, that this night hasn’t completely swept me into a wonderland with the momentum I usually associate with this kind of live art event. I look to tomorrow to provide that.

Looking Glass

Here I am back at the Bluecoat again, looking at the programme, which hints that today might be more controlled then yesterday’s freewheeling events. I decide to take part in Inari Dive’s Salmon Simulator; a combination of the experience of sensory deprivation and being a fish. I also check out Julieann O’Malley’s meditative film 790 Recreations.

For some reason I avoid the bouncy castle in the courtyard. Jazz trio Carpet Jazz play to people in the chilly sunshine. It’s pleasant though it does remind me I have an Astrud Gilberto CD to listen to. Time passes on and I miss the beginning of the Steve Boyland and Veryan Weston piece as I enter the Sandon Room to witness Boyland in the act of preaching from a pulpit forming his words with his mouth and body accompanied by a fractured piano. Quickly followed by a performance of Rebecca Sharp’s The Tiger Act which, for want of a better description, can be thought of as a poetic play.

It’s unclear why these pieces have been performed away from the public spaces, it seems counter to yesterday’s sprawling into the Bluecoat’s spaces. Before the afternoon activities draw to a close I take part in Sam Meech’s portrait project where he uses once futuristic yet now outmoded analogue equipment to draw ‘video portraits’.

Analogue technologies are present at the beginning of this evening’s part of If Only…! Meech is joined by Nathan Jones and Mark Crump to present a performance lecture on the title of Composite. Of course I don’t really pay attention, but rather listen to rhythms that signify that information is being passed, compiled and composited into a poem of blocky nonsense.

We’re quickly pushed up to the performance space and I’m handed a ticket instructing me to ‘follow Alice’. We hang around while Sense of Sound deliver a brief set. Once everybody splits into their groups things begin. Tottering out into the spot-light is Mary Pearson who delivers a piece about being constricted by expectations and the realities of being a performer. There are some uncomfortable moments in the piece, especially when we gather in a circle around Pearson as her voice narrates our responses to what’s happening.

I catch a repeat performance of the Boyland/Weston piece from earlier. This time I get to find out that this is an interpretation of a poem ‘Night Crow’ by Theodore Roethke, which might alter my initial understanding of the piece as I start to consider Boyland’s movements as a kind of dance, the written word working through him, reshaping his body. Before I can consider it fully, we’re onto the next piece where Dinesh Allrajah awaits us. Dinesh tells of a story of misrepresentation, stories gone astray like the Mary Pearson piece, a story of expectations and disappointments of striving to fail. That makes it sound grim but his good humour prevents it being a wallow in self pity.

Following an intermission, we are greeted by a pile of sleeping boys. This is Beautiful Hell the male dance group who take us through a sleepwalkers dream. They give a strong and athletic performance in the shape and style reminiscent of Matthew Bourne. Their physicality is impressive and they clearly show a strength and confidence in their movements yet I am left a little cold by it all, not really feeling engaged by the narrative.

Finally it’s left to Mandy Romeo to mop things up and recount the events of the night and for the last six months of If Only…! She delivers a speech which I couldn’t decide was praising or damning of the whole enterprise, or even hinting at the uncertainness of what happens beyond this weekend.

Uncertainty has also crept into my mind throughout this festival. There have been moments where I have been engaged by the performances but also moments where a sense of a cohesion has been lacking. Especially when compared to similar events here, such as last years Poolside Emergency. Maybe the gap between the daytime and evening events feed into this. Also for a climactic event it’s felt like it should have been a beginning. If Only…! has thrown up those kind of contradictions, varying from one mood to another, from engagement to listlessness from informal to formal. This leads to my own contradiction; that I will continue to support events like this in hope to see it grow in size and confidence and mainly answer all of my doubts.

C James Fagan

Image courtesy Jensen Wilder

Posted on 04/05/2012 by thedoublenegative