Pros: Music, architecture, dance, installations and heritage all rolled up in one.
Cons: A stronger ending would have tied the loose strands together in a more succinct manner.
Toynbee: Fragments of Other Lives and Times presents evocative glimpses of the building’s past as a social, political and cultural centre in the East End. Its pithy title therefore sums it up nicely, which comes in quite handy as the performance might be confusing and less enjoyable without any previous understanding of its context. Installation artist Geraldine Pilgrim has created a site-specific promenade performance that brings Toynbee Hall and Studios to life with stirring live music, dance choreographies and performances. An Artsadmin commission, it is produced in partnership with Spitalfields Music Festival and Toynbee Hall.
Wandering around the studios with a guide, who in my slot happened to be Pilgrim herself, the audience is enveloped in a world of stories that appear as quickly as they disappear. Around every corner, on the flights of stairs, in the cellars, corridors and in the gardens, we encounter different people from different decades and walks of live. The common denominator is the building itself. Toynbee Hall was created in 1884 as an educational centre for young men and women from disadvantaged social backgrounds, and it remains a community centre that endeavours to reduce poverty in London’s East End.
Stories of young people pursuing artistic projects lie at the heart of this performance. It’s much more than just watching series of people practicing dance moves or violins, though. Describing the scenes in detail would spoil their magic, but I feel as though this review will be very vague if I don’t explain myself at least a little more concisely. To give you a taste, a scene that stuck out for me was a girl in a white silk dress sat at a piano in the middle of a large, stunningly lit dining hall with beautiful classical music erupting from her fingers. The fabric of her dress is never-ending, covering the carefully laid table like a tablecloth. Other moments are much more fleeting; girls pass us on the staircases, their dresses and their hair becoming increasingly shorter. The mysterious woman in the red dress and the long black hair, who follows us around, silently peers into a telescope on a balcony outside. It’s a mysterious world, but the performance still builds a coherent whole and paints an image of a historic building that has shaped many residents’ lives.
One of the greatest strengths of the performance is how it brings its audiences into unusual spaces in an unusual form. It’s an experience that is, at times, quite unsettling and raises many questions about the audience’s role in experiencing the evening. We suddenly find ourselves onstage with the roles reversed and the spotlight on us. At the same time however, we’ve broken into a world that isn’t ours and that is as silent and still as a photograph.
I always look forward to an ending in promenade performances such as this to tie together all the loose ends and allow me to have some ‘aha!’ moments. Unfortunately, this is somewhat missing in Toynbee, as the audience is simply released into the hall’s café, and one couldn’t be sure whether the performance had finished or not. This may have been the point, but it didn’t strike a chord with me. Also, as is often the case with site-specific performances, it was sometimes difficult to see what was happening along the narrow corridors, and many a foot was trodden on in the attempt to see over people’s shoulders – despite the small, intimate groups of under ten audience members.
Despite these limitations, this is a beautiful exploration of the historic Toynbee building with some very strong dance, music and acting performances. Put on your comfiest footwear, prick your ears and sharpen your eyes, and start wandering!
Author: Geraldine Pilgrim
Director: Geraldine Pilgrim
Box Office: 020 7377 1362
Booking Link: http://www.spitalfieldsmusic.org.uk/whats-on/
Booking Until: 15th December 2013