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The Intangibility of Julyen Hamilton’s World

Written by Mariko Nagashima

Julyen Hamilton in The Immaterial World
Photo by Patrick Beelaert
In the program notes for Julyen Hamilton’s The Immaterial World, he eloquently explains the piece as having “various levels of vocal vagueness and clarity [which] form as a web to catch the guts of the piece, the ‘anima’ of the action.” He knows his work well. Throughout the program, presented as part of Velocity’s Seattle Festival of Dance Improvisation, Hamilton, an internationally renowned British artist, ranged from incoherent grumblings to animated gibberish and the occasional enunciated phrase, all of which served as a catalyst for and frame to his improvised movement. In this hour-long solo performance at Broadway Performance Hall Monday, July 30, 2012, Hamilton clearly demonstrated his mastery of the art of improvisation.

A slim, sinewy man with a closely cut grizzled grey beard, Hamilton began the work perched on a small blue stool, his back toward the audience, snapping a pocket knife open and closed. Various other props lay about the stage: a canteen, a towel, a silver bowl, and a long metal pole, all later incorporated into the loose narrative of his ramblings. He muttered nonsensically, grunting, coughing, and (quite literally) spitting as he gesticulated. The bare stage, with it wings removed, became a playground and container for his “immaterial world,” which felt both enormously present and simultaneously elusive. His mumblings and appearance created an almost quixotic air, a light-hearted mood laced with physical humor and surprises.

The words didn’t make sense, but they were perfectly understandable. His vocal cadences, coupled with clear and purposeful gestures, created identifiable scenarios and emotions, without veering toward mimed triteness. Over the course of the performance he became a man easily chatting over coffee, simpering in a bow, brashly conducting an orchestra, herding sheep, monotonously plowing a field, vigorously rowing, stumbling drunkenly, vomiting, pleading to stay, and finally, exiting intrepidly through a paper-covered opening at the rear of the stage.

When he did employ words, he played with their configuration, inverting and permuting the phrases the same way he shaped his movement. He physically constructed situations for himself with the movement then colored and shaded them with vocalizations. In a wonderful interchange with a wet towel he dubbed ‘Alice,’ Hamilton odiously held the towel (her) in front of him while standing on a stool, waiting as it dripped into the bowl of water below, and spoke to her in dead-pan, measured tones. “Alice. I, have, patience, for, you, Alice.” Having constructed this situation where he must wait for the towel to finish dripping, he cleverly found a way out of it: “Alice, if you could stay here I could go dance. Try to stay here, Alice.” As he let go, gravity intervened and she dropped into the bowl. “I go dancing anyway,” Hamilton quipped, and a wistful, waltzing passage ensued.

The lighting, designed by Amiya Brown, played a huge role in Hamilton’s performance as well. Brown crafted the lighting in the moment, which both spurred and responded to Hamilton’s work. In one instance, he suddenly noticed his shadow, greeting it as an old friend, and in another his faux screams prompted a dramatic wash of blood-red light. Hamiltonused the props, lighting, words, and movement as instruments to whittle away the physical space and time, carving his “immaterial world” into the here-and-now and letting it dissolve as quickly as it was rendered.

That’s the beauty of Hamilton’s The Immaterial World and improvisation in general; that moment in-the-moment that feels like sand slipping through the fingers the tighter one grasps it. SFDI provides more opportunities to see moments like this the rest of the week, with Off the Cuff on August 2, Bark/Transcontinental on August 3, and the SFDI Participant Performance on August 4. Hamiltonperforms again at Off the Cuff; make the most of this opportunity to see him, you won’t be disappointed.

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