Friday 27 August 2021

A complex mix of dance, text and music: William K.z.'s The Growth of Silk at Camden Fringe

William K.z. The Growth of Silk - Anna Cabre-Verdiell, Helene Mathiesen - Camden Fringe at Upstairs at the Gatehouse
William K.z. The Growth of Silk - Anna Cabre-Verdiell, Helene Mathiesen
William K.z. The Growth of Silk; Helene Mathiesen, Anna Cabre-Verdiell, dir:Charlotte MacRae; Camden Fringe at Upstairs at the Gatehouse

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 26 August 2021 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
A new music theatre piece deftly weaves together music, dance, text and more to create a compact yet richly complex contemporary fairy tale

A contemporary fairy tale about wishing for something and getting far more than you bargained for, The Growth of Silk is a new music-theatre piece by the music producer and composer William K.z, presented by It's Casual Presents at Upstairs at the Gatehouse (seen 26 August 2021) as part of the Camden Fringe. Directed by Charlotte MacRae, the work featured soprano Helene Mathiesen and dancer / choreographer Anna Cabre-Verdiell, with Owen Bunting (guitars), George Burrage (bass), Josh Savage (percussion).

The Growth of Silk debuted in 2019 at Tete a Tete, and this year's performances at the Brighton Fringe and Camden Fringe are the debut of William K.z.'s production company It's Casual Presents.

The playing area at the theatre was dressed solely with a barber's chair and a washing line with various props hanging from it, with the three musicians stage right and when we entered, Mathiesen and Cabre-Verdiell were lurking ominously. Both dressed in black pants and lacy black bras; this is a piece about how you look, how you present yourself and the desire to fit into conventional norms of desirability.

The work is technically an opera, but is rather closer to a late 20th-century music-theatre piece, in that it mixes in a variety of genres, and owed a lot to the stripped-back aesthetic of works such as Peter Brook's La tragédie de Carmen. Cabre-Verdiell was an active partner in the whole production, occasionally speaking but using movement to riveting effect.

The work began with both Mathiesen and Cabre-Verdiell moving together in duet, the dancer seeming to lead the singer. Throughout the piece, explanatory dialogue was replaced by movement and this worked partly because Cabre-Verdiell is such a vivid performer and her creation of character was so beautifully observed.

The plot is quite simple, the heroine (Helene Mathiesen) feels oppressed by society's view of her hair and feels the need for long, lustrous locks so that she can fit in. She goes to a hair dresser for hair extensions, but these take root and so she goes on an odyssey to try and remove the excessive hair growth from all over her body, trying bathing in hair remover, visiting a hair dresser, a barber and a sheep shearer before being entirely consumed by her hair. The two performers played all the roles, with Mathiesen using deft costume changes (an apron, a scarf and such) to indicate character; the presentation was a theatrical tour-de-force.

William K.z. trained at the Royal Northern College of Music and he combines composition (projects for The British Library, CoMA, VideoJam, and Psappha, plus a commission from Tete a Tete), with working with his band, Bethlehem Casuals, which has released two albums, as well as his production company It's Casual.

The music for the work was continuous, whether the action was danced, sung or spoken, with William K.z. using his three instrumentalists not so much to accompany the voice as to comment and complement. Owen Bunting played both amplified acoustic and electric guitar, whilst Josh Savage had a variety of percussion. The advance information about the piece referred to Latin music and Flamenco, but there was nothing hackneyed or redolent of tourist Spain, here was simply strong bass lines and an imaginative ear for textures. It rarely took advantage of the volume possible with these instruments, and there was a spareness to the writing, a relishing of only having just the right number of notes, and sometimes the music would thin down to a single line. But at other times William K.z. would relish the way he could create complex textures from three independent instrumental lines built from relatively simple motifs. There was nothing specifically Minimal about the sound-world, yet the way William K.z. used repeated elements and repetition in general evoked Minimalism even if the resulting sound also owed something to both Latin music and his work in the band. 

The text was deftly aphoristic, giving us just what we needed and Helene Mathiesen was to be complemented for managing to get a surprising number of words across, though I did wonder whether it might be helpful to incorporate projected subtitles or helpful captions into the production.

This was a complex mix of dance, text and music, with all elements woven together to help tell the story, and The Growth of Silk was certainly a long way from the contemporary tendency to present new opera as a sort of sung play. What we saw was wonderfully inventive and complemented what we heard to create a little gem.

The result was admirably compact and highly portable, yet managed to pack remarkable richness into the mix. There was no conductor, the three musicians and the two performers functioned as an admirable team. This piece which deserves further outings, and I certainly look forward to discovering what William K.z. comes up with next.

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