Thursday 29 July 2010

flowers on stage: snake's head fritillaries

In the last of our series on flowers on stage, the artist Sue Palmer writes about the spring garden.

The Dartington garden is the first part of the estate to fold out of winter: crocuses, hellebores, snake’s head fritillaries, tiny vibrant pink cyclamen, white and mauve anenomies. This year, the primroses have been particularly radiant and prolific with their glorious yellows.

I have worked as a theatre lecturer for the past 9 years at Dartington College of Arts in Devon, teaching the site-specific course where students make performance work all around the estate – in the fields and woods, and along and in the River Dart. The College sits within a classic pastoral ‘estate’ landscape, and it is both with and against this floral spring ecology that we make site-specific performance.

As we go through the 9-week course from the end of February to mid-May the landscape transforms. The astonishing emergence from bare earth to flush of leaves and flowers and then to seed follows the trajectory of the creative process – researching, devising and performing. Flowers border our journeys, fill our gaze and accompany us in the process of making.

But the fecund Devon spring landscape is so complete in itself that to add ‘theatre’ to it often renders the maker superfluous to the ‘event’ of sheer abundance taking place all around: how can anything be added to a bluebell wood?

To balance the automatic lean towards Titania and the faeries, we look at Banksy’s ‘altered’ oil paintings: a CCTV camera monitoring a pastoral scene. And a more thoughtful attention comes into play: the flowers become visible processes that the performance work unfolds in relation to.

Wild garlic with its strong green leaves and white starflowers becomes food, material, scent. Red camellias, placed along a rocky path descending through the woods between abandoned high-heeled shoes, fill the place with yearning. A bunch of bluebells given as a tryst in the crook of a tree for one audience member at a time, already written with the inevitability of the flowers’ quick wilt. And the gardens, a site for subversive action: a special ‘guided tour’ pokes fun at the quintessential English garden and another performance transforms it into a place of zombies and half-deads.

In the site project at Dartington, the flower-filled landscape is not seen or used as decoration or backdrop but as an environment to open perception and explore the magnitude and detail of both real and invented worlds.

See also: flowers on stage: the poppy, flowers on stage: the daffodil, flowers on stage: the lotus, flowers on stage: the lungwort; flowers on stage: ‘breath of life’ and flowers on stage: kudzu

photo: snake’s head fritillary by Sue Palmer

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