Concept and director: Charlotte Spencer
It is nine years since the Olympics took place in East London. The regeneration of Stratford and the surrounding areas has continued since then, although from a distance much of the development seems to be of high-rise accommodation and little else. One exception is in Bridgewater, the district immediately south of the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, where a new concert arena is being built to receive ABBA fans from all over the world as they gather to watch computer-generated avatars of the band as they looked in their heyday.
But elsewhere in Bridgewater, there are swathes of land that remain forgotten, undeveloped, decaying. One such area – given the look of the defunct lampposts dotted around it, it may have been an Olympic car park – is the venue for Is This a Waste Land?, an immersive, interactive piece first presented as part of London’s Dance Umbrella in 2017.
In this enormous space – an area so forgotten, a producer informs me, that the keys to gain entry were long lost and entry was only possible after taking an angle grinder to the gates – we assemble, and select an item from an array of detritus: radios, children’s toys, mirrors, flowerpots of all sizes, tyres, a mangled bicycle.
With each audience member given a pair of protective gloves and some Bluetooth headphones, we receive instructions on appreciating the space as it is, glowing in the autumnal dusk. Carrying our ephemera, the audience moves around the space in response to the voice prompts from the headphones.
Initially, it may all seem a little haphazard and pointless, but once we are all directed to pile up our objects in the centre of the space, it becomes clearer that we are being split into groups, each cadre being fed different instructions through the headphones. Some are taking the collected objects and using them to create towers and walls; others of us are led to an array of ropes and sticks and given instructions on how to construct fences.
And because we all do this wearing headphones listening to prerecorded instructions, underpinned by an atmospheric soundscape by James Keane and Tom Spencer, this cooperation is wordless, relying on trust that the person next to you is receiving the same instructions. Every so often, small groups are instructed to stop and watch, observing the actions of the rest of the audience. And occasionally, the volunteers who have been guiding and assisting members of the public gather together and perform a group activity of their own, perhaps working with long bamboo rods, other times manipulating large tarpaulins, in what comes closest to our conventional idea of what a dance piece looks like.
The towers and walls we have collectively assembled can be pulled down far more easily than they can be created. The space we are in is as fragile, as chaotic, as ever-changing. On press night, the slowly setting sun would flit behind and out of clouds, illuminating this disused car park with an ever-changing lighting scheme that West End designers would kill for.
And as the sun hits the horizon, the venue – all walls, towers and fences razed, a wasteland once more – is returned to the people. In our headphones, we are reminded that spaces such as this one may be occupied by people who have no other home. A necessary point, perhaps, but one which feels less woven into the work than some others.
But then a brazier is lit, and the audience is invited to gather around and share some hot chocolate. And maybe it is the community that Charlotte Spencer Projects’ work seems most intently focussed upon. Our exterior spaces rise and fall, but they do so by our hand.
This site-specific production invites lots of questions, provides no easy answers and provides a healthy dose of cardio for those who want to get really stuck in. Three things that the multi-million pound ABBA Arena, built on similar waste ground just down the road, can and will never do.
Continues until 26 September 2021