In the basement of a labyrinthine warehouse, a woman lies on a hospital bed while an unfeasibly long length of ribbon unspools from her mouth. She’s being watched by bedside visitors in sober coats and outsize wigs; they end up lip-synching to power ballads like the most melodramatic of drag queens, hurling themselves against the wire of the cage they’re in. In a corridor, three bare-chested men in white drapes and gold ornaments gust by – escapees from some softcore crypto-Egyptian fantasy – whispering like a breeze. Against a landscape of geometric polystyrene faces, with painted lips and skewers sticking from their cheeks, a trio of performers with nose chains and terracotta tunics sidle up and give my neck a good sniff. This, I think to myself, is awesome.
“This” is Rooms, a performance/installation hybrid conceived, curated and directed by FKA twigs, the experimental R&B singer whose work has already ventured far into the territories of film, fashion, design and dance. In Rooms music takes a back seat, mostly making up a moody, amorphous ambience that shifts from one room to the next (all original music is, in any case, credited to Cy An and LJ Lowe).
FKA twigs takes a supporting role in the performance, though her appearance in whatever scenario she’s in (a clay-smearing duet that ends with her taking a bath, for example, or a group finale in which she joins her cast of dancers beneath a chandelier of bare bulbs dangling from a gigantic black rose) are accompanied by much-excited jostling by spectators and marshalling by bodyguards. And apparently, there is a story: it is “the journey of Diamas [FKA twigs] in search of her spiritual and zodiac home, pursued by her keeper, Capricorn, who is intent on claiming back their spawn”.
So if music, star and story all take a back seat, what is up front? First, the sets. Twelve artists from the fashion agency Streeters have designed one room apiece. Never mind that they’re ostensibly based on the signs of the zodiac, they make for a surreal and stimulating experience in themselves. From one upstairs waiting room, uncannily ordinary with its drab curtains and sensible chairs, you can look into another room where lurid flora spreads over the wallpaper and ventilation tubes twist from glass cabinets like mutant worms. The room on the other side is surgical, its table a cold metal, its walls smeared white as if in a plaster cast. It’s all very disorienting.
But it’s the dancers who deliver the actual performance – about 30 of them are variously scattered across the building, many in gender-indeterminate costumes. A minotaur paces a room with walls gouged by scratches, ominously circling passing punters. Among geometric rocks, a cave creature lurks like a robotic frog. A woman with a shaved head and dressed in white undulates like a ghostly mirage on a mirrored floor, her fingers threaded with lights while a contortionist twists her body into pretzel shapes, a brass begging bowl in each hand.
It’s a truly immersive performance – vivid, intense and as transporting as a dream. True, the dance critic in me is a little peeved that the choreographers and performers don’t get higher billing, since they do front the show (for the record, the choreographers are Wes Veldink, Ramon Baynes, Dominic Lawrence and Masumi Saito). True, too, I don’t yet know how to balance the avant-garde genderqueer spirit that infuses the performance with the high-fashion, highly produced nature of the event, sponsored by Veuve Clicquot, whose stated mission is “to explore freedom of expression around Halloween”. But perhaps that’s just it: in conflating the media event with the artistic one, celebrity with choreography, performance with branding and simulated style with physical feelings, Rooms taps – brilliantly and unnervingly – into the spirit of our times.
Below: FKA twigs’s Rooms. All images © Teddy Park