The Fish Tales of Alaska combines beautiful dance, ghostly song, shadow puppetry, video, and documentary interviews with an onstage monologue in a re-telling of an Alaskan folk-tale about a man who falls in love with the sea.
While the elements are rich, the subject matter vital: what happens when we take, take, take and never give back? When the fish run out, does man begin to listen to the world around him or just keep taking? But while the environmental and aesthetic elements of the production promised a thought-provoking and visually dynamic performance, there was an unintentional dissonance: a disconnection between aesthetics and content, between myth and everyday, between movement and orality, that meant this potentially very important performance never delivered what it set out to do.
All the parts of this whole – song, dance, video – were tight and rich; three singers combine stunning and often haunting harmonies; the dancers brought a strength and fluidity to the piece, and the shadow-puppetry and projected images were innovatively created. Scenes of mountains were made with corners of tissue paper on wet surface; the sea was evoked with live paintbrush strokes and the images projected onto the far wall. The effect was one of being encompassed in a place; I felt a part of the Alaskan bleakness, the volatile world of the waves. The discordance I felt came from somewhere else, from a question of intentionality, and relationship to the anchor of the story.
The possibilities of a multi-media performance are dynamic and exciting. And yet, to fragment a story means constantly questioning the ways in which different elements add something to the story itself. The interrogation behind those decisions felt lacking from the performance, therefore the intention of the story was muddied by the elements, not enhanced by it, and atmosphere was prioritised over story.
The piece followed a myth of man and sea, a film of people interviewed in Alaska (including the story of the 1700 ft wave) and the fictional story of the woman narrating the performance. Instead of feeding into each other, these three main narratives seemed to jolt an un-sturdy structure. I left unsure of what story I’d just listened to, craving the different elements had been used to bring out the complexities of the stories’ relationships to one another, rather than simplifying them. The central myth of the man falling in love with the sea became more allegorical rather than mythical, due to the personification of the sea, or waves and the fish (the singers and dancers), who brought an other-worldly element to the myth that was already inherent in the story itself; its emphasis through these elements could have been a lot more powerful had the commitment been to story rather than atmosphere. The beauty of myths such as the one the Unhidden Collective retold, is held by mysticism and power; awesome things happen – unearthly things – and creatures, land, sea are personified, with their own agency. These images are ground-shaking, and often speak for themselves. To manifest these events in all aspects of sensory performance, was at times too much, and a selectivity of elements could have benefited the focus of the piece.
The dancing at the opening was a powerful and engaging element, but as the performance continued, these figures seemed to be there to enact the emotional content of the story, rather than explore the tensions that seemed to creep into the relationship between man and myth, politics and allegory. To me the most interesting potential of the piece was the relationship between these elements. The female speaker, played by Laura Freeman, touches on this at the beginning, when she angrily describes the government legislation that dictates when and how fishermen are to fish. There is an unspoken dynamic here between corporations and individuals’ part in the cycle of greed; it’s echoed by the filmed interview with an Alaskan local who tells the story of his friend diving overboard to keep hold of a huge salmon catch. These elements helped to ground the story, and added a tone and aesthetic that balanced the theatricality of the singers and dancers.
The theatricality of dance and song seemed to detract from the mythic and folkloric element of the piece. Myth carries a weight and significance inherently; telling of this weight and sombreness in this case felt unnecessary. Perhaps this culture’s relationship to myth as a way of affirming a dialogue with the animate world, has morphed into allegory rather than performativity, therefore the tendency is to try to bring this performativity back to the myth. And yet, I feel sure that the power comes from trusting the story, rather than making theatrical the weight of such myth. A story relies on a storyteller, but the storyteller doesn’t get in the way of a good story.
The Unhidden Collective are engaged in elements of theatre that I love – movement, multimedia film and audio, and oral storytelling, and I am most excited by their engagement with environmental issues. The collective created a rich, sensory experience, and I would have loved to see that matched by an interrogated and deep relationship to story that in this case didn’t quite come through. The shadow-puppetry as a way of illustrating the myth, was one of the most potent and effective elements of the piece. The relationship between myth and the everyday is crucial to our understanding of ourselves and how we have arrived at where we are, and how we might look forward. Because of the weight of these issues and the stories they bring up, the enacting and re-telling of them requires this material to maintain its potency, and hopefully Unhidden Collective will go on to do that more and more.