In the pragmatic realm of the creative industries short pieces are most commonly seen as a means to an end: an investment of time and resources in the search of more tangible support and a pitch for something longer and bigger. Unless authored by a headliner, short-form often gets framed as scratch, work-in-progress or draft – a stepping stone towards legitimacy. The cabaret / performance-club scene is the notable exception to this standard, and it’s that atmosphere Steakhouse Live transposed into the space of Toynbee Studios bar for Tender Loin. An evening of six short pieces (some 5 and some 20 minutes long), Tender Loin resisted labels, silently putting forward the idea that size has little to do with ambition and scope. Instead, it delivered a programme of small-scale high-achievers that, for the most part, remain immune to easy laughs and obvious points.
Avoiding strict curatorial headlines, Steakhouse produced a curiously diverse programme of gender, body and politics explorations, that differ in approach, style and conclusions even when they appear to have a lot in common. Claudia Palazzo’s Dog and Lucy McCormick’s Animal Study both stretch out anthropomorphic stereotypes to their extremes. An anti-patriarchy punch, Dog adds a twist of generational self-deprecation to the trodden musings on self-oppression. The well learned lesson that any system is embedded in and reproduced from the mind (even of the oppressed) finds its reflection in a woman taking on a dog’s traits and merging them with gendered ones. Where femininity usually shows up to create the connection between the object and the oppression, Palazzo inserts the fashionable, superficial, easy to adopt traits of millennial-feminism. This woman is in charge of her body and what she does with it to twerk-inducing music, but her independance is undermined by the hipster uniform, complete with matching sunglasses for her cohort – a duo of lookalikes. Together the three women form a unit of another contrast-killing mass – as slick, seductive and as full of societal pitfalls as an average Mad Men episode. Animal Study exposes its mechanisms outright: a timid performer attempts to produce a detailed study of a cat, complete with a bombastic finale, but her insecurities end up projecting onto her creation. All corseted-up, McCormick ends up being a cat-woman that’s far removed from the norm of both comic books and memes, underplayed and underpinned by fragility and individuality instead.
Unravelling in physically and emotionally exhausting repetitions of a cabaret-style choreography, Jade Montserrat’s Shadowing Josephine, offers two avenues in. The first is reference-free but charged nonetheless: a naked, female, black body, caught in a seemingly infinite loop of performing for the insesable, voyeuristic eyes in the speakeasy atmosphere of dimmed lights. Montserrat’s precision and enthusiasm disintegrate slowly; as they do, consent becomes less apparent, it becomes unclear if this exposure is an act of willing participation or a coercion, and hegemony (in its racists and sexists forms) rears its head. The second road into Shadowing Josephine unlocks the reference to Josephine Baker, the dancer, actress and civil rights activist who refused to perform for segregated audiences and worked with the French resistance; the first black woman to star in a feature film who, once her fame subsided, found herself bankrupt and forgotten. This reference spotting is not a request piled on to the audience, as much as bonus material that adds layers of history and aspects of personal hero-trailing to the already poignantly ambiguous set-up of the piece. The mesmerising ambiguity is slightly chipped by Tender Loin’s format: Shadowing Josephine gives the impression of being a durational piece, cut not too precisely to fit a much narrower frame.
Shadowing Josephine is a subtle, toying proposition, built around carefully considered references. It’s a stark contrast to Putin, which sees Danny Ash lash out at Russian leader’s notorious, draconian anti-LGBT politics. Putin’s 9th of May speech subverted, Ash proceeds to strip down next to a slideshow of Putin-propaganda pics, before delivering the ostensible message, spelled out on his behind. The result is crude and oblivious to the fact that shouting about the former KGB chief’s inhumanity to a room full of live-art loving Londoners induces back-patting at worse, and Buzzfeed-like chuckles at best. It’s not that Putin is not a homophobic monster – it’s just that preaching to the converted and taking delicious pleasure in it has an air of a self-congratulatory triumph that’s negligent towards the LGBT realities of Mother Russia. Putin, much like Putin, is beyond blunt – but that’s not its pitfall; the problem is that Ash attempts to create political satire, while securely positioned thousands of miles away from the subject of his ridicule.
Delivered in its own context, such satire can be sharp and probing and blunt, all at the same time. Take F K Alexander: covered in the Scottish flag (and not the blue and white one) she arrived to Tender Loin all the way from Glasgow to present her take on what the Scottish national anthem should be. In A Big Cuntry is an attempt at claiming nationhood for a country that recently rejected it, in the capital which ignored the independence debate like it was none of its business. Consisting of ever more confident sing-alongs to In a Big Country (by the imaginative one hit wonder Big Country) this performance occasionally verges on the illustrative, as F K Alexander sloppily goes from getting the nerves to open her mouth to shouting the lyrics through a megaphone until they turn into noise – but its nonetheless a raw transmission of the conflict between independence, history and small-nation narratives, wrapped up into (appropriately for an anthem) a generic pop song and the connotations of that very royal flag.
In the same national-identity vain, Tender Loin called it a night with Foreigner’s Dance by Justyna Scheuring, a clinically precise dissection of what it’s like to enjoy the immigrant experience while Nigel Farage comes up with policies on pub napkins. This is an unfair comparison: Scheuring’s expose on isolation by foreignness goes beyond daily politics and into the minefield of imperialist inheritance. Her face, palms and feet painted in fluorescent orange, the floor decorated in vaguely tribal patterns, standing in front of the wall announcing the show’s name, Scheuring creates generic, exotic but incomprehensible, weird otherness, contained into a space for further observation. She proceeds to dance, silent disco style, attempting to seduce the audience into joining to no avail – the impenetrable otherness acts as a bullet proof glass, even if the music she is dancing to comes from an ipod-mini, the paradigm of universalism. The lack of dialogue between the dancing foreigner and the crowd builds the frustration until Scheuring lets out a long scream and her audience disperses promptly, leaving behind an awkward, angry and exhausted aftertaste.
Scheuring offers clear semiotic bates to cling to immediately, before subtily developing a more complicated maze of signs, meanings and associations in the background. It makes for a bitter ending, but rounds up the programme in a way that proves its hypothesis: that short can be provocative and not proclamatory, a tough pill to swallow rather than just a serotonin-vehicle.