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The Birth Caul – Mudheads in Bermondsey

7 September 2013

Possibly my greatest disappointment in the performance art world was missing out on ‘The Mudhead Dance‘ by Adam James. I’d participated in his ‘Mud Circles‘, and a subsequent party piece at ‘The Opening Ceremony to the End of the World‘, but a clash of bookings with life model work at the Storey Gallery, Lancaster prevented me joining the main event.

When the call-out came for a new mudhead event I needed no persuading to volunteer. Presented by VITRINE Gallery, the work would form part of ‘The Birth Caul‘, a free public performance comprising pieces by Miriam Austin and Adam James in prelude to the world première screening of ‘The Mudhead Dance‘ film.

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Miriam’s contribution was to be a rubber and petal-based sculptural work in which five performers share a ritual experience with a very large eel. Adam’s performance would centre on his fictional peoples’ fraught emergence through a series of underworlds.

Our stage would be Bermondsey Square, south of London’s Tower Bridge. Mudhead nakedness – an essential feature of previous works – had sadly been forbidden in this open public space, so mudheads would instead wear rubbery masks and underpants, loincloths made from stapled rags, and tied-up boots of coarse fabric. Very smart.

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After a weekend of rehearsals – role-playing as chimpanzees and zombie flamingoes, followed by repeated runs through the full performance – we were ready to go. Adam would be leading as drum-beating shaman; our dance company would be Typh, Iefiz and Megan; our mudheads were Chas, Clifford, Cy, Malachy, Peter, Peter and me.

The day of the performance was blessed with brilliant sunshine. We mustered early at Gregg’s Bar and Grill to ruminate our plans over coffee. With market stalls occupying the square until 2pm, we withdrew to a small side area for a final successful practice, which confirmed we were as ready as we’d ever be.

Long after 2pm – our scheduled start time – the market stalls finally cleared away and Miriam’s players stepped forth in their robes.

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Our mudhead activity would unfold in four parts: three parts in performance with Adam and the dancers, followed by a denouement of frenzied obscenity and destruction. As a prelude, however – with Miriam’s rituals still on-going at the far side of the square – the mudheads made a discreet entrance and slowly moved to position.

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In diamond formation with Mal at point we shambled from obscurity, left-right left-right, walking in step. Over ten minutes Mal lead us round the square, pausing twice before settling us at the edge of our sacred central space marked by a chalk circle and three tripod stands supporting cardboard boxes. A slight hush descended against the drone of the living city. All was set.

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Part one started with a drum beat signalling the entrance of Adam and the dancers – Adam in a cloak made entirely from used teabags; the dancers in fake animal fur and cardboard headgear. This was the first time we had all been together in costume. The delicacy and gracefulness of the dancers’ movements was a wonder to behold.

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The mudheads, by contrast, remained a single lumpen mass. Once more we walked as a unit – left-right, left-right – across the space as the slow drum beat continued its monotone. We stared at the dancers, disquieted by their elegant intrusion upon our crude world. As we started to clap in unison, so the intruders slowly departed.

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We clapped faster, faster, faster, while peeling away individually to stand at all corners of the crowd, leaving Mal clapping frantically on his own. He stopped; we waited.

By now the audience numbers had swelled considerably. Some, including friends and family had come specifically for the performance; others were just curious passers-by. As we stood motionless under the fiery sun, people stalked around us taking photos.

The drum beat resumed. Adam and the dancers returned in new bizarre costumes for part two. This time mudheads strode individually across the stage, staring at dancers, mimicking them for one snapshot moment, or striking a single clap in passing.

And then we stepped forward once more… slowly, ominously circling.

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We tightened our circle and began clapping in unison to drive the intruders away. Our palms came together with ever greater rapidity as we drew in shoulder to shoulder at the middle of the space. Suddenly we stopped. Stillness and silence was all around.

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Part three. Monotonous drum. Mudheads paced back allowing Adam and the dancers to re-enter our circle. Drum drum drum drum. We stepped in, and in, and in, crowding the writhing knot of dancers that squirmed at the tips of our toes.

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We leaned over them, spread our arms wide and clapped. And clapped and clapped and clapped until we’d banished the trespassers forever.

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The outsiders had gone. The sacred space was clear… we waited.

And waited… waiting, waiting, waiting.

Tension.

Suddenly we broke. We scrambled to the three tripods, lowered them, reached inside the cardboard boxes and grabbed grotesque phallic water squirters. Cue frenzy!

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We desecrated the space, drenched each other and sprayed the audience until all our reserves were exhausted.

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And having shot our loads we ran away like naughty children, back to the obscurity from whence we first emerged.

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Our performance was done, audience applause resonated outside and joy spread through our hidden sanctuary. Euphoric, capering, laughing, we de-mudheaded and re-humanised, ready to return to the real world. It was all smiles as we emerged and crossed the scene of our cavorting to join our friends in the beautiful sunlight.

Come movie time we filed into the Shortwave Cinema, settling in comfort, privilege and anticipation to watch The Mudhead Dance film première. The vivacity of the live performance had a different intensity in this fifteen-minute screening. Skilful editing and an unsettling soundtrack added extra dimensions to an entrancing visual feast.

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Part of Adam’s genius is that whatever his format, however chaotic his performances might appear at a superficial glance, however mundane his source materials for props and costumes, he’s a perfectionist whose ideals and original vision play consistently across his body of work. His is a serious business but it always seems to manifest with laughter in the making. Rare gifts in operation.

We saw out the late afternoon with drinks and cake outside the Shortwave Cinema’s bar, attempting conversation as best we could over the cacophony of South London Samba now filling the square. It had been a successful performance and a great day spent in wonderful company from beginning to end. I could have asked for no more than to be a part of it.

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