Immersive ‘Black Rock’ Shows What It Is To Be Human

From the creator of ‘The Weather Café’, ‘Black Rock’ is another of David Shearing’s innovative and immersive performances with the aim of imitating the sensations of climbing. Arts Writer, Liberty Anstead, describes her experience with this deeply personal and transcendent piece of art.

Not knowing what to expect, my friend and I entered a dark room, welcomed by a strong smell of the sea. Seats were grouped together into islands each side of a long platform stretching from one side of the room to the other. Piled on that were rocks and sea water, imitating a beach. We fidgeted with the headphones and paper that was provided, on the latter of which was written poetry and images. To put headphones on or to leave them off? That was the question.

The lights dimmed and voices entered from slim screens at each end of the room, accompanied by atmospheric images of exotic heights blurred in mists. Poetry of Arthurian legends cascaded from the screens, contrasting with pellets of facts exuding from speakers hanging from the ceiling, cemented in clumps of clay. Dancers weaved in and out of the chaotic strobe lighting that flickered from the light poles situated between the seats of the audience, creating an ethereal atmosphere.

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The highlights of the performance were the dancers. During the ascent to the top of the mountain, explained through voices booming from both sides of the room, the dancers were caught up in a tumultuous thunderstorm of effort: one moment reaching up to clutch the next available rock, the next collapsing in on themselves, their physical capacity entirely spent.  They scaled the crests and troughs of the climb, balancing sheer physical effort with internal vulnerability.

It was in these internal moments that their performance was most poignant: the two dancers collapsed in on each other, their bodies panting up and down in time with their laboured breathing. The panting bodies, leaning on each other in solidarity, made us realise that companionship is essential in expeditions that threaten human endurance.

Image: David Shearing

This performance was a sensory explosion, a whirlwind of experience. However, the dynamic was somewhat diluted by the sheer amount going on. The poetry could not be fully appreciated while the senses were already occupied by flashing strobe lights, snaking mists and bombastic dancers. The pellets of facts fired from hanging speakers, radio or screen could not always be absorbed amongst a chaos of noise and motion. Even the climatic drop of a sandbag, which had the potential to make me jump from my seat, was mixed with a blur of activity on the stage that my brain was already struggling to process. If these different entities were highlighted in isolation, a highly effective performance would have been displayed that evening.

Nevertheless, the moments of sheer jeopardy made the performance retain its profundity.  Moments such as one dancer making her tenuous ascent towards the peak. She trembled in the dark, her whole body shaking with fear and courage as she tentatively felt for stability across the rocks. This is what it means to be human: leaving the tremors in the darkness and pushing to the top.

‘Black Rock’ is supported and funded by University of Leeds, Arts Council England and co-commissioned by Kendal Mountain Festival.

Liberty Anstead

(Image courtesy of Genny Bove)