Elaine Mitchener Delivers Dramas Of Defiance At St. George's, London

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This Hawksmoor church in Bloomsbury is by no means familiar to the majority of jazz audiences. It is not on the recognised circuit of venues. But that in itself is telling. Although she is a known quantity in the world of improvisation, Elaine Mitchener resolutely resists easy categorisation. St. George's should suit her constituency; whoever does not subscribe to a rigid separation of music, dance, mime and theatre.

She is a vocal and movement artist, and this premiere of 'Sweet Tooth' is a cross-disciplinary piece in which sound and vision, and, perhaps more importantly, the specific layout of the space, are all used in the course of a quite gripping performance. A meditation on slavery in Jamaica, and the closely related sugar industry, a hugely lucrative business and culturally transformative phenomenon in the UK, the piece is as thought-provoking as it imaginative, effectively conveying the dehumanisation of bondage by way of chilling detail as well as compelling stagecraft. In real terms, that means that the spreading of sound sources around the pews and altar – Jason Yarde's baritone saxophone, Sylvia Hallett's violin and Mark Sanders drums – creates a disturbing sense of oppressive forces enclosing the listener, as if the rumble of the horn, buzz saw of strings and skitter of percussion mark out borders not to be crossed.

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When all the performers move slowly around the audience with birches that might well represent cane stalks that they then whip crisply in the air, it feels as if runaways are being apprehended and punished before they can clear the limits of the plantation. The sense of discomfort around me is palpable. As is the moment when Mitchener reads a list of slave names from an 1813 inventory without accompanying music with such mechanical precision that it seems the roll-call is endless, the descriptions of the human cargo blurring into anonymity only to be punctuated by a terribly poignant entry such as 'Delia, sickly'. Mitchener's entirely visceral gestural range, directed by Dam Van Huynh, which involves pulling her hair, lashing her buttocks and twisting and contorting her mouth to evoke the heinous 'scold's bridle' used to torture slaves, provides an equally potent counterpoint to this passage of calm, controlled menace.

Divided into six movements that draw on far-reaching historical material such as kumina, the Congo-derived religious song and the 'scramble', the unseemly jostling for prize specimens at auction time, 'Sweet Tooth' is an uncompromisingly graphic treatment of a traumatic subject. Mitchener's considerable theatrical and vocal ability lead her to draw out nuance in a single broken phrase, the juddering clicks well enhanced by the braying overtones of Yarde's soprano and the wavering of Hallett's accordion, a kind of morbid Scottish reel amid the wasteland of blighted lives.

From the moment she runs at full pelt, screaming into view, Mitchener adopts an artistically brave stance that has notable historical precedents. It was in Abbey Lincoln's hugely controversial evocation of plantation rape in America on Max Roach's Freedom Now Suite and also in the revolutionary poetry of Aimé Césaire's Cahier D'Un Retour Au Pays Natal, where the author raised 'le grand cri negre' against the deaf ears of those who refused to hear the ongoing echoes of post-slavery psychosis in Martinique. 'Sweet Tooth' is a vital black British addition to those seminal creative statements of resistance and defiance from the African Diaspora.

– Kevin Le Gendre
– Photos by Robert Piwko