The Darktown Cakewalk: Celebrated from the House of FAME
The Arches, Glasgow, Sat April 23 2010
There’s a raging calm at the opening of this epic 13-hour voyage into the underworld for a melding of myths old and new created and orchestrated by post-punk collagist Linder. As the most graceful of Muses wafts about the room like some J.D. Fergusson figure brought to life while a black-clad Witch inches painstakingly towards her from the far side of The Arches cavernous labyrinth as musician Fritz Welch taps out a rhythm on a musical saw that accompanies prettified electric guitar patterns, there’s little indication of the sound and fury to come.
But, as will become clear many hours later when they slow-walk, conjoined, onto the dance-floor where a northern soul shindig is being overseen by DJ Kevin McCardle, The Witch and The Muse are the black and white of The Darktown Cakewalk, the devil and angel hanging on the shoulder of a glamour-chasing Star whose fifteen minutes in the VIP lounge is over before even he realises it. From messiah to pariah, it seems, isn’t such a big leap after all, as trying-too-hard party girl Puella Aterna will also find out. In the mean-time, it’s 11.30am, there’s a female King lying in state awaiting the kiss that will bring him/her to life, a tape loop of some invisible MC is heralding the name of the piece and The Muse and The Witch are throwing shapes ad nauseum.
Commissioned by Glasgow International Festival of Visual Art and produced by the Sorcha Dallas Gallery in association with Tramway’s The Work Room operation to accompany Linder’s King’s Ransom (Hybrid Tea) exhibition at Sorcha Dallas, the start of her biggest performance work to date looks for all the world like Kenneth Anger for girls, with all the soul-selling implications of the veteran American director’s seminal 1960s magick-based work intact.
The Darktown Cakewalk is divided up – but not that much – into a biblical twelve overlapping acts a la the lucky thirteen of an old time music hall show, with Cinematic Orchestra composer Stuart McCallum’s live score enabled by three drummers, a trumpeter, double bassist and pianist. A core cast of seven that includes Linder herself are supported by a chorus-line of Lindy-Hoppers, tap-dancers, tango artistes and reverse-stripping burlesques. All of which morphs The Darktown Cakewalk into an ever-expanding amalgam of Linder’s artistic and political pre-occupations over the last thirty-odd years writ large.
From her early collages for The Secret Public zine with Jon Savage and melding of domestic appliances with soft-core nude pin-ups as seen on the cover of Buzzcocks Orgasm Addict sleeve, Linder has continued to explore sexual identity in opposition to what might be dubbed a still ongoing phallocentric cockockracy. In the band Ludus, Linder applied feminist thought to twisted cocktail jazz guitar patterns, cut up into lyrical bons mot and served by her as a self-constructed chanteuse with occasional forays into primal screaming. In Christine Birrer’s SheShe photographs, Linder played with image even more.
By the time she adorned the skeleton of a posh frock with dripping meat and whapped out a giant dildo at The Hacienda, the seeds were already sewn for small performances at Sorcha Dallas and Lucy Mackenzie’s Sunday night DIY art-cabaret night Flourish in Glasgow, as well as large-scale collaborations such as the four-hour The Working Class Goes To Paradise. Some of the iconography of that show has crept into The Darktown Cakewalk, from the gags adorned with an image of a blood-and-lipstick smeared mouth, to the totemic gold lame jacket bestowed upon the central character of The Star.
While such an act of power dressing may resemble Joseph putting on his Dreamcoat, it already comes fully loaded with a wardrobe full of hand-me-down baggage absorbed from pop history. As has been noted elsewhere, Billy Fury, Malcolm McDowell in Lindsay Anderson’s 1973 state-of-the-nation film O Lucky Man! , ABC’s Martin Fry and Morrissey have all seen their fortunes rise and fall, if not quite so spectacularly as The Darktown Cakewalk’s bare-chested protagonist.
The Star first appears, barely noticeable on the sidelines, after the King has been awoken. Puella Aterna is already hungry to make the scene, though it’s The Muse and The Witch who eventually wrap the gold lame jacket around The Star’s shoulders. By this time, the King has found his/her Queen, and the first cakewalk itself has occurred. Modelled on a dance first performed by negro slaves to mock the upright gait of their masters, its humourous simplicity was such a hit among the white folk that, as with jazz, blues and soul, was absorbed by the popular mainstream.
The Darktown Cakewalk’s processional is a grotesque pageant of contorted limbs and rictus grins soundtracked by the increasingly woozy slo-mo bump n’ grind of something resembling the Twin Peaks house band. This contrasts sharply with the collective improvised eurhythmy of The Muse, The Witch and Puella earlier, though they too, as they get in vogue and into the groove or else strike a pose, hold eye contact with the audience just that inappropriate second too long.
What follows is a classic pop fairytale turned rock and roll suicide on a par with Stardust and Privilege, two very English celluloid variations on the crash-and-burn mythology. Amid an overload of activity, Tom Pritchard’s beatific Star remains at the centre of the action, tempting others into his sphere with Rosalind Masson’s Muse to prop him up and Florencia Garcia Chafuen’s Witch effectively selling his soul to the devil
What’s perhaps surprising in all this activity, replete with all the unintentional longeurs and occasional wrong turnings of any improvisation, is how focused the narrative is, as well as how formally traditional. As raw and as messy as it is, The Darktown Cakewalk may be housed here as art, but it’s so much more. Rough-house contemporary ballet, wordless opera, gig, alternative cabaret and classicist drama embracing myths both old and new are all in the mix.
The second half, the ‘Antimasque’ to the first half’s ‘Masque,’ and which begins round about tea-time, is looser and more inclined to bring in outside influences, perhaps to mirror The Star’s own internal collapse. Addicted to his own image, The Star gets through his lost years like some reformed punk act back on an ever-shrinking circuit to entertain the new wave of art-school kids who may wear the t-shirt, even though someone else has been there, done that for them already. Puella becomes a pneumatic party chick and groupie, and as the pair cling to each other for dear life in a bath-tub, cleaning up in every way, it may be something to do with Puella’s blonde Monroe-wig, but the ghosts of Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen seem to be washing their hands of any responsibility for anything that happened ever. Accompanied by McCallum’s plaintive guitar, it’s a tender scene nevertheless.
Linder has already gone on record to declare The Darktown Cakewalk more Hex Factor than X-Factor, and, besides this fascination with fame, both body image and the institutionalised misogyny of judging women either on the catwalk or at the gallows, is crucial to the show’s own execution.
As a gender-bending Animus/Anima/Animal – the very ideal of opposites attracting - Linder herself appears sporadically, rolling about the floor with Judith Williams’ Puella or else keeping a gimlet eye on the wonderland she’s conjured up like some pan-androgynous Prospero in fetish-wear who can’t decide between her own set down sub/dom positions. With costumes by Cerutti designer Richard Nicoll and made by textile students from Glasgow School of Art, the outfits on show in The Darktown Cakewalk are all appendages, attachments and high-heeled ankle boots, all of which go some way to either restrict or accentuate movement.
If The Witch’s presence reminds us of rock and roll’s flirtation with dark forces and excess, there’s something infinitely more liberating being said about the positive spiritual power of dance. Whether this is as a marathon such as the show itself, punishment, rites of passage and courtship or else the pure unadulterated joy of the Northern Soul dancers, transcendence through the most disciplined and repetitive of artforms says what only a three verse/chorus piece of pop candyfloss can. By the final parade, which gets going some time after 11pm with the piano being pulled on a palette truck and fanfares in full flow, the senses of audience and performers alike are seriously disorientated, and we’re not so much watching things as being hypnotised by the experience, bewitched, bothered and bewildered in equal measure.