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Push, Pull and TUG: Dog Kennel Hill tests new waters by Donald Hutera

October is when Dog Kennel Hill Project – the memorably unorthodox name adopted by dance artists Ben Ash, Henrietta Hale and Rachel Lopez de la Nieta – is being let loose on a section of London’s canal and towpath system. But not to worry. Everything about the company’s slightly strange and entirely special Dance Umbrella co-commission TUG is, so to speak, above board.  
The recipient of six Place Prize commissions, Dog Kennel Hill Project has been active for about a decade and in that time toiled within the fields of visual arts, opera, circus and television advertising as well as dance. To quote from the company website, ‘Their work has been described as intriguing, slippery, mind-blowing and laugh-out-loud funny.’
TUG is similarly hard to categorise. On a practical level it’s a 30-minute performance, both live and technologically-mediated, that happens five times daily over a weekend (5-6 October) in the King’s Cross area and is split into three strands.
One is for an audience of six, each of whom pays £20 for a seat aboard a specially-designed heritage work boat also occupied by a handful of performers including Ash, Colin Poole, Rohanna Eade and the singer/musician Sianed Jones. Hale says this version of TUG carries with it a sense of intimacy but at a cost that isn’t strictly monetary. “In terms of the concept of TUG as a whole,” she explains, “we see the boat audience as people of privilege witnessing a show, but also being seen and exposed as the privileged few.”
Then there’s the towpath audience who, using their own headphones and smartphones to tap into an online guide and sound-score, can view what occurs on the boat (and yes, you could call it a showboat) for free as it passes by on the water. These people, says Hale, “get to see things such as the backstage area [on the boat] and any behind-the-scenes weirdness. There can be a strange tension there. It reminds us of opera where often it’s the people in the cheap seats who get to see the performers mucking about backstage, which adds a whole other dimension to the notion of a show.”
A third and final segment of vital importance to the efficacy and atmosphere of TUG are the incidental passers-by who might chance upon some aspect of the performance. It might amount to no more than a stand-alone moment, although perhaps one marked by a certain crazy beauty. But it could also serve as an incentive to explore in more depth what TUG is all about.  

Rather than following a prescribed route, Hale continues, the land-based spectators can explore TUG in their own time and pace. “They’ll be given a map which indicates spots where incidental characters or performance activities can be found on the towpath, or nearby.” They’ll also be invited to listen to audio files on their smartphones that relate to certain locations. “The overall effect is a web of poetic performance happenings that connect to the surroundings,” Hale says, “and to the passing boat in ways that can be viewed from any direction at any time. We see it as a bit of a treasure hunt, with lots of space to reflect and immerse yourself in a sensory experience.” As for the boat, Hale regards it as “a spectacular reference point that will add to the carnival of happenings.”

Hale is typically articulate about what motivated her and her colleagues to venture into such anomalous and challenging creative waters. “We’d been doing a lot of research under the banner of ‘People Working’, exploring the concept of work, purpose and fulfilment in various manifestations. The canals seemed an interesting, microcosmic territory for a continuation of this exploration. The commercial emphasis of the canals has shifted from the carrying of goods and hard labour to a newly-developed industry of leisure, waterside chic and alternative lifestyles.”
On a more basic level, in tackling TUG, the first question Hale and the others Dogs had to address was, ‘How does dance or performance relate to the waterways?’ “Most of the people we’ve encountered can't imagine why we’d bring dance there, or they expect it to be something much more traditional – like a narrative depiction of historical canal life.” Hale and her cohorts, however, found inspiration elsewhere. She mentions “romantic notions of madrigals on the water, showboats and travelling players, like the types you might see in an Ingmar Bergman film or Jean Vigo's ‘L'Atalante,' a tragically beautiful love story set on a barge in France.”
Prior to the upcoming Dance Umbrella performances TUG has been presented in Nottingham and as part of this past summer’s Imagine Watford Festival, which is where I experienced it. In such a rural setting the piece exerted a peculiar, at times dream-like magic. In London, Hale explains, the piece will have a much more urban, eclectic flavour that draws, at least to some degree, upon the rich history of the city and its canals.
For Dog Kennel Hill Project TUG has been, Hale says, “quite a journey of discovery for us in terms of what it means to place artistic practices in unusual contexts.” She speaks of the sense of absurdity felt “as we playfully dig around in notions of social class. Conversations with canal people always contain a strong sense of them and us – them being rich landowners, controlling law-makers, dodgy law-breakers or just people with different tastes. Themes of dredging have emerged, partly in horror stories about what gets found at the bottom of the canal but also in terms of development and the social metaphor of clearing out the grime of society – where does all the dirt go?”
Ultimately, perhaps, TUG shapes up into what Hale refers to as “a kind of celebration of the plethora of opinions, values and facts that we’ve come across.” She hopes it might provoke “questions and dreaming” in such a way that yields a greater understanding both of one’s self and others. This, as she cautions, “sometimes means putting ourselves in unfamiliar and uncomfortable situations. In particular TUG deals with constructs around entertainment and industry. It’s murky territory. It stems from our need as makers to create a little bit of havoc around expectations, clichés and norms. But we also like to be seductive. It’s a bit like that old idea of the artist as trickster: we want to make people feel safe but a little bit in danger at the same time. Confused, but okay with it.”

Part of Dance Umbrella 2013
Dog Kennel Hill Project
King’s Cross: Regent’s Canal & Granary Square
Sat 5 & Sun 6 Oct, 12.30pm, 1.30pm, 2.30pm, 4.30pm, 5.30pm | £20 (limited audience of 6 onboard)
FREE from Granary Square/towpath (between 1pm-4pm & 5pm-7pm)
More info/booking


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