Outside York Art Gallery, as tourists and tunic-clad visitors from the nearby Viking festival wander by, a small crowd of figures bounces up and down. Faces and bodies obscured by brightly coloured sheets, they’re a strange, disruptive and oddly joyous presence, confusing the police officers attempting to park their van by the side of the road. This is Unseen Beings, an outdoor dance performance and the most visible contribution to this year’s Slap festival.
The festival, founded by two York St John University grads, is unique on the city’s arts scene. While York has its fair share of larger subsidised and commercial shows, alongside a thriving amateur and community theatre ecology, it has tended to lack an experimental fringe. For a few days a year, Slap fills that gap, programming an exciting and often challenging selection of contemporary dance, performance and live art, with an accessible sliding scale of pay-what-you-can ticket prices.
At the heart of the programme is a series of small-scale studio shows. Emma Geraghty’s Fat Girl Singing, one of the first pieces in the festival, has all the hallmarks of autobiographical solo performance: childhood memories, intimate confessions, musical storytelling. But this is about more than Geraghty’s own experiences of inhabiting a body that society feels the need to police. She’s reclaiming the word “fat” not just for herself, but for everyone against whom it’s been used as an insult – and taking a good shot at capitalism and patriarchy while she’s at it. As Fat Girl Singing acknowledges, bodies are political.
The hour-long performance is charming yet unabashedly, infectiously angry. As a performer, Geraghty radiates warmth, but she’s not about to apologise for her rage or for her body. The piece moves between three distinct modes: memory, song and confessional. The first two are polished and meticulously crafted, while the latter still feels raw and exposing. It’s when cradling her guitar and singing her poetic, folky songs that Geraghty seems most at home in her body, using it to make music that pushes back at the system.
The Faun Project, an intriguing and oddly thrilling collaboration between choreographers Beth Cassani and Joseph Mercier, puts bodies on show in a different way. In a world somewhere between sweat-soaked nightclub and mythical forest – complete with patch of grass and dangling disco balls – the four young performers jerk, contort and twist their bodies, feeling their way around their own skin. The movements are animalistic, then alien, then deeply human.
This strange but compelling choreography is accompanied by an intermittent background hum of conspiracy theory. Speaking into a microphone, performer Liam Morgan reels off a series of conjectures about 9/11, lizard people and pyramid-building aliens, probing at the human impulse to construct meaning. When finally this desire for some kind of greater significance is superseded by instinctive movement, there’s an ecstatic release.
Elsewhere at the festival there are more performances, installations and workshops. Ali Matthews’ The Ballad of Isosceles is one of several free offerings, performed in 20-minute slots for audiences of eight or fewer. It’s a fragile slip of a show, brief but beguiling. There’s not a lot to the storytelling, which mashes up ancient Greek mythology and smoky cabaret club, but Matthews is a bewitching performer whose songs cling and haunt. Like Unseen Beings – and Slap festival as a whole – it’s a curious interruption, subtly shifting the atmosphere of the city.