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Ryan Styles does Wet Sounds: the underground goes underwater

Cabaret: Interview

Ryan Styles prepares for 'Wet Sounds' Ryan Styles prepares for 'Wet Sounds' - Rob Greig
Posted: Tue Mar 1 2011

A sound installation at York Hall swimming pool finds this visual performer in his watery element.

There are concerns at York Hall that members of the public might get entangled in Ryan Styles's tentacles and drown. This is not ordinarily a health and safety issue for a cabaret artist but then Styles is not an ordinary performer, and the piece he is planning for York Hall swimming pool on Sunday March 6, 2011, is not an ordinary performance.

'When I'm underwater, I want it to be reminiscent of both babies in the womb and sea creatures like squids and octopuses,' Styles says. 'I'll have long tendrils but I'll be curled up like a foetus, suspended in the water with a glowing red umbilical cord reaching to the surface, where there's going to be giant balloon, floating and lit from the inside. I suppose people might want to swim down to me but the fact that I'll be four metres deep will probably deter them. It's hard to go down and hold your breath that deep and it's not exactly warm…'

'Wet Sounds' is an immersive experience of the most literal kind. Conceived by Joel Cahen as 'the world's only underwater sound art gallery', the project is on its third tour of UK swimming pools, turning them from municipal exercise spots into unique platforms for music and performance conceived for aquatic environments. The productions are designed to be enjoyed from within the water: there's one sound system for the air and another pumped directly into the specially lit pool, where audience members soak it all in. The focus is predominantly on the audio experience, with the March 6 show including a new piece by musique concrète pioneer Pierre Henry, but Cahen is also interested in working with visually oriented artists.

Styles was a natural fit - his extraordinary work is bold, bizarre, imaginative and compelling, despite not using a single word. An uningratiating performer who demands audiences enter his world, he creates unique apparitions that combine elements of clowning, mime, drag and club performance. You might have seen him climbing in and out of a giant balloon; peeling off giant concentric silhouettes of his own face; making a raincoat come to life in his heartbreaking 'Rock 'n' Roll Suicide' routine at LipSinkers; or as a bedroom-mirror rock god in Duckie's 'Readers Wifes Fan Club'.

'A lot of my work is about bringing images to life,' he says. 'A lot of the time it's about transformation or escape.' His scuba-supported turn at 'Wet Sounds' is an intriguing development. 'As much as you love institutions like the RVT or Bistrotheque, you never want to repeat yourself,' he says. 'You want to keep moving forward and exploring new spaces. This is really pushing the boundaries of an audience. It's quite a lot for a performer to ask: “I've got to go to a swimming pool to see Ryan Styles…”'

Usefully for 'Wet Sounds', Styles is something of a water baby. 'I'm a fanatical swimmer,' he admits. 'I try to swim every day and I've kept aquariums since I was young. I've always thought they make great theatres: you can sit there and watch things swim around and almost instantly be entertained.' Last spring, he began learning to scuba dive with performance in mind. After many hours in shallow swimming pools and murky ponds near Heathrow, he was ready when 'Wet Sounds' came calling.

'I always wanted to use performers in the pool,' says Joel Cahen. 'We've had a couple before but I really like Ryan's surreal take on everything. He gives the audience something new, something bizarre they have to absorb from scratch - it doesn't relate to anything you've seen before. With “Wet Sounds”, you have the whole 3D space of the water - the audience can circle and see from all directions rather than just looking at a stage. They're mostly looking from above, like [viewing] a coral reef, but also diving in and looking from other angles.'

Cahen also feels Styles's approach will complement the underwater soundscape. 'The music is perceived by vibrating the inner ear through the bones of the skull - it's like it's coming from inside your head. The movement of the costume in the water is really floaty: there's no gravity so it has an amniotic-fluid weightlessness that I think will go really well with the abstractness of the music. The whole experience is surreal anyway - you're in your own zone, you can't talk to anyone.'

Styles continues to push his work in innovative directions. At the Kinetica Art Fair, he performed with a life-size hologram of himself and has ideas for developing his underwater routine. 'I'd like to take it to sea-life centres like the London Aquarium,' he says, perhaps even using some of the 'less nibbly' creatures as co-performers. 'At least then I wouldn't have to worry about people in the pool and possibly drowning them. Of course, it'd all be a lot easier if I had gills…'

'Wet Sounds' is at York Hall on Sunday, March 6, 2011, 8.45pm.

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By Chris E - Mar 7 2011

The concerns that members of the public might get entangled in Ryan Styles's tentacles and drown proved unfounded; most in the pool didn't know he was actually performing and those that did couldn't see him, let alone reach him, as he was too deep down in the darkened pool.
Usually a bold and engaging performer with strong visual style this came across as ineffective and a selfish experiment. Unable to enter his world due to the depth of the performance, being over three meters down when your audience are without scuba gear, he looked less like a long tendril sea creature or aqua baby and more like a man in a sparkly ripped version of the Greek national costume. He seemed to be in his zone and the audience in ours - talking about how non-surreal it is and when the 'performance' is going to really start.
Synchronized swimmers might have been a better place for Cahen to start any experiments introducing performers into the space rather than the instillation that Styles provided. It is a great idea and certainly pulled in an interested crowd but ultimately squandered its potential by alienating its audience. Less effort should be spent on trying to be surreal or bizarre and more time on either directing the audience to the action or making the performance at the very lease entertaining.
Oh and warmer water in the pool wouldn't go amiss either!