Re-viewing Rome (LANS summer study tour 2017)

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Arch of Titus, Forum Romanum (4/7/2017)

Liberal Arts and Natural Sciences Rome study tour: 3rd-8th July 2017

One of the pleasures of being Dean is that I have twice had the opportunity to spend a summer week learning with and from a cross-section of our LANS students, while also talking to them about my own area of research expertise, the turbulent years of the late Roman Republic (the first century BCE) and the impact of that revolutionary era on how modern citizenship continues to be defined and contextualised. I blogged that first trip, and will try not to replicate too much of what I recounted there, here 🙂

With University of Birmingham doctoral candidate Miriam Bay, and guided by the wonderful Agnes Crawford, we worked our way through Rome and its environs with thirteen LANS students, moving from radical urbanism in classical antiquity to the modern city’s shifting acknowledgement of the importance and perils of embracing change.

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Streets in Rome’s Ghetto amply evidence the ‘layered’ quality of the cityscape (4/7/2017)

Rome, for me, is the ultimate laboratory city. Perhaps it’s my research focus talking, but in articulating my vision of what the tour would deliver (when describing it, back in January, to an interested but uncertain group of potential student travellers) I saw the sparks of questions, challenges, ideas, and responses flicker across their faces; to reappear over the ‘welcome’ dinner we hosted (at L’Isola della Pizza) for the whole group on 3rd July 2017, and as we made our first foray into the Forum Romanum early morning on 4th July.

Day 2 (4 July 2017)

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Spoliation, repurposing, but also the lure of genius loci are all on display for scrutiny (4/7/2017)

As Agnes emphasised, that calendar serendipity gave bite to our consideration of the complex forces that cause a people to turn upon themselves in civil war and in the process, to scrutinise and find wanting a myriad previously unquestioned myths of self-determination. These were the years when autochthony and (in a phrase Agnes used as a motif for the week’s study) genius loci (spirit of place) crystallised within Roman identify-formation. By the second century BCE Rome controlled a growing Mediterranean empire; no longer a city-state confined by peninsular Italy, yet still uneasily related to the peoples and cultures of its nearest neighbours.

This was an era when land use and land rights, not to mention rural to urban migration, linguistic change, and a reverse cultural imperialism (speaking to and striking back at Rome) from the literate Hellenic kingdoms that had previously dominated the western world, were all troubling the growing and increasingly urban political elites. It was also an era in which centuries of oligarchic politics (res publica or ‘public affairs’) were foundering as charismatic individuals (reformers, agitators, cynics, soldiers, demagogues…) began to see ways to game the system and wrest control from the few — by promising to transfer it to the many.

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The Temple of the Dioscuri — where we thought about how/why new gods get assimilated (4/7/2017)

Strolling through the Forum we considered how that genius loci paradoxically became a force for political and religious conservatism (‘we have always done x in y manner in z place, we always will; it’s who we are’) and also radical revisionism (‘by doing x in y place we validate transforming how, why, when, by whom it is done in z manner’). Thus, the Curia (a chamber used for meetings of the Senate, traditionally Rome’s conciliar body) which occupies a site by the Arch of Septimius Severus both is and is not the Curia constructed over two millennia before, by the Dictator (at that time still a regular office within consensus politics) ‘Lucky’ Sulla. And it also does and does not recall Mussolini’s early twentieth-century programme of laying bare, often with brutality to the urban fabric of the intervening centuries, what might be recalled to life as ancient proof of Rome’s destined imperial greatness.

As we discussed how the forces of history act not only on the fabric but also the context of how buildings function, we stopped at two evocative death zones. The mysterious Lapis Niger or ‘Black Stone’ (in one legend, the site of the burial of Rome’s founding father Romulus back in the eighth century BCE) is a waymarker for two other key funereal moments in the Forum: the riots, fires, and destruction that followed the deaths of Publius Clodius Pulcher (arch-nemesis of the orator and statesman Cicero) and, not long after, of Julius Caesar.

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The Deified Julius’ temple abuts the former home of the Pontifex Maximus and the commercial and civic centre known as the Basilica Aemilia-Paulli which went through significant changes in form and use (4/7/2017).

The temple to the God Caesar, dedicated shortly after his assassination in March 44 BCE, brings that strand in urban morphology full-circle. Like charismatic leader Romulus (in one version of the legend), Caesar was killed by his colleagues — a rebel conservative group within the political elite. Also like Romulus, he gained permanence within the built environment of the Forum. As Agnes reminded us, the extraordinary thing for contemporary Romans to get their heads around must have been that while humans in myth did indeed cross over into divinity, this was the first time a man with whom one might have had lunch made such a transformation.

The Forum was the heart of the Republican-era city, and while it had few permanent inhabitants (exceptions: the Pontifex Maximus, or Chief Priest, plus the college of female priests called the Vestal Virgins, a powerful cadre of professionally unmarried women) it was the hub for the courts and legal activity, for religious practice, political deliberation, for marking the triumphant return of successful military commanders. It had shops, monuments, arcades within which to stroll, and before the construction of permanent theatres or amphitheatres, it was a space for staging public entertainments. Setting the new God Caesar in this context, in a brand new marble temple, sent a powerful political and cultural message to upholders of the previous status quo.

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Pausing in the portico garden of the House of the Vestals gave us a chance to gaze up towards the Palatine Hill, and think about why statues are most vulnerable at their necks… (4/7/2017)

We spent the rest of the morning exploring the Palatine Hill, the zone towards which power began to shift under the next phase in Rome’s political development: the era of the Principate, ushered in by Caesar’s heir who took the honorific name Augustus.

Rome’s Seven Hills are famous (even if no-one in antiquity exactly agreed which of the many more than seven were the Seven), and the Palatine gave us the chance to talk through the rapidity with which political power shifts can become inscribed on physical topography, and in turn shift cultural expectations. Elevated on a hill, Augustus’ (relatively) modest house was gradually added to, first by him (the construction of a temple complex to the god who helped him come to power, Apollo) then by subsequent ‘emperors’ (a term which in antiquity meant someone with officially sanctioned power, but without the autocratic connotations we now attach to it).

The vestigial remains of one part of that eventually imperial residential complex developed by the emperor Domitian (51-96 CE) showcased the superfluity and conspicuous consumption that characterised the powerful architectural and visual rhetoric of Roman ‘palace’ complexes (‘palace’ from…Palatine!). We would see aspects of this visual rhetoric (opus sectile, scale, complex geometric built form, rich materials) in the static experience and staged movement through space at the Pantheon (that afternoon), St. Peter’s and EUR (6 July), and Hadrian’s Villa (7 July).

After lunch we worked our way through the city zone that was in antiquity the Campus Martius (Field of Mars). Once outside the city limits, it was incorporated, shifting during the late Republic from a green-belt military exercise ground to an entertainment zone hosting the city’s first stone theatres, an amphitheatre, a grand public baths and gymnasium, gardens, galleries, and places of religious worship (including temples of some of the new gods Rome was so good at assimilating, for instance Egyptian Isis; but also giving us a chance to discuss a characteristically Egyptian power-icon, the obelisk, imported into Rome’s urban visual vocabulary).

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S. Maria in Trastevere (4/7/2017)

We though about urban segregation: by ethnicity/religion (within the confines of the Jewish Ghetto), by risk (on Tiber Island, a place of isolation and healing of the sick since classical antiquity), and by choice (the changed urban dynamic reflected in Papal realignment of power at Rome centred on the north-west bank of the river, some distance from the historic centre).

At Santa Maria in Trastevere we concluded the day, thinking about ‘left bank’ politics, spoliation and continuity with classical antiquity, and how radical was the iconographic shift from medieval to renaissance rhetorics of power.

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This charming fountain just outside the Ghetto belies the troubled history of Rome’s relationship with its Jewish population, and the wider challenges of how urban morphology aids/hinders integration (4/7/2017)

All these changes had deeply personal effects on individual lives, but also created seismic shifts in the economic, infrastructural, and political life of the city and its topography.

Day 3 (5 July 2017)

LANS students impressed us all with their ability to get up early and be on time for morning meet ups that were typically 0730! Students were staying in apartments on either side of the Tiber, and had to make their way independently every morning to the designated site — what stars they all were! Wednesday we were on a train to Ostia Antica by 0800 (some of us had postponed breakfast till the caffe at Porta San Paolo station…).

Agnes gave students a clear sense of how visiting Ostia not only presents the skeleton of an ancient city laid bare, but also tells a story of how geographic and environmental change have a radical impact on urban and economic life. This was a port city which lost its connection to the sea, and with its waterway gone, was abandoned to time. Commerce and economic life moved with the changes in the river’s course and the coastline. This vital impact of the river at the heart of Rome’s success was embedded by Agnes in discussions all week. As she reminded students, Rome itself may have been founded where it was not because of a legend of abandoned twins washed up on its banks (Romulus and Remus) but pragmatically because the salt route, moving inland from the coastal salt-flats, found a fordable point there on the Tiber. Commerce and politics then grew up around that site.

For lunch that day we ate at Flavio al Velavevodetto, a wonderful restaurant built into the base of Monte Testaccio, a hill composed artificially in antiquity as a terraced rubbish dump for broken potsherds, detritus of the city port on the Tiber from whence cargo from Ostia was unloaded and ported onwards (over land or using smaller boats).

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‘…along the banks of the sacred river, as far as the Tyrrhenian shores’ (EUR, 6/7/2017)

Similarly, on Thursday evening, at our visit to EUR we saw the famous inscriptions emphasising the River Tiber as a vital artery connecting Italy with its renewed twentieth-century status as a Mediterranean superpower, and characterising Italians as navigators, a nod to the importance of proximity to the sea by way of that watery road.

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Getting a straight line-up together in the cortile at the Palazzo Orsini-Taverna proved harder than one might think… (5/7/2017)

Wednesday evening was the first of our formal lectures, a tour-de-force exposition of what the terminology of the ‘palimpsest’ means when thinking syn- and diachronically about cities, delivered by Prof. Davide Vitale of the University of Arkansas Rome Center (based at the beautiful and evocative Palazzo Orsini-Taverna). I heard students dropping the term blithely into conversation over the following days, and am in awe of how well Davide managed to capture them with this new earworm at the end of another long hot Roman day!

The temperatures were in the mid- to high 30sC all week, so alongside breaks where possible during the early afternoon, we reconvened when it was cooler for evening activities.

After our lecture on the politics of architectural history we thus strolled briskly to the Ara Pacis Museum to look at a very old object (the Altar of Peace, commissioned for Augustus by a grateful Senate to celebrate peace in the empire and at Rome; dedicated in 9 BCE), significantly restored and reconstructed in a new location, excavated using cutting-edge technology, contextualised by a Piazza proud with fascist-era sloganeering and bombast, contained within a new museum (one of the only new buildings permitted to be built in the city’s historic heart) an external wall of which bears the autobiographically styled account by Augustus of his array of ‘things achieved’ (Res Gestae Diui Augusti).

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Do private finance and corporate investment represent a new dawn for the restoration and upkeep of cultural heritage? Are there dangers? (Colosseum, 4/7/2017)

Phew. Not to mention that like the Colosseum (where we ended up on Tuesday lunchtime), the Mausoleum of Augustus (the centrepiece of the Piazza) too will be subject to a restoration enabled by a public-private partnership, bankrolled by Italian commercial and telecoms giants. This, we decided, bore thinking about.

Day 4 (6 July 2017)

Thursday 6 July was another very early start: 0730 at a caffe near St. Peter’s Basilica. St. Peter’s gave us a chance to think about how this part of the city had been re-zoned by the collapse of the Roman Empire in the West, the rise of the Papacy, and the seismic shift operated by the fall of Constantinople leading in large part to what would become known as the Renaissance (with all the architectural, political, economic, artistic, and religious shifts that entailed).

The world really was changed as humanocentric theories of the cosmos were challenged (and eventually overturned) and the Catholic Church began the counterattack against ‘protesting’ voices unhappy with the style, ethos, and manner of central religious government.

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St. Ignazio, where a trompe l’oeil ceiling (and dizzyingly fake dome) helped students think about how the counter-reformation Catholic Church fought back… (4/7/2017)

From the church of St. Ignazio with its emphasis on the unknowability of the logic and language of the divine (unless mediated by the Church for its flock) to St. Peter’s (with its massive evocation of classical forms to lend authority, scale, and wow-factor, while reminding pilgrims that Catholicism remained Peter’s foundation and an earthly manifestation hinting at ineffable heavenly glory), we saw again and again how the urban vocabulary of classical antiquity and ancient Roman innovation formed vital motifs in successive negotiations of civic power and authority.

The Vatican also, of course, recalls the Lateran Treaty (1929) and the rapprochement between Church and State that saw the papacy make peace with Mussolini in exchange (among other things) for territorial rights. We saw flickers of this as we studied the iconography and design of the buildings left representing what was to be a showpiece of Mussolini’s fascist (from the Latin term fasces, the name for the symbols of office associated with the magistrates of the Res Publica) vision.

See St. Peter's dome rising, right below the Colosseum and just a swerve from the Pantheon!

Antiquity, Christianity, and politics jostle in this unusual frieze (EUR, 6/7/2017)

Concretised in a grand exhibition (Esposizione Universale di Roma, EUR) in 1942, this vision was to illuminate the modern capital city and (not long ago unified) nation as a ‘Third Rome’ (after the Emperors and the Popes). It would have stressed both the continuity and majestic progress embodied in Italy’s new and improved redevelopment of imperial status.

We had an unexpected transport strike to deal with that day, so Agnes’ ability to hire us a minibus (blessedly, with air conditioning — by 1600 when we were leaving for EUR the heat was intense) last minute was totally miraculous!

Our minibus moved us in style between key sites at EUR (sadly, the Museo della Civilta Romana is still closed), then returned us to the city centre where we variously went for a quick drink and/or a gelato before reconvening for our second evening lecture of the week: Miriam’s introduction to the ideological design linking botany, art, architecture, religion, history, and politics at the Villa d’Este, where we would conclude our visits the following day.

Day 5 (7 July 2017)

Friday morning saw many bleary faces. My impression is that the LANS students made a night of it and fully enjoyed Rome’s summer party atmosphere. I, by contrast, had embraced an early night. We set out for Tivoli in our mini-bus at 0830, and after a pity-pit-stop for coffee / cold drinks / cake at the nearby bar we tackled the archaeological site of the country estate said to have been designed by the Emperor Hadrian. Agnes had designed a route to give maximum thematic value and access to key zones while also keeping us moving between water fountains and patches of shade.

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Orientation: Villa Adriana (7/7/2017)

Crucial discussions picked up on the power of scale and decor, and the relationship of designed space to movement patterns and ideology. In a site as big as this one, with so many unique and complex architectural forms to get to grips with, the most important thing for LANS students was to understand the complex interrelationship between such disparate areas of expertise and authority, and the significance of buying in (or knowing how to source) expertise when novel problems appear.

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Hadrian, an emperor famed for forcing his ‘court’ to join him at his out-of-town villa (or on-tour across the empire), dabbled in architecture and philosophy, and wrote poetry (as well as governing most of the known world). After lunch at the hill town of Tivoli we finished our week’s work with the water-fantasia that is the Villa d’Este.

This sixteenth-century palazzo and garden complex, designed for Cardinal Ippolito II d’Este by architect and antiquarian Pirro Ligorio (just as Ligorio was excavating the nearby site of Hadrian’s villa, for his patron the Cardinal — see a googlebooks preview of David R. Coffin’s 2004 study of Ligorio here), is now a UNESCO World Heritage site, but sadly diminished in terms of the working hydraulics as originally envisaged.

We were lucky to have Miriam as our guide for the gardens because her research is breaking new ground in explaining how the somatic, architectonic, natural, economic, hydraulic, political, religious, and personal all coalesce in a stroll through the water-feature filled terraces. I’m not going to give away Miriam’s original analysis in this blog! Lucky students got a sneak preview, everyone else reading this will have to wait for the completed thesis.

Suffice to say that the stimulating and cooling properties of the Villa d’Este made for a perfectly judged end to a memorable trip, which concluded that night with a very convivial dinner at Trattoria Polese.

There was genuine emotion on display as our meal ended, coffees were drunk, and Miriam and I made a closing address to sum up some of what we hope and believe the week achieved. It’s been a real privilege to share this intensive learning experience with such a great group!

Amédée – Madness at the REP!

contributed by Harriett Stothard, LANS Year 2 student

I went in to this play completely blind (and slightly late – oops!), aside from this very short description I skim-read:

‘Frustrated playwright Amédée (played by Trevor Fox) is still trying to finish the play he started writing  . . . 15 years ago! Meanwhile, his wife Madeleine (Josie Lawrence), works hard in telecommunications to keep them in their dilapidated London apartment. But the couple are keeping a secret. A big secret that seems to be getting bigger by the day. A terrifying secret that is now threatening to take over their lives. A secret that has grown into an unwelcome entity they can no longer hide. Now they urgently need a plan of how to get rid of it!’

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The wordy trailer….

I assumed that it would be a kitchen-sink comedy drama type thing, which I thought would be interesting if a little dry, but I was so wrong! Turns out, Amédée is a little known Theatre of the Absurd play from 1954, from one of the first voices in Absurdist theatre, Eugène Ionesco, who was in the forefront of this movement along with Samuel Beckett. It has been adapted by Sean Foley and produced by Roxanna Silbert, the Artistic Director of the REP (with this trailer).

It did have elements of the domestic/kitchen sink/sitcom drama style with a bickering couple, except with a mysterious growing… thing in the next room and mushrooms sprouting through the walls! One would be mistaken (as I was) for thinking at the beginning that the growing thing could be their child and that the play was reflecting the common parental anxiety of children growing up and flying the nest, as Madeleine had a sense of the maternal about her, but it ended up being a growing dead body that she accuses Amédée of killing because it was her young lover. This is never really agreed upon amongst all the weirdness in the play, for example Madeleine’s job as a switchboard operator in their apartment, fielding calls for and from various heads of state and often answering nonsensically, Amédée’s vision of himself and Madeleine when they were younger, and the absolutely mad ending, which I won’t spoil in case anyone who hasn’t seen it wants to!

It is very confusing to pick up on different themes from this play as I am no expert in the Theatre of the Absurd, but I found it interesting to witness the (non-physical) transformation of the body in the other room from unwelcome, mysterious house guest, to child, to feared, semi ridiculous growing body, to ex-lover, to Jesus/God (from the layout of his body on stage) to finally, and most bizarrely, a sail!

I mustn’t forget to mention the kind of police state they seem to live in, with Madeleine informing someone over the phone about it, although without having been outside in 15 years, and Alfred Hickling interprets it as an allegory to the emergence of far right politics at the moment.

All in all, it was a fantastic play to see, even if I left feeling not a little flabbergasted and confused, but it was an enjoyable and very intriguing experience, which I recommend to anyone if they get a chance to see it. Lucy and I talked about it all the way home!

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Diana Spencer‘s input:

I find the challenges of absurdist theatre refreshing as well as provocative. Living within a context where norms and values seem to shift daily, and within which the ability of anyone to say ‘I belong’ with any sense of confidence has diminished, the worlds of Beckett and Ionescu become increasingly relevant. Like a number of the LANS group, I had been guided by the blurb into expecting something like Look Back in Anger (and was a little bit ambivalent about how such an adaptation would work). Perhaps a better way to my mind of characterising what we experienced was Joe Orton crossed with Monty Python, with a dash of Antonin Artaud.

The play left us processing the challenges of variant and fragile versions of ‘reality’, and it prodded us to examine what constitutes a sense of self and how this reacts to but also models the various modes of existence available to us. We wondered, discussing the play afterwards, whether the growing corpse was symbolic of the ego and its destructive potential. We also wondered to what extent the incomplete play (and the incomplete/dynamic corpse) signalled a wider challenge to the idea of iterative self-fashioning as a way of coming to terms with the daily grind of life. Is it ‘better’ or ‘worse’ to acquiesce to these patterns and normalise them? Or should we seek to ‘resolve’ the irregularities and the mundane experiences that frame them by stepping outside?

I think we all marvelled at the play and the ideas it generated; it’s not necessarily a play to like but it is a play to come back to, and kept creeping into my thoughts all weekend.

And another, shorter, comment: I went along with no idea what to expect and left with just as many thoughts flying around my head! Absolutely bonkers, but also hilarious and thought provoking. – Lucy Fellows, Y2

To be or not to be absurd: the existential question of Amedee

contributed by Emil Toescu, LANS team

Amédée, you are the artist: highfalutin with words, working with them, spontaneously. But unable to string them on paper when it matters, but you try.

She’s telling you – she will divorce! Amédée, in all this time, you did no do a thing about it! You just let it grow.

Oh, this antipathy, this pathetic antipathy, la-di-da, like corn is born when thrown, you see!

Am̩d̩e, you need to do something about it, you need to overcome these growths, they flourish everywhere, and they might be poisonous, they might be toxic, they might be delirious Рthey grow and it grows, its nails and hair, all certainly in geometric fashion. Bring on science, bring on numbers, so that we have an understanding: 6 cm in the last hour or so -we do have some control now!

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Another flying man – this one depicted by Marc Chagall

It started in the bedroom: the lover, or the corpse, the baby?, a positive or a negative – depends on the point of view, but both and all expressions of a missing…

Amédée, she is going to divorce you, if you don’t do anything about it! – and if you do? Well, Amédée, then you are going to go, with it, with the relation, with the corpse. She had enough of cleaning and brushing, Amédée, and you’ll be floating, up and free, dead or alive – it’s all just a matter of a point of view.

Whatever you feel it is a right description for this case, Eugene! – we’ll drink to that, us all, la-di-da, with the patophysician on duty near the hatstand.

And the clock eventually stops, the moon shines – it don’t mean a thing even if it got that swing…

(it’s all about this Amedee)

Banff Mountain Film Festival experience

Contributed by Lizzie Slattery, LANS Y2 student

On Saturday 4th March, LANS went to the Banff Mountain Film Festival on tour in the Birmingham Town Hall. It was quite unlike any other LANS trip we’ve been on before and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

The event consisted of the screening of seven short documentary films which had been selected from those shown at the 2016 Banff Mountain Film Festival. Below I’ve given a brief comment on my three favourite and one least favourite films…

  1. Doing it Scared–  Filmmakers: Catherine Pettman (trailer)

A short film about a British climber Paul Pritchard completing a very personal challenge. Eighteen years before the filming of the documentary, while climbing the Totem pole in Tasmania, Paul’s rope dislodged a rock above him which fell, hitting his head and leaving him partially paralysed. Following this man on his personal journey and the way that his disability has become something which he immensely values as having taught him valuable lessons in his life. It was an unexpected and interesting outlook on a catastrophic accident which radically changed his life. I was interested in the way he talked about being far more scared on his second ascent, not principally because of his disability but rather because he said he had so much more to lose than when he was younger.

  1. Dream Ride– Juicy Studios; Filmmakers: Lacy Kemp and Ryan Gibb (check it here)

My least favourite of the films, this followed a mountain biker through several North American landscapes. While the footage of the biking and landscapes was stunning, the accompanying poetry was less than. Filled with clichés at every turn, I felt that if the writer had been less concerned with rhyming and more with meaning, he might have produced some more interesting poetry.

  1. La Liste (a 47 min version of the film here, from the RedBull site)

A young French skier Jérémie Heitz undertakes the challenge of skiing 15 of the steepest peaks in the Alps in two ski seasons. A fast paced and gripping film, with Heitz skiing some 4000 metre peaks which look completely vertical. The cinematography is beautiful with some stunning aerial footage of the Alps.

  1. Mira (check further details here)

This was my favourite film, it followed the journey of a young Nepali girl named Mira Rai from her humble beginnings in rural Nepal to becoming a world class trail runner. Her incredible determination, spirit and belief in her own ability were astonishing to watch. I didn’t even know it was humanly possible to run over 110 kilometres through mountainous regions and all weathers. Mira’s tough upbringing in the mountains of Nepal prepared her for future career as a trail runner and gave her an amazing outlook on life. I was struck by her incredible calm and positivity throughout her journey.

Leviathan, you creature of the seas…

contributed by Cassidy Locke, LANS Y2

When I went to see Leviathan at the MAC last Friday, all I knew was that it was a contemporary dance piece based on the story of Moby Dick.  It sounded intriguing enough, despite the fact that I was having trouble remembering the basic storyline of Herman Melville’s classic novel, having never read it.  I had seen the film, years ago, but all I could remember was a vague impression of a crazed sea-captain of a whaling ship being absolutely determined to catch some particular whale at any cost.  Ahab, this captain was called, and the whale was Moby Dick.  Ahab sought revenge on the whale for biting his leg off at the knee on a previous expedition.  My lack of knowledge was not to be a problem, I was relieved to find. The performance was only loosely based on Moby Dick, picking up key themes rather than attempting a complete retelling.

Throughout, the performance evoked the theme of obsession and desperation that runs through Melville’s novel, poLeviathan-spouting-girl_1000rtrayed through a remarkable flow of capoeira, martial arts and stunningly athletic dance.  The result is hard to put into words.  The stark lighting, making use of black and white, with rare flashes of yellow, the arresting artistry and deft expression of the dancers, accompanied by a moving electro-rock soundtrack by the Polish prog band Lunatic Soul melded to create a remarkable show (check this trailer of the show).  The only prop was long lengths of heavy rope, skilfully used.  The rest of the time we were left to marvel at the dancers.  The female lead, dressed all in white as some embodiment of the whale that Ahab seeks, maintained her distance from the audience all evening.  We were never acknowledged, scarcely saw her face, were treated to long moments where she seemed to flex each individual muscle in her back.  She was completely ethereal, totally elusive, neatly giving us an insight into Ahab’s frustration that he cannot catch her. This is a frustration that we saw mounting all evening with Ahab’s vocal and dynamic performance evoking the chaos of his mind.

leviathan2Every dancer was perfectly poised, panther-like in their bounce and stealth, radiating strength and artistry in a way that I could never have expected when I settled into my seat that evening.   The performance was creative and innovative in every aspect.  There were times when they were all linked together and sailed over and under one another in a way that did not seem possible, even as they proved me wrong.  The James Wilton Dance company gave us something unique, something startling, something powerful.

A brief history of (English) music

contributed by Jennifer (Qian) Zhang, LANS Y1

What else could bring you the music of the Middle Ages England on a Friday evening? The answer surely is a Cultural Event!

On 17th Feb, we went to the Solihull Core Theatre for an educational treat. It was an ‘intimate’ experience according to Jennifer Bainbridge (Yr4) that pulled us close to some English folk music 600 years ago, and presented some interesting aspects of that culture.

Brief History of Music

After a brief introduction, the two presenters/musicians started off playing the oldest surviving English song (so old, that I forgot its name!). The show moved in chronological order. Most songs were cheerful and genuinely pleasant to listen to. Throughout the whole evening, the same two people kept the show going and I really appreciated their stamina, as they were either playing an instrument, or singing, or explaining the background of music and presenting the various instruments – non-stop.

One feature picked out by many was the interesting explanations offered for each song. The performers would give an idea of when the song was composed, the occasion it was played in, and so on. There was one really loud instrument which musicians would get paid and use it to wake people up at certain time. Abi Pilkington Yr1 mentioned: “they combined the comedy and education elements really well and successfully, plus I came away with more of an appreciation of the background of instruments.Jennifer Bainbridge Yr 4 also reviewed: “I liked the balance between music and explanations and felt like learned a lot.

Almost none of us knew what to expect, as it was rather difficult to fathom from the online description; it was difficult to imagine what it might contain before actually experiencing it; but everyone would agree that we were drawn to the uniqueness of it and, on the evening, everybody enjoyed it. It is true, having some random songs were played, using some old blaring instruments might not sound that attractive (pun intended!), but the overall value came from such a straight forward way to presenting and experience the culture of a time long past.

To end this blog, I would like to mention another thing that made me enjoy the event which was the witty and cheeky lyrics. The song repeated:

My thing is my own,

And I will keep it so still

Yet all the young lasses may do as they will.

More comments on “A brief history of music”:

Miriam Wallis Yr2: I absolutely loved it. It was also really funny which was a nice surprise. Definitely one of the better events I’ve been to.

Abi Pilkington Yr1: I really enjoyed the show, however I wish they’d shown the more modern/ current pieces of music too so I could relate.

Jennifer Bainbridge Yr4: I really enjoyed it. I wouldn’t say it has inspired me but I’d definitely be interested in attending similar events to do with folk music/ history of music 🙂

Katy Potter Yr2: I really enjoyed it! It was great how many instruments they used. It doesn’t link really to anything I do haha but I really enjoy music so I thought it would be a good thing to attend.

And also,  thanks to Alice Heaps who would like to share her blog on this event. Click here to see her blog with amazing and quality details on the event: A Brief History of Music – just one second: https://justonesecondalice.wordpress.com/2017/02/18/a-brief-history-of-music/

Why Cirque Berserk wasn’t all just clowning around.

contributed by Helena (Chloe) Gooding, 1st LANS student

If I am to be honest, I signed up for Cirque Berserk because it was offered, it sounded entertaining and I was up for a free laugh at the Circus. But I left thinking I might actually have learnt something, or at least made a few interesting observations. It wasn’t until I found myself laughing at the ridiculous and perfectly choreographed antics of the clown that I realised how much I had needed that time to destress. At university I find that there isn’t constant pressure placed on me by others, like teachers and family, as was the case with school, but it is self inflicted pressure. Essays and exams loom over us like horrifying storm clouds, distant but always present. Have I read enough? Did I really spend those 7 hours in the library effectively?

And how do most of us cope?

We got out, we drink, we make poor life choices in the confines of a club or bar because that’s the only place we are allowed to fail, make fools out of ourselves, and by the next morning its forgotten. We get to forget the storm cloud for the night. Not that this is a health coping mechanism, but it’s the only one we are taught, by our siblings, our friends, even our parents.

award-winning-physical-comedian-tweedy-in-cirque-berserk

Tweedy from the Cirque Berserk troupe

You know what they don’t suggest you do to relieve stress? Going to the Circus. I felt a strange connection to the clown on stage. Like when he attempted to pick up one object but would drop another, comically lunging after his hat while his broom fell the floor. Repeating the same old silly mistake. Attempting to carry too many things at once. That is university, that is our life. Study for hours and we’ve dropped our responsibility to our friends, spend the evening watching a movie and instantly remember that chapter you had planned to finish two days ago. Life is a juggling contest, and the clown affords us the opportunity to laugh at this, to forget the storm cloud, to reflect on the storm cloud if we’re not too busy laughing. The trick where the gymnasts jumped through hoops was strangely cathartic. We jump through hoops daily, finish this assignment to get here, say this to that person to make that connection. When I imagine jumping through hoops I see myself more nervously lolloping towards my goals. Leaping with all the grace of a flying turnip and quite possibly falling on my face the other side, but at least I got through the hoop right? Does it really matter that I broke my leg in the process? But these gymnasts did it so beautifully, leaping and twirling and rolling, they jumped through their hoops in style. Maybe I should set myself the challenge of jumping through my hoops like them, with a bit of pizzas, that is if the exam officer doesn’t mind.