They do not mean to, but they do

Rene Eyre's early choreography earned her headlines in the Sunday Sport ; Sophie Constanti wonders what they'll make of her latest
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Rene Eyre's first brush with tabloid notoriety occurred in 1989 when the Sunday Sport learnt of - and promptly sensationalised - her performance art homage to Yves Klein.

Three-minute bites of the work, which featured a quartet of naked women (Eyre included) rolling around in paint and across a giant canvas, were relayed live on Channel 4's Club X: the Sunday Sport duly informed its art-hungry readers of four luscious lovelies who get their kit off. Since that giggle, Eyre has been quietly devising works in which potential shock value is located in content rather than form. In A Few Small Nips, created in 1990 for her own dance group, Action Syndicate, Eyre e xplored theiconography of Frida Kahlo, the Mexican artist who, after sustaining horrific injuries in a trolleybus accident (a handrail gored her abdomen, shattered her spine and exited through her vagina), turned her broken body into both source and sub ject of her paintings.

In her most recent solo work, Say a Little Prayer - commissioned by Chisenhale Dance Space last year - Eyre draws on autobiographical material of a disturbing nature.While nothing she does on the sawn-off top half of an outsize bed - her safe haven - is liable to attract tabloid hacks to Oval House, the soundtrack composed of anecdotes and memories from Eyre's childhood makes for queasy listening. For binding these unsentimental recollections of domestic incident and trauma, such as her 13-year-old brother dying from heart failure brought on by an asthma attack at home, is the incestuous relationship between Eyre's father and sister, and the conspiracy of silence that served it.

Eyre's father, an uneducated Irish labourer who joined and deserted the army four times before marrying his English wife and settling in London, ruled over his family like a deranged sergeant major. He would order his five children - three daughters, twosons - to march around the house in single file or to queue outside the kitchen at mealtimes. Eyre, now 36, remembers him as a bigot ("he was so homophobic ... he had a big problem with open-toed sandals and short-sleeved shirts") and a bully who frequently resorted to physical and verbal abuse.

"I always smile when I think of the way in which God eventually wreaked vengeance in giving dad the worst kind of family that a bigot could have," Eyre says. "One of my sisters is gay; the other is unmarried but has three children by a West Indian guy; and my brother has never worked in his life." Her mother, a stoical victim, retreated into a private world of endless household drudgery. "We saw them not as parents but as characters who controlled our lives," explains Eyre. "We gave them nicknames: to us, they were `Cook' and `Captain' and we were forever constructing games around them in an attempt, I now realise, to make sense of a weird situation, to contain and cushion the violence." These days, she can laugh at some aspects of the treacherously dysfunctional family life engineered by parents who "weren't doing us a favour by staying together" and who belonged to a generation that "didn't pay much attention to children's emotional needs."

Eyre, who studied painting and illustration at St Martin's, central London, first became involved in experimental performance art in the early Eighties. She contributed to the activities of the Event Group and worked with Richard Strange at his Wardour Street club, Cabaret Futura. There followed a brief and successful stint as an illustrator before she decided in 1983 to enrol on a dance degree course at the Laban Centre. Although both disciplines are visible in her work, the design element tends to be the more consummate. For Eyre, choreography is just one aspect of the ambitiously theatrical environments that characterise her work - as the setting for A Few Small Nips, with its pools of water and "bleeding" wall, demonstrated. But she is also interested in the parallel development of movement and design, "a co-existence which sparks things off". Her passion for artistic hybridism and collaboration led her to establish the Plunge Club, a monthly showcase "for people with ideas who want to dabble and plot".

Last year, soon after the Chisenhale premiere of Say a Little Prayer, Eyre's father died. Her mother, who is aware of the show but hasn't seen it, will neither acknowledge nor discuss the long-term sexual abuse suffered by Eyre's sister. To Eyre, Say a Little Prayer is "just another look at what makes me the adult I am today. We all have things in our past that we have to come to some reconciliation with - in order to get beyond them." Over the past few months she has expanded the work by adding a coda based on her mother's childhood experiences. As you probably guessed, she finds little to celebrate. "What would you do if I topped myself?" was her grandmother's favourite cry for help - until she finally committed the suicide she'd threatened for years. Eyre's mother, 16 at the time, remembers her plugg ing the gaps between the floorboards with old newspapers in the three weeks leading up to the event.

"My mother and father took on the pain of their parents," says Eyre. The result, she concludes, "was a relationship based on mutual disrespect". For Eyre ,the concealed traumas of an unenviable family background are akin to wounds that never heal. But inthe act of unearthing the taboos of her own history, she has also stumbled upon what some would regard as grim and and dubious motivation for her art. While I can't agree with Eyre's claim that Say a Little Prayer is a life-affirming experience - it is harrowing entertainment in the way it slowly crushes our moral filth - the work is remarkable for its creator's ability to turn incest, abuse and fear to positive and edifying use.

Next year, the choreographer, whose repertoire once included such oddities as a cricket opera and a "Mondrian dance where we leapt through square hoops", goes a step further with a psychoanalytic spoof on Freud and Dora, the sexual hysteric. Eyre is already preparing for the role of Dora and working on the design of an extending, phallic couch.

At Oval House Theatre, London (Upstairs) to 18 Dec; then from 6-8 and 12-15 Jan 1995. Box-office: 071-582 7680

Comments