At its heart, this was an evening of stories about regeneration, and the relationship and interdependence between animals and humans. It was a beautiful, very moving collaboration between two artists at the top of their respective fields. It was heartfelt, and needed time to deeply digest.
So how on earth to review it? I’d been pincered in advance by both Malcolm and Chris to write a personal response, and was feeling quite nervous. Best, perhaps, to begin at the beginning…
From California to the east coast of Australia, from South Korea to India, Bavaria, Oslo and, closer to home, even two young neighbours of our host for the evening, Malcolm, in Newcastle in the north east of England – around 70 souls from across the world tuned in last Friday to hear Laura Simms and Katherine Zeserson. Watching and listening as people signed in, it was interesting see such a broad mix of regulars and first timers, from places near and far. Such is the wonder of Zoom, and the reputation of these two wonderful artists to attract such an audience.
While Katherine and some of her work as musical director at Sage, Gateshead needed little introduction to me, Laura’s work I had not come across before, I was ashamed to realise until – as a good reviewer! – I’d done a bit of homework about her. The picture that emerged of her work was frankly both humbling, and little short of amazing. She is hugely respected in many countries, not just a storyteller but as a writer and humanitarian thanks to her work with UNESCO, UNICEF and many, many others. She uses the power of stories to heal in so many ways, and she continues to be a power of good in the world.
How on earth did a smallish group tucked away in a pocket of England manage to attract such an impressive person to share some of her stories with us? Part of the answer to that question came in Malcolm’s brief introduction to the evening, as he related how he’d been inspired, nearly 40 years ago, to take his own path as a storyteller after being completely captivated by her telling an African tale at the Royal Festival Hall in London in 1982. A short email from him inviting her to perform for A Bit Crack got an instant reply. Not so many people offer a whole-hearted YES to a group they have never heard of.
Laura completed the answer to that question herself in her first sentence from across the virtual pond. “I said ‘Yes’ because I love the spirit, heart and ‘homeyness’ of English clubs.” Any lingering doubts I’d felt about a cultural divide between us was instantly dispelled. But I was still not ready for what was to follow.
By some strange coincidence both Laura and Katherine originally hail from New York, and share a Jewish heritage. They had just a couple of days to prepare so what emerged was pretty much at times a spontaneous combination of words and sounds flowing back and forth between them both. It felt utterly unique, a little bit weird maybe at times but completely compelling – certainly unlike anything I had ever witnessed before. We were boldly going where I, for one, had not been before. It was at times unsettling, and it was storytelling, but not as I’d come to know and love it. Laura would begin a story and seemingly pause, whereupon Katherine would appear in her place on our screens, standing, and respond with wordless rising sounds and tumbling notes and part tunes, which would in turn fade. As she returned to her sofa, Laura would pick up her tale.
For her first story, Laura travelled no further than the window of her apartment in a former glove factory in Manhattan. From there she saw one day outside that a pigeon had died, and was lying prone. Another pigeon, maybe its mate, flew down to perch on its body, and began kneading it with its feet. This continued for hours, as if it was trying to resuscitate the dead bird – an image that somehow remained with me long after the rest of the tale was told. Eventually the pigeon’s body decomposed, and the rain and wind took the remains away. But there in its place a Dove’s egg appeared…
After a improvised seemingly part pigeon, part human song from Katherine, another short tale followed from Laura of an Ostrich killed by a hunter. From one feather with a drop of blood on it, it returned to life and returned to the nests where the mothers laid their eggs. We were being transported into a world where life and death, humans and animals seemed to merge and emerge, one from the other, mysteriously conjured up by Katherine’s vocalisation.
Her third and main story, Laura explained, came from the Lenape people who, long before the white man came, used to live on the land her window now looks out on. Below her was once a trail created by those same indigenous people. Today it is known as Broadway. This story came from a book of folklore among a pile of others she’d rescued from a local school who were having some sort of clear out. A story of a young chief, beloved of his people, a great leader and hunter who respected the animals he hunted. One day when he himself was attacked and left to die, the animals found him, and restored him to life. But, as Laura explained, some parts of a story you can’t tell, they are not our story to tell. Suffice to say, as a result, the location of a Great Medicine Lodge in that part of the world remains a secret to this day. But the message was clear: love the animals and regard them as our family. If they leave, there will be no medicine.
Again Katherine rose with a song, a human sound, pre-verbal – deep, reverberating, a conduit from the earth.
For her final tale Laura told a Hindu story of a woman who stole an egg that a Dove had placed in the hollow of a tree, that especially delighted our two younger listeners! A little like the old woman in the song who swallowed a fly (spoiler alert – she doesn’t die in this one!) she is eventually persuaded to return the Dove’s egg and put it back in the tree, and we are back at the beginning again.
Laura mixed stories of her own modern life with the ancient pre-colonial origins of others. In her telling, it was as if she was clearing away the debris, leaving us with just the bare bones. The veil between us and our stories became thinner, and the spirit of the earth was summoned. Katherine’s improvisation helped further clear the smoke of culture, and in the deep root of her song, we could sense the being of being human.
With these wise words, Laura left us: “We need to regenerate the spirit of knowing inside ourselves before it’s too late. That becomes a source of justice, and laughter.”
We hope she will be back.