Princess: the bride of the idea - Rose English

Walter Phillips Gallery, Banff - August 6, 1994

exhibition text by Tim Westbury


Since 1974, the elaborate performances of British artist Rose English have drawn widespread public and critical acclaim. In her groundbreaking combination of spectacular theatre and distinctly non-academic philosophical inquiry, English has developed a unique performance style through which she examines the nature of mystery and investigates some of the concepts that lie behind our continued desire to believe in fictions. She has toured her numerous solo performances throughout Britain and Canada and has appeared in several plays. She has also acted and written for film and television and was a 1988 recipient of the Time Out London Dance and Performance Award.


My Mathematics, perhaps Rose English's most highly acclaimed recent performance work, premiered during the summer of 1992, first as part of the Serious Fun Festival at the Lincoln Center in New York City, then at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London. It was also presented earlier this year at the Sydney and Adelaide Festivals in Australia. Featuring the artist herself in the inimitable persona of Rosita Clavel, lone accordionist Ian Hill, a palomino stallion and original songs and arias (composed by Hill), it has played to enthusiastic audiences whenever it has been performed.

Arising from the success of My Mathematics and taking its title also from the character originally created for that piece is English's newest large-scale show, Rosita Clavel. Due to be performed in London in 1996, this major production will see the fictitious equestrian star once more united with Los Claveles - her acrobatic troupe, The Ancient Orchestra and, most importantly, her seven mythical horses.

In order to investigate some of the ideas behind Rosita Clavel, English is working on a parallel series of four shorter, self-contained vignettes that revolve around the seven horses. The first, entitled Venus and Vulcan the adoration - an equine nativity, featured a winged mare and her foal. It was staged last summer as part of Heatwave 93 at the Serpentine Gallery in London.

The Walter Phillips Gallery is very pleased to present the second vignette in Banff, Princess - the bride of the idea. Rose English and composer Ian Hill are in residence at the Banff Centre for the Arts from July 11 to August 8, developing and writing the new piece.


In Princess - the bride of the idea, Rosita Clavel once more takes her audience through a witty and spirited investigation of language and how it is understood - through the seemingly disparate theories of animal husbandry and the classical form of opera. Assisting her in this half-hour long enquiry are a tenor voice, a string sextet (both in the Banff Centre for the Art's 20th Century Opera and Song program) and, of course, a stunningly beautiful horse in the starring role.

How is it that words are so different when they are sung instead of simply spoken? Is the operatic form finite or open-ended? Questions like these guide English's text through an array of ideas that point to conclusions without ever prescribing them. The bride of the idea is, in fact, the idea of what this miniature opera is about. Words do seem almost to be married to ideas - but Rosita posits that ultimately language must be unveiled if we hope to fully embrace the real-life concepts to which it refers.

In the cycle of the Rosita Clavel vignettes, the first, Venus and Vulcan, examined the process of looking as understanding. Its content was centred on birth and the work made extensive use of dry ice to visually connect with that most elusive of the ancient Greek elements: ether. Princess is concerned with the sense of hearing and the act of marriage. The element for these concepts, as its presentation close to the Bow River suggests, is water.

As in much of English's previous work, the vignette is influenced by its specific performance location: during the summer months in Banff, the Central Park Gazebo is a popular spot for couples to tie the knot; and the string players use horse-hair bows to fill a clearing beside the Bow with regal music.

Princess - the bride of the idea finds performer Rose English using a carefully orchestrated range of media to pose playfully philosophical questions for her audience to consider. Despite all appearances to the contrary, this is not mere horseplay.

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