On Lucy Guerin; generally, and Corridor; specifically

Lucy Guerin, who, together with husband Gideon Obarzanek of Chunky Move, makes up Melbourne's choreographing royalty, sometimes seems to define dance in this city. So little of what the mainstage sees is radically different from their work, that having to disagree with what they have to say sometimes feels like a heresy.

And yet.

Guerin is a choreographer who will use a theme, an issue or an idea in order to explore movement, rather than using movement in order to explore a theme, an issue or an idea. In other words, while Guerin may create beautiful dance informed by the nature of love, one is unlikely to come to new conclusions on the nature of love from watching the piece. Guerin's pieces are always a solipsism, closed off from their point of departure in a strange way, self-sufficient and happy – which is not a flaw by definition. However, Guerin's choreography also appears increasingly simple, clear and semantically fixed like an open book or, less benevolently, a children's crayon drawing. (For this reason, I think, Guerin's dance is also an excellent introduction to contemporary dance in general, as it is squarely dance, yet very legible. Just like Jérôme Bel's work, by the same virtue of simple, glass-like clarity of intention and effect, is an excellent introduction to conceptual dance.) There is never an esoteric point of departure, never one too far away from the quotidian (structure and sadness, love, communication or, in the case of Corridor, over-saturation with commands), and the resulting performance never strays too much from being a dancing illustration. This occurs with such consistence that one ought not to read the program notes if one truly wants to think in front of the eye candy. Guerin's program notes are the most unsatisfying program notes in the world, spelling points and references out until the performance becomes an open structure, legible like an architectonic sketch.

As a result, cleansed of conceptual enigmas or radical opinions, Guerin's pieces rise or fall on the strength of choreography. Hers is often lovely movement, with nice balance between filigree and broad, between strong and soft, sharp and round, between abstract and figurative. Aether, for example, was Guerin at her aesthetically most satisfying. But, when the movement is mostly trite, a piece like Corridor starts to look grossly unexciting.

Harriet Ritchie and Lee Serle. Photo: Jeff Busby.

Corridor, Guerin's new piece commissioned for MIAF '08, gives one plenty of time to ruminate on what doesn't work, and why. The program notes, with characteristic subtlety, inform you immediately that the over-abundance of information, instructions on how to live, are at the bottom of the work. If one experiments in ignoring the notes, it will take no more than the first quarter of the show to glean the theme, still deserting the remaining three quarters to terrifying boredom, as the running motif of orders, orders, orders, fails to develop in either depth or breadth. Guerin commits another major crime of spelling out the methodology – dance improvisation on instructions delivered in real time, via phone, mp3 players, written text, imitation and verbally. Leaving the notes unread, though, one is left in the cold, with no insulation from fully noticing how uninventive, ham-handed the movement is. With dancers spontaneously responding to a whole array of orders, from roll on the floor to fall madly in love, figuration completely overruns abstraction, and a sea of details any broader structure, spoiling the usually solid balance of Guerin's work. It is all the more tragic that Corridor's cast lists all of the most promising young dancers in Melbourne, from Sara Black and Kirstie McCracken (somewhat less razor-sharp than usual), to the exquisite Harriet Ritchie, my new favourite Melbourne body.

Language is employed in the way that cannot be called more than tokenistic: here again, like in Two Faced Bastard, is Anthony Hamilton saying nothing in particular; and there is the writing on mirrors, inept descriptions of audience members. As if someone's idea of incorporating language (in itself not ground-breaking in dance), was merely tested, and still awaits evaluation. To use words, one of the most powerful elements of performance, in such a cavalier way, is shockingly slack. To decorate dance with some language is no more honourable than decorating verbal theatre with some dancing, as happens these days.

Because of Guerin's strong focus on effect of meaning on movement, rather than the other way around, a lot of it would work better if it were incorporated in theatre, with the dance motifs expanded and drawn out by a more discplined format, restricted by the need to pay attention to characters, dramaturgy, narrative line. The phalanx of order-reciting dancers, sweeping the narrow corridor in rotating formation, exempli gratia, is a beautifully realised image, but one the strength of which disperses in the dramaturgically vague sequence of scenes that follows. The duet of ailing between Kirsty McCracken and Harriet Ritchie is graceful, humourous and accessible, but, likewise, comes out of nowhere and proceeds into nothing. The structure of Corridor, ultimately, is one long, stop-start list of possible responses to one same question (© Carl), with no progressive development, coming across very much like a workshop in conceptual something or other.

Melbourne International Arts Festival. Corridor. Lucy Guerin Inc. Choreography: Lucy Guerin. Dancers: Sara Black, Anthony Hamilton, Kirstie McCracken, Byron Perry, Harriet Ritchie, Lee Serle. Sound design: Haco. Set Design: Donand Holt. Lighting design: Keith Tucker. Costume Design: Paula Levis. Producer: Michaela Coventry. Arts House, Meat Market, Oct 16-25.

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