The beautiful, enormous space of Carriageworks – probably at least half the size of the Venice Arsenale – is a good place to think about the relationship between body and space. It is a semi-reconstructed, semi-abandoned train shed, a glass and iron enclosure of large volumes of air, with narrow but tall corridors, with sprinkles of soft benches, chairs, on the concrete floor, a space as impressive, in its effect on the mind, as any intentionally good architecture – as pleasant to wander around as that opera house. Sivan Gabrielovich mentioned being in the outback, experiencing for the first time the enormity of Australia, and feeling bare, lost, foreign, and unable to hide to herself. Nothing casting a shadow. I have often, returning to the Kvarner Bay after long periods overseas, felt the immediate realignment between my physical existence and the dynamics of the relief: the regular rhythm of the hills, the safe mutability of the sea, the enclosure of the islands all around.
The philosophical background to Bodyweather likewise – the acceptance of being a part of the world, and not a constant confrontation with it, is what has driven Far-Eastern thought strongly towards understanding applied arts and everyday practices as spiritual pursuits, perfecting the tea ceremony and work ethics just like the Western thought has engaged in still life painting, biochemistry and walking on the moon. As Okakura says, in The Book of Tea, “The art of life is in constant and repeated adapatation to our surroundings.”
Bodyweather is a comprehensive training and performance practice, developed by Min Tanaka, a butoh dancer and choreographer, and his Mai-Juku Performance Company, exploring the intersection of body and environment. Body is conceived not as a fixed, separate entity, but as a constantly changing, permeable element in the order of things, responding to the processes inside and outside the body. Like the weather. Strength is drawn from the acceptance of its fragile finiteness. As a former member of Mai-Juku, from 1985 to 1991, Tess De Quincey introduced Bodyweather to Australia in 1988, before establishing De Quincey Co. in 2000. She has since engendered a strong teaching and performance practice, and developed different projects, the most fascinating of which must be the Triple Alice Laboratories, which explored the landscape of the Central Desert of Australia, bringing together an interdisciplinary group of artists and scientists, indigenous and non-indigenous, in situ.
This is another dance tribe, and one that, I am told, has historically focused around Performance Space, which is one institution Melbourne could really envy Sydney for. A very precious, very valuable organisation, presenting a curated program of contemporary hybrid performance, linking theatre with dance, film, visual arts and new media, and creating a profile for the new, it is the kind of kick that Australian performance needs badly, and doesn't get with any sustained effort.
Triptych is a performance that moves its audience around, arranges our limbs, with the patience of water. It opens up and closes like an accordion book. It lets us find our space along a long wall with no seating provided, and then, changing the configuration of space with moving screens, gently forces us to disperse, assemble, locate a bench or lie on the ground. It's a slow, deep experience, demanding patience and engagement. It affects internally, through the stomach.
It opens with Peter Fraser, later joined by Lizzie Thomson, their movement slowly overloading with the stimulus of three enormous screens projecting cherry branches quivering in the wind. The performance slowly builds up the initial pink prettiness of cherry blossom into a paralyzing experience of over-abundant stimulation, as Fraser tries to fly and collapses. Using the incessant repetitive accumulation of sound and image as soft as a murmur, it becomes the overwhelming nothingness of a full, dense void. The excess of colour, of movement, of the three screens build up into abstract buzz – and this dissolution of cherry blossom into pure stimulation is the last instance of figuration we will see tonight.
The next configuration of screens, Fraser and Thomson now accompanied by Victoria Hunt and Linda Luke, shows the body responding to the electric buzz: information, digital impulses, electricity, with the body near-paralyzed, unable to create coherent movement with beginning and end. The only way for this fine-grained stimulation of noise to resolve is to turn into organic white noise of the sea. As it does, the body slowly frees itself from the block and, finally, Victoria Hunt manages a smooth, non-discontinued, round arm movement. And collapses.
Triptych composes media with more intelligence than just about any performance I've seen: no element is dispensable. The moving screens constantly change the dynamics of space, with view lines intersecting, with movement lines interrupting and changing; performers can be out of the view of most, or even everyone, in the audience, and yet they are strong points in the overall composition of bodies, image, and empty space. There appear to be serial images built in linear configurations: in one moment, Thomson spasming in front of a screen, in unison with the sound/image projected, is mirrored by a smaller, less undisciplined tremor of Hunt's body, while Luke, on the far right, is helplessly lying on the ground. In the third scene, the sea wave on each side of the space draws an invisible line of horizon with the two central screens, and the perceived darkening of the digital screen when viewed at an angle creates an illusion of depth. Gorgeous projections by Sam James and Robin Fox and De Quincey's dance are closely, closely aligned with the Chris Abrahams's noisescape, to the point where no element could exist without the other (and how often do you see dance where the back wall is a brainstorm of unrelated imagery?).
However, for someone as unfamiliar with Bodyweather, or De Quincey, as I am, it was the quality of the body that was the biggest revelation, and the strongest point of interest. All four are astonishing performers (particularly Hunt and Fraser), their bodies like clay, drying into brittle dissipation with air, pulsating with electricity, or absorbing the heaviness of water. This is more an exploration of pure movement, of body reacting to stimuli, than choreography as such, and whoever expects dancers to stretch limbs and mimic being pulled and pushed may find little visual interest in Triptych. These are weighty bodies, grounded, most of the movement being an accumulation of blocked responses accumulating inside the body, trying to find release. It has no interest in recitative, demonstrative movement, but works from the inside. It is often inscrutable, emitting no signals and sending no messages; it can be merely felt. These are real bodies, bodies being, rather than ever copying another reality.
Triptych. By De Quincey Co. presented by Performance Space. Choreographer/Director Tess de Quincey. Performers Peter Fraser, Victoria Hunt, Linda Luke, Lizzie Thomson. Sound composition Chris Abrahams. Audio-visual production Sam James. Video footage Tess de Quincey. Oscilloscopes Robin Fox. Performance Space @ Carriageworks, 245 Wilson Street, Eveleigh, Sydney. 6–15 November.