The fantasy of the Grand March is the political kitsch joining leftists of all times and tendencies. The Grand March is the splendid march on the road to brotherhood, equality, justice, happiness; it goes on and on, obstacles notwithstanding,, for obstacles there must be if the march is to be the Grand March. – Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being
Phillip Adams, I may have occasionally mentioned, is one of the most important artists currently operating out of Melbourne, and his BalletLab has gone from strength to strength since its inception in 1999. Miracle, their new work, has been welcomed as something of a Winter Masterpiece. Excellent, without surprises.
Adams has spoken of Miracle as a sequel of sorts to Amplification, the work that launched BalletLab. Amplification delved into the sensory experience of collision, and the aftermath of death, so to speak. Now, Miracle turns to the otherworldly business conducted in this world: to spirituality, cults, political movements. It features, in no particular order: a phalanx of hand-holding dancers in tie-dye togas; ceramic clogs; David Chisholm’s music which grows into an entire three-dimensional cube of sound, blinding and exhilarating; Star Wars references in Ancient Greek robes; Luke George in outer space, hanging by an extension cable; two levitating Dalai Lamas; speaking in tongues; political sloganeering through a choir of loud-speakers; a hundred harmonicas; and occasionally some genuine ballet, with glimpses of references to religious paintings and frolicking Renaissance nymphs. It is a vast and brilliant work.
It is strange to come to it having recently seen Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point, an ode to the 70s Californian counter-culture. Zabriskie Point, too, opens with a political meeting, and proceeds across the desert into various combinations of spirituality and group sex. Or, even more accurately, Kundera’s early novels, which chart the leaking boundaries between religious kitsch and Communist ritualistic neologisms. The most coolly intellectual of novelists, Kundera has mercilessly pointed at the need to close one’s eyes and simply belong, march in some parade or other, which emerges continuously in societies, no matter how rational on the surface; he was equally quick to point at the leaks between the brotherhood of men and fraternicidal political purges. Miracle, in which sacrifice is never too far from self-sacrifice, is on the same trail.
This work has clearly developed from Oliver Pink in Amsterdam, a dance short performed at the VCA Dance showcase in 2008. Oliver Pink featured a range of thoughts and visual motifs that made it into Miracle, including the spectacularly uncanny combination of clogs and loud-speakers. I was very impressed by Oliver Pink, and Brocage, another Adams’s choreography for the same program. At the time, I felt I could give my own recapitulation of Phillip’s aesthetic position. It is worth repeating, if only because I could not say it any better today:
“What Adams makes, in terms of movement, is ultimately very simple, but it’s the simplicity of someone who thinks complex. He will not complicate things unnecessarily either for the viewer or for the dancer – indeed, his student pieces are remarkably executable – because it’s the total feast that seems to matter, not the decoration on the cake – and equally, he will use clean, simple images that hit the mark from such unexpected angles that one honestly, honestly thinks while ogling the beauty. Bocage parodies decadence, for example, by having pretty vaudeville dancers, all in black and lace, hit their heads in unison against the piano, and by bringing up birds in all shapes and forms, from head feathers to little framed paintings the dancers will hold in front of them. That birds have always been considered particularly erotic animals (and that peacocks are the symbol of decadence par excellence, birds unable to fly, crippled by their own beauty) is not unknown, just a thought we don’t entertain too often, and such clicks of recognition abound in both dances.
“It is hard to put the finger down on what is in these works that keeps them together, that makes them feel so coherent in the way they awake our mind, and Adams’s program notes, while always useful, never spell it out. For Bocage, he writes: “Bocage is a fantasia of Victorian transitional worlds”. For Oliver Pink in Amsterdam, slightly less opaquely (but with equal charm): “I have devised a triumphant onslaught of choreographic hysteria ascending to heaven. This fascination with the epiphany and universal phenomena is performed against repetitive mantra, phrase and hymn-like voices. What has transpired is an examination of false hopes and religious stereotypes that promise a new beginning.”
“Both works, above all, are full of appreciation for the beauty and the pathos and the absurd of a particular side of humanity, in a way that never feels exploitative. Oliver Pink, through images of public abandon to mass hysteria, pokes fun at organized religion, cults, subcultures, society, political movements, but more than anything at the human need for collective experiences. Bocage, on the other hand, with its costumed prettiness, seems to trace the contours of our very affection to decadence, to the nexus of beauty and death, and the melancholia that follows (call it ‘nothing’, like Louis Quatorze court ladies, or ‘mono no aware’, like Kyoto court ladies). However, there is courage and freedom of representation and meaning-making in Adams’s work that is quite unprecedented in Australian dance, even theatre. The reason why he can do it so successfully, I think, is in the very quality of his empathy. Adams understands how ideas, ideals, needs and aspirations live and mutate through images, through simplification, and he uses images to trace them, subverts images to startle us out of easy complicity, creating a rich emotional experience for the viewer. If he can do that, though, it is because his are works made from the inside, by someone who knows how these images feel, and is aware of the effect they will have on the audience. Adams performs a forensics, but felt forensics, and does it as a humourous, empathetic exploration that is usually reserved for traits of national character, anthropology of social classes, and similar micro observations of behaviour.
“Oliver Pink in Amsterdam and Bocage are not dissimilar from The Castle or Absolutely Fabulous, caressing and teasing and exposing at once, but parody of universal human traits is not a usual ingredient of any art, let alone Australian theatre, all caught up in telling national stories, all Kath and Kim for the self-presumed highbrow palate.”
Miracle cuts through such disparate human impulses as political action, eucharist, and collective suicide, and it does it with the clarity of an essay, yet keeps the glee of a work of art. It is a calculated assault, with too much sound, too much screaming, too much emotion, too much gaudiness, all employed to demonstrate an over-the-top experience. A child of European Tanztheater (pace Pina Bausch) on the one hand, and an Australian type of vaudeville on the other, it keeps the narrative threads and emotional briskness of the former without renouncing the humorous lightness of the latter. The only element it constantly trims is the dance itself. Every new BalletLab project, it seems, has less and less straight-faced dance, and the little it has becomes more and more a sign for dance, to be mined for signification rather than used as a method. From the overcomplication of Origami, it has arrived to a loose rambling of costumes, light, sound and motion, with only an occasional structured movement phrase.
If there is a letdown, it is simply that little is added to the original idea which Oliver Pink contained in a condensed, but already fully fleshed out form. It is also slightly surprising that, however inventive Adams is, a 2008 assessment can still be current without an addendum. In 2010, it would be wonderful to see something completely new.
Miracle. By BalletLab. Choreography and direction: Phillip Adams. Music and sound composition: David Chisholm and Myles Mumford. Dancers: Luke George, Kyle Kremerskothern, Clair Peters and Brooke Stamp. Costumes: Toni Maticevski. Lighting: Bluebottle & Jenny Hector. Arts House, Meat Market, July 15 – 19.