Category Archives: dance

The Critic #03

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This text was first published in September-October 2014, in The Lifted Brow 24 – The Medicine Issue.

1. in which we do not talk about politics

The first time the Critic saw a theatre work was in a squatted factory at sixteen, in Croatia. It was turn of the millennium, the wars had only just finished. A generation of young people was trying to say something about what had just happened, find its bearings, stop being children caught up in crossfire. And so the young people squatted one of the many, many, many defunct factories that littered Croatian cities, factories that had collapsed through disinvestment, bombing, road blockades, diminished purchasing power, and rampant corruption, the extent of which would only become apparent in the peace years to come. There was art in every one of the big, empty, barely cleaned rooms of the huge building. There was beer sold straight from the back of a van. There were punk concerts, there were vegan cooperatives, and there was a small performance, in the central courtyard, for free, on one of the nights. A group of drama students doing Biljana Srbljanović’s 1994 play Family Stories, or ‘Porodične priče.’

Srbljanović was a Serbian playwright, the most famous to emerge from the Balkans in the 1990s, but her work, like any other Serbian art, was unofficially banned in Croatia at that time. The Critic, who was not yet a critic, had never heard of her before. (The unofficial ban persisted for years, and Serbian writing, dramatic or otherwise, remained impossible to obtain in Croatia, even though Croatian and Serbian languages are as similar as the American and British variants of English. In 2010, scouring a bookshop for Srbljanović’s plays, the Critic was told that ‘they were not yet translated’. The shop assistant said that with a sad smile that indicated that even she was, perhaps, aware of the absurdity of what she was saying.)

Family Stories is a sophisticated, non-naturalistic dramatic text, in which a group of children, played by adult actors, meets on the playground to play house. Through eleven games, they enact eleven domestic scenarios rife with bullying, oppression, sexual assault, verbal and physical violence. The father tortures the mother, the mother tortures the children, and the children usually kill them by the end; and then they rise again, play another house, accumulating realistic wounds from previous deaths. The world of the play is a sort of hell, in which the same patterns of violence are endlessly repeated without respite, not even after death. It shows violence as a compulsion, and trauma as a self-perpetuating, senseless force.

The Critic read many learned analyses of Family Stories in the years to come, all of them sound and accurate, but not one had been necessary to understand the play that evening, in the courtyard of the squatted factory, performed rather simply, without a set or props. The effect it had on the sixteen year old girl who would become the Critic was immense.

For the first time, the Critic had seen a work of art that cut through the over-detailed confusion of real life, and had given her an understandable explanation of reality. Life itself was condensed into this play, life as she knew it – her bullying schoolmates, their violent parents, her unhappy friends, her unhappy parents, the crooked shadow of the recent war hanging over them all, neither near nor far—all the more clear for its abstraction, for its condensed metaphor. It felt like someone had finally found words to describe the world that the girl had experienced, but did not quite understand, like her first textbook explaining electricity. That her life would be so accurately rendered by a Serbian artist, considered practically an enemy in the war that had caused so much of that depicted trauma, added another layer of revelation. The closeness of experience had been uncanny.

Dusk turned to night as the performance finished. Afterwards, she and her bestest friends had stood around a fire, shaken and quiet, looking at each other like they were seeing one another for the first time, trying to say something more than: “It’s like that, isn’t it?,” but failing, returning again to this simple statement. It is like that. They were a gang, close in the way only sixteen year-olds can be, practically formative of one another: the girl who would become the Critic; Sasha, the boy who would become gay; Luka, the boy who would become a performance artist; and Helena, the girl who would become a heroin addict. For a long time, these would be the coordinates of her universe.

The Critic saw the same play at Griffin Theatre in Sydney in 2008, in a totally decent translation by Serbian-born Australian theatre-maker Bojana Novakovic. The production, by RideOn Theatre, was probably an improvement on the makeshift sketch she had seen at sixteen. However, in trying to stage faithfully a play understood merely as an important European contemporary work, the staging ended up being both naturalistically boring, and extremely haughty. It didn’t bother trying to make connections with Australia – if such a thing were possible, which it perhaps was not. Family Stories, however layered and metaphorical a text, was immediately recognisable as reality. This production was not. Continue reading “The Critic #03” »

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The Critic #02 (The Lifted Brow 23)

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This text was first published in June-July 2014, in The Lifted Brow 23 – The Ego Issue.

1. IN WHICH WE ARE INTRODUCED TO DAVE

Dave the Comedian was an everyman; which is a tautology, because every man wants to be a comedian, and there is very little space in Australia for a comedian who isn’t an everyman. The space of stand-up comedy is defiantly masculine in the most traditional sense. Adrienne Blaine compares the stand-up comedian to the personification of erection: the man conquers his audience with laughter the way he would sexually subsume a woman; it is “a social area where patriarchal promise of dominion can be easily realised.” Comedian Pete Holmes compared the daily challenge of stand-up comedy to the ongoing work a man puts into confirming his masculine, non-homosexual, non-effeminate identity in these, crude, words: “you have to keep doing it and keep proving it every day — get your comedy dick hard every day and fuck audiences.”

Every woman who has spent time with comedians off-stage has felt the terrifying, laborious pressure to find them funny, to laugh, to let them feel that they are strong, victorious, alpha—even though the affirmation of women is never as valued as the respect of other comedians, other men. Comedy, like politics, is patriarchy condensed. Christopher Hitchens, who always seemed to identify with the alpha male, and uphold the values of patriarchy, wrote in Vanity Fair in 2007 that women could not be as funny as men, because they did not evolve with the constant, evolutionary need to impress females at all cost. The ones who were funny – he conceded some existed – were “hefty or dykey or Jewish, or some combo of the three.” In other words, too masculine to fit neatly into patriarchal gender roles, sorry.

“Dying on stage” is that exactly: a strangely mesmerising witnessing of someone’s social power crumbling entirely into nothingness. Dave the Comedian died on stage in the first five minutes. His jokes about finding clitoris were terrible. He kept asking how much time he had left (much). He berated the audience for not laughing. He vomited, fell, and started bleeding. He got confused and repeated his act twice. He made fat jokes, rape jokes, gay jokes, Julia Gillard jokes, and made it abundantly clear how much he was trying to impress Wil Anderson. In terms outlined above, according to which stand-up comedy is the world order, the comedian pure erection, and the audience a vagina to be conquered, Dave the Comedian was a spectacle of emasculation.
But Dave the Comedian was the joke itself, woven together out of gunk of masculinity by Zoe Coombs Marr, member of Sydney-based female performance collective post and apparently excellent in drag.

Coming from the intellectually rigorous and mature culture of performance in Sydney – where, unlike in Melbourne, the link between independent performance and academia is strong and fruitful – post had created a body of work that made elaborate formalist jokes about what is supposed to happen in theatre, deconstructing formal devices of traditional dramaturgy and stage design, of character and text. In Gifted and Talented in 2006, they improbably blended over-ambitious mothers’ programs for their daughters enrolled in a variety of appropriately feminine activities with the torture routines at Guantanamo Bay. In Shamelessly Glitzy Work in 2009, they overlaid a conversation recorded, seemingly, during an acid trip, with every device of drama and illusion that theatre had, making a bizarre variety show that had an undeniable and persuasive, if entirely artificial, dramatic force. And in Oedipus Schmoedipus, at Sydney Festival 2014, they staged every important death in the Western dramatic canon, one after another. Coombs-Marr’s solo work, on the other hand, emphasised extreme awkwardness, of which Dave must have been the pinnacle of possible.

It was hard to pinpoint what made Dave feel like a work of genius. Coombs-Marr’s feeling for pacing, tone, and structure destroyed Dave’s masculine ego in every way possible – he was even revealed to be gay – without once coming across as mean. If anything, Dave accumulated sympathy as he accumulated failures. It was hard to tell if a woman could not bring the kind of hate to her drag that a man could, or if the audience, given a portrait without overt commentary, defaulted to pity instead of ridicule, a gesture of generosity they would not necessarily have extended towards failure of femininity. However, it was the exuberance of the ridicule that seemed significant: because Zoe Coombs-Marr herself was a small, queer woman who nonetheless filled the stage to the brim, Dave and all the men he represented were never the centre of the piece, but simply a pretext for dressing up, for play-acting. The more that the show departed from garden-variety awkwardness into bizarre, the more inventive Dave’s questionable comedy choices became, the more we were settled into watching a woman take the piss out of masculinity. Paradoxically, it was precisely in the act of drag that Zoe Coombs-Marr asserted a female voice in the room, a voice that became all the more distinct, the more accurately she was pinning down the image of the unsuccessful male comedian. Unlike much of feminist comedy playing around Melbourne Comedy Festival, the flavour of this show was not oppositional, not angry, not pushing against a narrowly defined female role; instead, it was as if it swallowed a narrowly defined male role and showed how much a woman can encompass. It was this generosity, ultimately, that resonated. It seemed premonitory and indicative: this is what feminism 4.0 would look like. Continue reading “The Critic #02 (The Lifted Brow 23)” »

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The Critic #01 (The Lifted Brow 22)

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This text was first published in April-May 2014, in The Lifted Brow 22.

1. IN WHICH EPISTEMOLOGY IS DISCUSSED

The Critic always saw theatre from the first-person point of view, because there was no other way. Perhaps because, as a woman, she never felt she was able to assume the universal point of view. The idea of it – that she could see the world unmarred by who she was – felt impossible. The Critic saw beautiful, young women on stage, often in various states of undress, and could see that these were erotic stage images, but not for her. She saw hysterical women, men who would sooner commit suicide than admit an error, she saw manly banter and regret, she saw many things the meaning of which she knew, but did not feel. Theatre being theatre, she also saw many extremely rich people treat servants or people of colour badly, while they themselves revelled in relatively trivial problems, and sometimes thought about how those servants or people of colour represented her ancestors more than the protagonists, how the story of her people was only ever told on the margins. The Critic, in other words, always knew that the theatre was not meant for her, that her eyes were not the bull’s eye of the audience target, even when the message arrived. Even when she was greatly moved.

Why did the Critic like theatre, then? Why did she make it her life to see theatre three, four, five, sometimes even ten times a week, if she felt like an intruder? Because the Critic, like many – perhaps most – women, felt like an intruder in most discursive social situations already, and had become accustomed to feeling like she was sitting slightly to the left and down in the audience – a feeling that did not disappear in those prestigious, central seats. Sometimes she was elated, or crushed, sometimes her life changed while sitting in those seats; but it was an expected gift, because she had not been the target audience, because the magic that was done on her was done almost by accident.

It is said that privilege is marked by assuming that your views are representative of everyone’s. Speaking with various male critics after shows, ready to judge always slightly faster, the Critic often asked: “Why are you so sure that your opinion is the right one?” It was a strange question to many. “I know what I like,” they sometimes answered, tautology imperceptible to them.

“But you aren’t everyone”, the Critic might offer, uselessly, because in a certain sense they were everyone: they were the bull’s eye, the eye that mattered, the eye to which the art was offered. Oh, the Critic was able to pontificate with the best, argue her opinions, be sometimes insistently praising, sometimes cruelly harsh, but it was qualified intellectual bravado, always aware of where fact ended and personal opinion began.

It was with great relief that the Critic found Nataša Govedić, European dramaturg and performance critic, writing: “I think that the critic-as-a-simple-observer has never existed. The critic is always biased, has always held values, ideology if you prefer – and there doesn’t exist, not has ever existed, a neutral critic. Therefore, it is only fair to honestly admit which values we uphold, and why we believe in certain processes, and why we participiate in them.”

It is paradoxical, then, that the Critic had studiously avoided having opinions on supposedly ‘minority’ arts, such as Melbourne’s Midsumma Festival of LGBT arts, considering it and her mismatched. They were, of course, but less than feared. The queer audience arrived to the theatres with the same layered thinking, palpably so – everywhere around her the Critic could feel a suspicious, reserved energy of distantiation, of mistrust. ‘Is this work going to hurt me, or will it finally say something I can agree with?’ To the extent to which the audience mood can read, this is what the Midsumma audience seemed to be saying. Continue reading “The Critic #01 (The Lifted Brow 22)” »

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Next Wave notes

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Briefly, because I am immensely looking forward to this sleep-longer-than-five-hours I am just about to have: Next Wave is great. I cannot write too much, because, unfortunately, I have promised words to other people (and the blog will have to wait for now).

But I thought it would be worth saying, important to say, that Blak Wave is one of the most important, and good, and meaningful things I’ve witnessed in Australia in such a long time. It requires an essay all of its own. Each event I’ve been to has been a healing experience, requiring words I do not have so close to it, and so late at night. And that Madonna Arms by I’m Trying To Kiss You is the best piece of Australian writing I’ve seen staged in a very, very long time (years!). And that I saw something very beautiful tonight at White Face, something I’d like to have a conversation about.

And I am yet about to go to Overworld, but Sarah Aiken and Rebecca Jensen have blazed a huge trail already in young contemporary dance in Melbourne, and I am extremely excited. As I am about the extremely well reviewed Terminal (disclaimer: the makers of these two works and I used to all live together in Brunswick East, so I may be terribly partial). And then there is Natalie Abbott’s MAXIMUM. From where I am standing, it looks like the first outlines of the future of dance in Australia.

And finally, the second edition of Kids Killing Kids. (Again, a disclaimer: KKK is affiliated with MKA, and I am also affiliated with MKA.) It is a work which formally does not depart in any way from that classical form of documentary performance that NSW exports around Australia and the world (certainly there’s a name for the genre by now?), but it is still an important, I think, work, because of its thematic concerns, because it asks questions that we are usually too polite, or too scared, to ask.

I am not allowed to say much more here, so I am just making an invitation. Come.

RW: Hofesh Shechter: Sun (way overdue)

Shechter’s choreographies are distinctly masculine: angry and political, they are socially and emotionally situated in the contemporary world. With hard and heavy bodies and momentous shifts of weight, they carry echoes of Ohad Naharin’s Batsheva – the company for which he formerly danced – but are more overtly narrative and theatrical. Also a percussionist, Shechter’s self-composed scores strongly shape these pieces with their relentless rhythmic pulse and propulsion.

Australian audiences have been able to follow Shechter’s work closely – while the choreographer is based in the UK, he has made frequent visits to Australian festivals, from early short works Uprising and In Your Rooms, to his 2011 work Political Mother. That show suggested Shechter was still struggling with the transition to long form, and that issue remains apparent in Sun.

This review was published in Guardian Australia on 13 October 2013. Read the whole review here.

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Adelaide Festival (somewhat overdue)

Dear reader,

At the beginning of March, I went to Adelaide Festival as a member of the Guardian Australia team, and I spent six or seven intense days writing, interviewing, podcasting, and occasionally eating and sleeping. It was a wonderful, and very worthwhile experience. During these few days, I produced a miraculous amount of writing.

I reviewed Adelaide Festival shows:
Sadeh 21, by Batsheva Dance Company, one of the best performance works I’ve since in my entire life. Like all best dance, it was both indescribable and sublime.
The Seagull, by State Theatre Company, which was unfortunately very poorly made. I felt cornered by this production, which I could not rate very highly, and I wondered why it was included in the Festival program – it couldn’t compete with the high calibre of international work. The Seagull is such an important play for the history of acting: not just because Chekhov is famous for extremely nuanced naturalism, but also because Stanislavsky practically developed his famed ‘method’ (you know, like ‘method’ acting?) while directing the first serious premiere of The Seagull. To this day, Moscow Art Theatre has a seagull in its emblem to mark the importance of this play to its artistic project. So, you cannot stage this play with imprecise acting, with a lack of nuance. There are playwrights and plays in which very careful naturalistic acting is not that important: Brecht, for example; expressionists; Moliere; even Beckett. But Chekhov dies on stage if the acting is not fine. If you take nuance out of Chekhov, there is nothing left to talk about.
Blackout, by Stone/Castro Project. I love physical theatre, but it requires extremely well-rounded performers, trained both in movement and acting. This work was more ambitious, I felt, than many of the performers in its big cast could do. Nonetheless, I enjoyed it, and it was worth our while, because a highly ambitious work that doesn’t quite fulfill its promise is almost always more interesting than a successful work of modest ambition.
Continuum, by Australian String Quartet. This was a really great experience, because 1) both the program and ASQ were amazing, 2) I probably appreciated it beyond the average because I just very rarely get to attend classical music recitals these days, 3) I never ever review classical music, and 4) I realised I do actually know a thing or two about it.

At Adelaide Fringe, I saw:
Glory Box, by Finucane & Smith. I find Moira Finucane and Jackie Smith’s bizarre burlesque a bit hit-and-miss. They are such an unavoidable presence in Melbourne, so definitive of alternative burlesque here, that one by necessity sees a lot of their work, and it’s uneven both in concept and in execution. But this one worked perfectly for me. Perhaps because I had just returned from Western Europe, and was a bit fatigued by the world in which women with armpit hair are inconceivable, it just felt great to experience a terrifying striptease in which milk and cornflakes became horror props, a diva in a dress with a sequined vagina pattern, and similar over-the-top feminine self-expression. It was genuinely cathartic. (As I get older, and I put less and less effort in not looking like a boy – because I naturally look like a boy – the more I genuinely enjoy silly femininity. Perhaps because I feel less oppressed by it? Who knows.)
Run Girl Run, by Grit Theatre, which I thought was simple, but clever, but simple. In Australia, live art and performance basically happen in Sydney, which has a rich living performance culture centred around the university programs and Performance Space. Melbourne has never had that. As a result, ‘live art’ and ‘performance’ in Melbourne tends to be made by artists basically trained in theatre, not specifically in performance. The works often seem a bit naive, a bit unaware of the history of the form, their own artistic context. This was definitely one such work. Nonetheless, it was good. But simple.

I interviewed:
Ohad Naharin of Batsheva Dance Company. I thought Naharin would be a stern and scary person, because I’ve found his choreographies cerebral and abstract – but he was genuinely one of the nicest people I’ve ever met. I was so taken by his description of his work. Dancers who get to train with Batsheva Dance Company are very, very lucky people (I think).
Alexander Devriendt of Ontroerend Goed. The interview overran by 2 hours, I bummed cigarettes off Alexander, we were talking about how to make a theatre show about love, I told him how abused I feel about O.G.’s show ‘Internal’… It was a slightly insane process, but I was very glad to have a chance to chat with one of my biggest idols of contemporary theatre. I am a huge fan of Ontroerend Goed, and it was amazing to be able to quiz Devriendt on his process, motivations, and ideas.
Robert Lepage, of himself. I had such a good time talking to Lepage, who has such an interesting mind – I mean, we were talking about the birth of existentialism, the origin of theatre in communion, about urban sprawl… – that I really wanted to revisit his work, which I had often found maximalist, spread rather thinly. I am now looking forward to seeing his works with a better insight into the man that he is.

On the podcast, you can hear me:
on episode foud, discussing Batsheva’s Sadeh21, and
on episode five, interviewing Sharon Draper from the Australian String Quartet, and summarising my experience of the whole festival.

And I also did a video interview with Paolo Castro, with Bill Code, but you can’t see or hear me, I am just there.

Dance Massive 05: More or Less Monstrous (reviewed: Atlanta Eke’s Monster Body)

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Atlanta Eke, Monster Body
photo Rachel Roberts

ATLANTA EKE’S MONSTER BODY IS A RADICAL AND BORDER-SHIFTING WORK FOR AUSTRALIAN DANCE, EVEN IF NOT SO IN AN INTERNATIONAL CONTEXT. THE ARTISTS WHOSE WORK FITS MOST CLOSELY IN THE LINEAGE OF MONSTER BODY—LA RIBOT, MATHILDE MONNIER, ANN LIV YOUNG AND YOUNG JEAN LEE—ARE RARELY IF EVER SEEN ON THESE SHORES.

But once an innovation happens, it loses its singularity in iteration. It thus cannot be appraised simply in the macho, military terms of ‘revolution,’ ‘innovation’ or ‘shock’: it becomes essayistic, formalist, a tool in a toolbox. But Monster Body is a carefully conceptualised and executed work, and loses nothing when the shock wears off. Instead, it provokes more thought, with greater clarity.

It is hard to see Monster Body without having first received warnings about its nudity, urination and feminism. On the surface, it is a confronting piece: Eke, swirling a hula hoop, greets us wearing nothing but a grotesque dinosaur mask. A series of classical ballet battements follows, morphing into rather more ordinary walking and crouching movements, accompanied by synchronised growls and shrieks. In the piece’s most notorious segment, Britney Spears’ “I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman”, that Trojan Horse of post-feminist self-expression, blares as Eke placidly pees while standing upright, then rolls on the same patch of floor in gently erotic poses.

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Atlanta Eke, Monster Body
photo Rachel Roberts

However, the piece is neither overtly angry nor in-yer-face combative. Eke maintains dispassionate focus: the ambient lighting never creates separation between audience and stage, and the work seems to ask us to observe and judge, rather than rise up in arms. Notice, for example, how much more monstrous than the mask is Eke’s naked body—even though it is both a culturally docile (depilated in all the right places) and aesthetically ‘successful’ (young, toned, thin) body. We are accustomed to seeing rubber animal faces more than epithet-less nudity. Notice how unpleasant it is to watch a woman growl: inarticulate sounds and purposeless body movements need not be particularly extreme to cross a boundary of what a healthy woman may do with herself. The residue of the spectre of hysteria still lurks in our minds. Observe how very easy it is for a female human to appear monstrous, as if it has only been partially digested by our civilization. And when a man in a hazmat suit appears to clean the floor or hand Eke a towel, observe how his very presence upsets the all-female stage, how ineffably strange it is to see this man neither represent, uphold nor fight for any kind of patriarchy.

Echoes of other artists appear reduced to bare essence. Eke and another female performer fondle each other’s bodies with a pair of rubber hands on long poles: this is Pina Bausch, but gentle, a moment that relies on our body memory of uninvited hands sliding down our calves for its emotional impact. Or, Eke fills her body stocking with pink water balloons, posing in her new, distorted figure, half-undressing and ending up with the stocking knotted into a bundle on her back, hunched under a heavy load of blubbery things that look, for all intents and purposes, like a pile of teats, or breast implants. The image echoes a whole canon of female disfiguration in art (I thought of Nagi Noda’s Poodle Fitness) as well as that of the misadventures of plastic surgery and of certain kinds of pornography, but it simply asks us consider what a human might look like once it has more breasts than limbs.

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Monster Body, Atlanta Eke
photo Rachel Roberts

And then, in a musical intermezzo to Beyonce’s “Run the World (Girls)”, hip-hop empowerment, complete with an aggressive, ultra-sexualised choreography, is performed by an ensemble of variously-shaped girls, their nakedness only made starker by their running footwear and black bags on their heads. Drawing a link between the objectification and torture of people inside and outside of Abu Ghraib has already been made, with similar means, and perhaps more clarity, by Post in Gifted and Talented), but Eke emphasises the vulnerability of these well-performing bodies, bodies that participate in their nominal liberation. Suddenly, Beyonce’s form of bravado displays exactly the weakness it is designed to hide. The painful powerlessness of this posturing is revealed by the sheer effort it requires, by the way it poorly fits a naked body, stripped of the armour of a hyper-sexualised costume.

As much as I tried, and despite everything I have read about it, I failed to see much of an all-encompassing exploration of human objectification in Monster Body. It seemed so clearly to draw a narrative arc of feminine non-liberation in present time, from the restrictive culturally condoned vulnerability of Britney to the restrictive culturally condoned strength of Beyonce. Its obvious interest in audience as a meaningful half of the show also seemed to have fallen by the wayside, leaving a palpable void. However, as an essay on the physical restrictions of being a woman today, and a deeply thought-through one, it was very intellectually engaging. Shocking it wasn’t, but I suspect that was not its goal, either.

Dance Massive, Dancehouse: Monster Body, choreographer, performer Atlanta Eke, performers Amanda Betlehem, Tim Birnie, Tessa Broadby, Ashlea English, Sarah Ling; Dancehouse, Melbourne, March 22-24;http://dancemassive.com.au

First published in RealTime, Dance Massive special edition, Mar 2013. All rights reserved.

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Dance Massive 03: The Body Un-Mirrored (reviewed: Chunky Move’s 247 Days)

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Lauren Langlois, 247 days, Chunky Move
photo Jeff Busby

SOME DISCLAIMERS ARE IN ORDER. I UNINTENTIONALLY SAW 247 DAYS AS A PREVIEW PERFORMANCE. I SAT NEXT TO THE CHOREOGRAPHER AS SHE SCRIBBLED NOTES INTO HER SMALL NOTEPAD, AND FELT AN ENORMOUS PRESSURE TO READ THE POTENTIAL OF THE WORK GENEROUSLY. TO MAKE MATTERS SLIGHTLY MORE COMPLICATED, IT WAS MY FIRST ENCOUNTER WITH THE CHOREOGRAPHER’S WORK.

Anouk van Dijk, the new artistic director of Chunky Move, has called this her first ‘real’ Australian choreography. Among the very few clarificatory program notes, van Dijk writes “247 days is the time it takes for a choreographic work to gestate.” 247 is also the number of days she has spent in Australia. It is, thus, a choreography made entirely out of Australia, its effect on van Dijk’s body, psyche, heart. (There is a kernel of an old idea here, something I first heard said in Agnes Varda’s film The Gleaners and I (2000): our body constantly regenerates all its cells, and so, every so often, we become new people, even to ourselves.)

I had not seen any of Anouk van Dijk’s choreographies—neither in Australia, nor in Europe —and consequently had no ability to tell the Australian cells apart from the European ones. All I knew was that van Dijk’s Chunky Move debut, An Act of Now [RT112] explored human connection, and that there was a Tanztheater collaboration with Falk Richter in Schaubühne’s repertoire titled TRUST [RT95]. It felt like a letdown, therefore, to watch a choreography unfold thematically into quite literally the only thing I expected: trust and human connection.

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Tara Soh, James Pham, Lauren Langlois, Leif Helland, Niharika Senapati, Alya Manzart, 247 Days, Chunky Move
photo Jeff Busby

Six 20-something multiracial dancers—a welcome departure from the pervasive all-whiteness of the Chunky Move ensemble I had come to expect—delve deeply into their bodies to articulate the physicality of four distinct relationships between the individual and their social surroundings: freedom, loneliness, constraint, connection. The set is a semi-circular full-height mirror, broken into segments so that, curiously, not only is the audience not reflected back to itself, but the dancers often have no reflection either. If ever there was an accurate articulation of finding oneself in a foreign place, unable to establish a relationship with one’s surroundings that would provide legible feedback on identity, here it was. There is no easy mirroring back, when one is a stranger: an epistemological aloneness develops. Within the set’s twisting, opening, folding into screens or dressing-room cubicles, the dancers veer between obsessive self-analysis and chasing their own, fleeting image.

The work is peppered with voice: from inarticulate cursing to a soundscape-forming cacophony, to first-person confessionals. The entire tradition of Tanztheater forces me to understand this as self-expression, not performance, and I was frustrated by the banality of so many utterances (“When I feel lonely, I…”), while the more potentially interesting ones were so often drowned to illegibility in polyphony. A number of points are progressively woven together: belonging (what happens when your family leaves Australia, and you stay?), coming out (and the negotiation of individual, familial and social self), and glimpses of questions that made sense to me, but not necessarily to the work. Are we attracted to people who look like us, because we want to be them, not stricto sensu love them? The naivete was grating, yet fitting: the more one tries to approach a foreign environment—be it a new country, or a new erotic community—with openness, the more one is willing to be infected with influence, the more one reverts to the somewhat idiotic ontological uncertainty of adolescence.

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James Pham, Leif Helland, Lauren Langlois, Niharika Senapati, Niharika Senapati, Alya Manzart, 247 Days, Chunky Move
photo Jeff Busby

Much of the movement is contactless, shifting from shielding invisible constraints to self-propelled freedom, to narcissistic attempts to please the mirror. Van Dijk’s own philosophy of counter-technique, a training of the body to lose its upright axis and open itself to imbalance, subjects these unheld, uncaught, unembraced bodies to so much vulnerability. The choreography, however, comes together most satisfyingly in duets and trios, in which Van Dijk’s emphasis on bodies’ openness to external force is at its most articulate. One phenomenal male duet pairs a strong, controlling body (Leif Helland) with a rolling, soft one (James Pham). As Helland embraces and drops, folds and envelops Pham, moving purposefully outside his own centre of gravity, something deep and fundamental about our need to be held, supported and empowered through care shines through. (One wonders, additionally, given the times we live in, where are the same-sex duets in contemporary dance?)

247 Days ends on a weak note. Given the strength with which many works in Dance Massive have turned stage sound into sound design, I hoped for a more careful integration of voice into the work. At times 247 Days left me cold, but when it worked, it was powerful and, after all, I was watching a preview.

Dance Massive, Malthouse: Chunky Move, 247 Days, concept, choreography Anouk van Dijk, performers Leif Helland, Lauren Langlois, Alya Manzart, James Pham, Niharika Senapati, Tara Soh, composition, sound designer Marcel Wierck, set design Michael Hankin, lighting Niklas Pajanti, costumes Shio Otani; The Malthouse Theatre, March 15–23; http://dancemassive.com.au

First published in RealTime, Dance Massive special edition, Mar 2013. All rights reserved.

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Dance Massive 02: inside the audience (reviewed: Lee Serle’s P.O.V.)

P.O.V. presented by Arts House & Lee Serle
Kristy Ayre, P.O.V, Lee Serle
photo Ponch Hawkes

P.O.V., IS, FOR THE MOST PART, VERY SATISFYING TO WATCH. SERLE —ONE OF THOSE DANCERS MELBOURNE KNOWS WELL FROM REGULAR APPEARANCES AT NEXT WAVE AND IN THE WORKS OF LUCY GUERIN INC AND CHUNKY MOVE—DEVELOPED P.O.V IN NEW YORK UNDER THE MENTORSHIP OF TRISHA BROWN, AS A PART OF THE ROLEX MENTOR AND PROTEGE ARTS INITIATIVE.

I have a personal liking for New York contemporary: I adore its rigorous, yet unpretentious simplicity. Across the board, it possesses a humility and matter-of-factness that are equally disarming in Europe and in Australia, and it is somehow able to withstand a cynical as well as a philistine eye. By whittling away all ornament, but never getting too bogged down in illustrating esoteric texts (as has happened in Europe), it is as if the American dancers never quite bush-bashed their way through tradition all the way into a settled, comfortable arrogance, but remained suspended in a state of focused, ambitious play. This approach appears in Melbourne dance in visible traces, through echoes of training and influence, in the works of BalletLab and Luke George. Unavoidably, P.O.V. too has arrived back from the US seeped in Trisha Brown’s aesthetic and ethic, clearly as the work of a young artist shaped heavily by a master builder.

P.O.V. presented by Arts House & Lee Serle
James Andrews, P.O.V, Lee Serle
photo Ponch Hawkes

Serle seats (some of) the audience on 36 swivel stools that dot the stage in orderly intervals. Four dancers—Serle, Lily Paskas, Kristy Ayre, James Andrews—travel between them, through the grid of aisles. It becomes immediately clear that where you sit will determine your experience—I felt a none-too-subtle nudge in my semiotic ribs—and, having arrived too late for a coveted stage seat, I perched on top of the seating bank, getting a nice, rounded overview of the piece. (It is to the show’s credit that every reviewer of P.O.V. so far has specified where they sat.)

There are three distinct parts to the choreography. In the first, the four dancers traverse the space between people in an orderly formation, performing a mesmerising score—very Brown—of simple, pendular movements that gently roll their weight up and down the aisles. At times, the choreography looks like tightly stitched-together pieces of athletic sports, with segments of continuous movement blending into one another in surprising ways: the momentum-building squat of a distance runner morphs into the swirl of the discus or javelin thrower, or into the oblique leap of a high jumper. Sequences keep unfolding instead of halting and turning, the dancers’ formation growing in mathematical complexity, while the spectators swivel their chairs to watch. It looks like the patterns of pedestrians in a city; it also looks like a complex collage of film footage from Olympics documentaries and newsreels. It is utterly beautiful in the way of abstract flows.

P.O.V. presented by Arts House & Lee Serle
Lee Serle, Lily Paskas, P.O.V
photo Ponch Hawkes

In the second part, the dancers step out of performer aloofness and approach the audience members, increasingly intrusively. Some are stared at, some get a surprise massage, one is briefly blindfolded, another has her feet washed, one is shown something on a tablet, some are taken offstage, one is given wine and a chat with all of the dancers. Ayre gives a set of headphones to a woman, takes another set, and performs a little private dance (funny, almost like a parody of a lap dance) to the music only they can hear. Serle repeats this with another audience member, but his dance involves a great deal of animal poses. Paskas stretches herself gently over a man. As audience interaction, this is not so much about letting other people into the performance—there is no ceding of control, ever—as it is about multiplying, unweaving the energy lines between the stage and the audience. The main effect is not for a multitude of spectators to have a meaningful individual experience (they do not), but to complicate the audience focus from a straight phalanx of one-way looks to a knot, a jumble of sight lines with different levels of energy, stress, comfort, feeling of inclusion or exclusion, and amusement.

The second part is in some ways the weakest, because it relies on trivial tropes of audience engagement: singing to them, touching them slightly awkwardly, as well as having conversations designed only to look like conversations from far away. It takes part three to demonstrate that something more has been achieved. The dancers return to their dance, their path through the swivel-stool grid now circular, simplified. Their movements have become smaller, gentler, introverted—and also more twee, wristy: more Lucy Guerin than Trisha Brown—but the most noticeable shift is in how our attention has softened. The barriers separating the dancers from the audience have glaringly thinned, the energy in the room is completely different. Like a street after an incident—a burst pipe, a found pet—has made us all talk to each other.

P.O.V. is clearly an apprentice’s graduating piece. The title sums up its exploratory horizons, and it reproduces Brown’s body language without showing how Serle is a creative mind of his own. Where it deviates, it pulls back in the influences and mannerisms of Obarzanek and Guerin, and chooses easy paths, such as humorous tropes. However, for as long as it is able to resist its own striving to busy itself up with features, for as long as it can stay disciplined and clear-headed, P.O.V. is immensely satisfying.

Dance Massive, Arts House: P.O.V. director, choreographer Lee Serle, performers, collaborators James Andrews, Kristy Ayre, Lily Paskas, Lee Serle, lighting Ben Cisterne, composition, sound design Luke Smiles, set design Lee Serle, costumes Lee Serle, Shio Otani in collaboration with the performers; production management Megafun, North Melbourne Town Hall, March 12-16; http://dancemassive.com.au/

First published in RealTime, Dance Massive special edition, Mar 2013. All rights reserved.

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Dance Massive 04: The Creation of an Affective Community (reviewed: Matthew Day’s Intermission)

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Matthew Day, Intermission
photo Rachel Roberts

MATTHEW DAY IS ALMOST CERTAINLY THE BEST OF A NEW GENERATION OF AUSTRALIAN CHOREOGRAPHERS. HE EXPLODED ONTO THE DANCE LANDSCAPE IN 2010, BRINGING AN ORIGINAL AND FULLY DEVELOPED POETICS SEEMINGLY OUT OF NOWHERE. HIS SERIES OF EXTREMELY SIMPLE, BUT CONCEPTUALLY RIGOROUS WORKS HAS CAPTIVATED THE AUDIENCE, AND AUSTRALIAN DANCE IS ALREADY IMMENSELY RICHER FOR IT.

Intermission is the final part of a trilogy that began with Thousands, in 2010, and continued with Cannibal, in 2011. In each part, Day explored the empathetic effect of absolutely basic movement: first stillness, then pulsating repetition. In Intermission, the focus is on undulating, rhythmic sway. The works are colour-coded: Thousands was gold, Cannibal pure white.

Intermission is black. We enter, one by one, a black box. A human figure is barely visible on a darkened stage: the lights are on us. The lights slowly dim, plunging us into a few minutes of pitch black. When the stage lights up, Day stands still, in casual black clothes: jeans, sneakers, gloves, and masking tape where a line of skin might show between the cuffs.

As James Brown’s soundscape of a single droning, thundering sub-bass line sends pulsating tremors through our bodies, a sound more felt than heard, Day begins to almost imperceptibly rock left to right. His micro-shuffle grows, reaching shoulders, elbows, neck, arms, knees, until kinetic waves are flowing through Day’s entire body. This is not exactly choreography: rather, it is controlled movement. The only betrayal of the performer’s skill and training is in the constancy of rhythm and evenness of gesture: while strenuous, the movement never exhausts the body. The point of these pieces is not to explore endurance or produce exhaustion, but to maintain constancy.

Day’s works do not happen so much on stage as in one’s body as one watches. The real spectacle of these pieces is not in observing and admiring the dancing (rather, moving) body, but in observing how being in the shared space with a moving body affects one’s own. The palpable rhythmic waves of kinetic energy emanating from the dancer, dense and tight and unrelenting, gradually build into very strong tension within one’s own body. A fellow spectator confided that during Thousands (an extremely still, slow piece) he felt an irresistible urge to stand up and do something, anything. Day has said elsewhere that he choreographs energetic exchange between performer and spectator: a choreographic situation that cannot exist without an audience. This is a more technical translation of what I try to describe to members of the general public, while queuing for the auditorium, as “it might upset your digestion.” “Should I not have gulped down my dinner?” asks one, half-jokingly. “That’s right,” I answer, very seriously.

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Matthew Day, Intermission
image James Brown

Intermission, however, is comparatively light on one’s body. The pulsating, wave-like physicality that Day employs creates a light, but literal, hypnosis, a wandering focus, not dissimilar to boredom, but with a liberating lining of calmness. Our feeling of time and spatial proportion blurs into a drifting vagueness of perception. Suddenly, Day has shifted through the space, drawing ever-larger circles, one minute rocking a step at a time. I am light-headed, if not quite dizzy. At one point, I wonder if there is a way to test this effect, like in stage show hypnosis: how many of us would quack if asked? Would that make dramaturgical sense? Our bodies are tense, but there is a relief in the repetition: like jogging or disco dancing, this is a relaxing tension.

Meanwhile, Day’s rocking has morphed multiple times: from a sideways push/pull to a figure-eight arms loop, then back to a simple rocking with his head tilted back; shifts that feel both momentous and imperceptible. As usual, the eye perceives reference where there might be none: a preparation for strenuous activity; the rocking of anxiety or stress; repetitive industrial labour; mystical dancing; the liberating and oppressive capacities of a low-frequency repeat cycle. But Day channels no emotion, just blank focus, a mind merged with motion. When the work ends, it feels like any time at all might have passed.

To fully appreciate Matthew Day’s work, it is necessary to understand just how fundamentally it breaks not simply from modern dance, but from the full canon of modernist thought: the imperative of equating being with movement (not simply forward, but all kinetic acts of purposeful movement), a constant shedding of present for the future, the Cartesian individualism that posits the thinking subject as tragically severed from the world, and what Teresa Brennan (Exhausting Modernity, 2000) calls “the uniform denial of the transmission of affect.” In its small way, by slowing down time and expanding space, by creating an affective community, by rejecting spectacle for co-presence, Intermission is a demonstration of another way of being in the world, of empathetic being together.

Dance Massive, Dancehouse: Intermission, choreographer, performer Matthew Day, dramaturgy Martin del Amo, sound designer James Brown, lighting designer Travis Hodgson; Dancehouse, Melbourne, March 17-19; http://dancemassive.com.au

First published in RealTime, Dance Massive special edition, Mar 2013. All rights reserved.

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