Category Archives: published

The Conversation: Sex, rape and role models – how women in comedy perform

Adrienne Truscott (MICF)

Adrienne Truscott (MICF)

Two performance artists in this year’s Melbourne International Comedy Festival (MICF) – the UK’s Bryony Kimmings and American Adrienne Truscott – have a certain flavour of humour: it’s the knowing, self-deprecating humour of the culturally dispossessed, of survivors and victims. And yes, they’re both women.

Asking For It: A One-Lady Rape About Comedy Starring Her Pussy and Little Else! is Adrienne Truscott’s stand-up show about rape. In it, Truscott counters the stated prerogative of male comedians to tell rape jokes with a confronting routine in which she relentlessly does the same.

Her wit spares neither them, nor hip-hop artists rapping about date rape, nor Republican politicians expounding on “legitimate rape”, nor men in the audience.

Truscott also gets to explain why animal analogies are inadequate through progeny-eating gerbils. It is a bracing, uncomfortable, rewarding show. Is it funny, though? That depends on how you look at it.

The topic of “women in comedy” is endlessly controversial. Where are the women? Are there enough of them? Are women even funny?

The latter is apparently such a valid question that it has been regularly asked, with a straight face, by The Guardian, Huffington Post, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker and possibly every other major media publication.

British-American author Christopher Hitchens famously stated in Vanity Fair in 2007: they are not. Those that were funny, he conceded, were mostly “hefty or dykey or Jewish,” therefore practically men themselves.

Coming to this question from a performance studies viewpoint – as opposed to being an expert in stand-up comedy like Hitchens – the question seems almost otherworldly. Let me explain.

Origins of performance art

In the second half of the 20th century, artists’ interest in real time, real space, real human bodies, real human presence and real human experience resulted in the development of what we call “performance art”: art inextricably linked to the artist physically producing it.

Marina Abramović, The Artist Is Present, 2010. (Andrew Russeth)

Marina Abramović, The Artist Is Present, 2010. (Andrew Russeth)

The practice originated in the visual arts scene of 1950s and 1960s America. In Europe, slightly later, it became known simply as “performance”, while in the UK, once it reached theatre artists in the 1980s and 1990s, it became known as “live art” (from art historian RoseLee Goldberg’s seminal history of performance art).

Performance art encompasses a wide range of practices but the two people that defined the term, almost to the point of cliche, are Japanese artist Yoko Ono and Serbian-born artist Marina Abramović. In the 1960s and 1970s, they let the presence of their own body make the artistic statement: Ono letting the spectators cut up her clothing in Cut Piece (1965); Ono and Lennon protesting the Vietnam War in a bed-in (1969); Abramović letting gallery visitors use various sharp objects, knives and a gun on her body in Rhythm 0 (1974); or leaning into a bow and arrow in Rest Energy (1980).

Performance art allowed feminist female artists to effectively challenge that standard object of representation in art – the female body. A living, breathing, talking, reacting woman could subvert, challenge, deconstruct the idealised notion of women as passive objects of beauty and desire. She could challenge the audience with her realness, and raise such taboo issues as menstruation, ageing, or sexual identity. The history of female art and the history of performance art are inextricably intertwined.

The vocabulary of performance developed by female artists emphasised solo performance, a strong element of autobiography or personal experience, veiled social critique, and interaction with the audience. Sort of like comedy, you see, apart from not being funny.

Except that it often is. It is no wonder that many women in this year’s MICF are performance artists, not career comediennes – the impulse behind these two forms is similar, and so is their flavour of humour. As Bryony Kimmings said last year in the London Evening Standard:

Women are funnier because we suffer more.

Consider Marina Abramović’s video work, in which she manically brushes her hair for 50 minutes, repeating the titular phrase, “Art must be beautiful. Artist must be beautiful”. If you don’t hear the sarcasm, you’re missing the point of the work. It is the same flavour of barbed sarcasm that Adrienne Truscott uses when she opens her comedy show with a bona fide rape joke, and stands in front of us naked from the waist down.

The vulnerability of their bodies is an angry statement, but this angry vulnerability is almost defining of women’s life. It does not preclude humour.

Bryony Kimmings

This strategy of escalating the sexualisation of the female body until it is funny also appears in Bryony Kimmings’ Sex Idiot at MICF where she performs a long interpretive dance sequence that mimics sexual intercourse.

Bryonny Kimmings in Sex Idiot. (MICF)

Bryonny Kimmings in Sex Idiot. (MICF)

Sex Idiot is an autobiographical journey through Kimmings’ relationship history while she is trying to inform previous partners of her positive STI test. It has that familiar emotional tone of self-deprecation, melancholy and wise acceptance – again, tone less akin to a mating call than to cotton-picking songs of American slaves.

It is also funny, outrageously so. But it is an emotionally complex humour: as Kimmings creates ever more hilarious performance artworks to honour each one of her previous relationships, we laugh at her disappointments, her poor choices, her wasted opportunities, her misapplied bravado. It is a journey that ends rewardingly, in rich introspection.

 

But the most extraordinary feminist performance currently showing in Melbourne is Credible Likeable Superstar Rolemodel, also created by Kimmings. Not officially a part of the Comedy Festival, but showing at Theatre Works as part of Festival of Live Art (FOLA).

It is a joint endeavour between Kimmings and her 11-year-old niece Taylor, in which they try to develop an appropriate role-model for tween girls. The show is emotionally hard-hitting in unexpected ways. It juxtaposes Taylor’s innocent preteen imagination with Kimmings’ adult protectiveness and cynicism, and it is sometimes very funny, and sometimes heart-wrenching.

Nothing like a dry treatise in sexualisation of children, it left everyone in the audience sobbing quite unashamedly. It is a powerful example of how the emotional nuance of feminist performance can deliver a deeply felt social analysis.

Australian academic Germaine Greer famously accused female artists of exhibitionism and narcissism. This is not so different from accusing women comics of only talking about vaginas and men. Vanity Fair may be right to say that, until very recently, all female comedy could be divided into two camps: self-deprecating or men-hating. But, to some extent, this should be a self-resolving problem.

As Gloria Steinem pointed out, feminism is inextricably related to telling stories women can recognise as being about themselves.

When talking about rape, promiscuous women and the sexualisation of children stops being a rebellious act, feminist performance will naturally move on.

 

Bryony Kimmings Sex Idiot runs until April 5.

Credible Likeable Superstar Role Model runs until April 6.

Adrienne Truscott’s Asking for It: A One-Lady Rape About Comedy Starring Her Pussy and Little Else! runs until April 20.

This article was first published in The Conversation on 3 April 2014, and is here reproduced under the Creative Commons Licence, more for my own archival purposes than anything else.

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Review: Daniel Schlusser Ensemble: M+M (way overdue)

While nominally based on Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, Daniel Schlusser’s M+M does not attempt to represent the text: a perhaps wise decision given that the novel is arguably – more than 500 theatrical versions later – fundamentally unstageable.

Unwieldy and expansive in both size and scope, Master and Margarita weaves three narratives wildly disparate in theme and tone: a hilarious grotesque in which the Devil with his entourage (including the vodka-swilling cat Behemoth) wreaks havoc on the 1930s Moscow; the trial and crucifixion of Jesus, seen from the perspective of Pontius Pilate, troubled both by his conscience and a raging headache; and the story of Margarita, who makes a pact with the Devil to save her lover, the imprisoned author of a novel about Christ in the anti-religious Soviet Union.

It is a perplexing work and has been read as an hommage to Goethe’s Faust, a denunciation of the human condition under Communism, a Menippean satire on Moscow’s literary circles, a Tolstoyan exploration of Christian ethics, an absurdist grotesque in the vein of Gogol and Kharms, and an occult fantasy, richly informed by Freemason and medieval symbology.

Any familiarity with the novel, however, may be a hindrance more than an aid: M+M uses Bulgakov’s life and work merely as the starting point for an original theatrical exploration. Those searching for familiar characters and plot points may fail to grasp the peculiar beauty of this production.

This review was published in Guardian Australia on 14 October 2013. Read the whole review here.

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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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Dance Massive 01: suggestive formalism (reviewed: Natalie Abbott’s Physical Fractals)

PHYSICAL FRACTALS presented by Arts House & Natalie Abbott
Natalie Abbott, Sarah Aitken, Physical Fractals
photo Ponch Hawkes

EVER SINCE MODERN DANCE BUILT ITS MANIFESTO ON THE REJECTION OF REALISTIC STORYTELLING, CONTEMPORARY DANCE HAS BEEN A BIT OF A HARD SLOG FOR UNACCUSTOMED AUDIENCES. A DEEPLY ABSTRACT ART—AND NATALIE ABBOTT’S PHYSICAL FRACTALS IS RIGHT UP THERE WITH THE MOST ABSTRACT—CONTEMPORARY DANCE OFTEN HINGES ON A CAPACITY FOR SUGGESTIVENESS AND THE DESIRE TO CULTIVATE A RICH INTERIOR LIFE.

The tenuous ‘truth’ of a dance work is so often buried somewhere between movement and mood, that we all, I would say, need the ability to let our minds wander over the physical performance, if we are to get to its core.

Postmodernism has brought narrative, realism and politics back into dance, but not evenly so. In particular, there is a strand of Australian dance that has furiously resisted all figuration, remained staunchly formalist and—I mean this without reprimand—has privileged mood and atmosphere over concept and narrative. Physical Fractals, the first long-form work by young choreographer Natalie Abbott, sits squarely within this tradition. The work examines how a cross-interference of media stimuli—sound, light and movement—can create a meaningful audience experience. It is deeply formalist in intent, and I am somewhat glad I entered the auditorium without knowing this.

Two young female dancers, Abbott herself and Sarah Aitken, dressed in loose, comfortable black, perform repetitious sequences of simple gestures, gradually drawing intersecting lines within the circular stage. Their movements are uncomplicated but heavy, Haka-like—wide stomping backwards, dangling arms, weighted jumping, running, heavy falling of bodies—with strong, pendular shifts of weight. The choreography emphasises the weightiness of these two (quite lithe) bodies, and creates an effect of empathetic physical exhaustion in the audience, particularly as we watch Abbott and Aitken repeatedly crash to the ground, in the final sequence. Meanwhile, their thumps and stomps are looped, magnified and sent swirling back, building into a powerful echo, as if the two women are single-handedly raising a storm. At one point, the dancers swing microphones on their cords, building a symphony of static. The effect is hypnotic but deep: the heaviness of the performance lodges itself deeply in one’s body.

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Sarah Aitken, Natalie Abbott, Physical Fractals
photo Ponch Hawkes

At its best, Physical Fractals makes us feel the sheer force of these simple movements on the dancers’ bodies. Abbott seems to emphasise weight not purely for sonic effect: repetition of falling, faltering and stooping builds a narrative of physical strain and resilience. It could be easily read as a feminist choreography, but equally as a humanist one (female body has limited significance here). Its dancing bodies are grounded, weighted, imperfectly synced, injurable, far from the superhero flying automata that one still sees. I was reminded acutely of Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker’s early work, particularly Rosas Dans Rosas and Bartók, which wove the same strands of repetition, simple gestures and femininity into something formalist, yet humbly political and life affirming. (There was also an echo to her later work, which explores darkness, movement and silence within similar parameters.) But I kept waiting in vain for this work to use its magnificently realised means towards some higher goal.

Physical Fractals continuously operated on the same plane, neither submerging us under its powerful storm into a meditative enlightenment, nor raising us to a bird’s eye realisation of higher purpose. I could not detect a fractal pattern (a fractal is self-similar, presenting the same complexity of build at different scales: think cauliflower or snowflake). I was waiting for a minimum of philosophical framework, something to gently give meaning to the genuine empathy the work was creating, something between awe and care; I was waiting for Abbott to utilise the powerful spell she had cast on us. It never came, and the work is weaker for its unfulfilled potential than it would have been had it ventured a smaller stake.

For the pure affective stamp it leaves, Physical Fractals is a formally successful work, and Abbott a sensitive and intelligent choreographer. Just as de Keersmaeker’s formalist work created political resonances she had not necessarily had in mind, so was I able to enjoy an interior dialogue about strength, resilience, mysticism and the fourth wave of feminism while hypnotised by this fine choreography. This is not, and cannot be wrong: the figurative emptiness at the heart of contemporary dance requires a suggestible viewer. I cannot escape the impression, however, that I enjoyed Physical Fractals for the wrong and unexpected reasons—against the grain of the author’s intent.

Dance Massive: Physical Fractals, choreographer, director, performer Natalie Abbott, collaborator Rebecca Jensen, performer Sarah Aitken, live sound design Daniel Arnot, dramaturg Matthew Day, lighting Govin Ruben; Arts House, 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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On breaking no law – Berlin by bicycle

I have been writing about flash mobs, Erna Omarsdottir, and swingers’ clubs all of this weekend. It has been a particularly nice application of my knowledge of how cities work on the subject matter of theatre, may I say.

But then the publication of this article came through, for Assemble Papers, the first in a series planned about Berlin. Here you can see me employ my purely urbanist pen, and write about this wonderful city purely from the perspective of design, circulation, livability, human rights, and such mundane things.

The whole article is also available after the break, but I suggest you follow the link instead, because Assemble Papers pairs my text with some exquisite photographs by Henrik Kuerschner – and also is a treasure trove of good writing on cities, full stop.

Continue reading “On breaking no law – Berlin by bicycle” »

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