Tag Archives: Dance Massive

Dance Massive: The truth of the matter, or not (reviewed: Gideon Obarzanek’s Faker)

Gideon Obarzanek, Faker. Photo: Heidrun Löhr, courtesy Sydney Opera House.

BEFORE WE COMMENCE, A POLITE REMINDER ON THE NATURE OF THE REAL IN THE THEATRE. ALTHOUGH EVERY ART FORM THAT SPEAKS OF THE WORLD IS TO SOME EXTENT MADE OF THE WORLD (THE TIMBER FRAME THAT STRETCHES THE CANVAS, AND SO FORTH), IN THEATRE THE SIGN AND THE THING ARE PARTICULARLY TIGHTLY ENMESHED. WHILE THE TYPED WORD ‘CHAIR’ STANDS FOR AN ACTUAL CHAIR, IT IS PRECISELY NOT A MATERIAL CHAIR. ON STAGE, IN CONTRAST, A THING IS ALWAYS BOTH A SIGN FOR A THING, AND THE THING ITSELF: A CHAIR ON STAGE IS A CHAIR THAT STANDS FOR A CHAIR.

Faker addresses us, the audience, as an autobiographical, even confessional work, but it is impossible to discuss it as such — once it enters stage space and stage time, ‘Gideon Obarzanek’ stands for Gideon Obarzanek, performing a sitting that stands for sitting, at a desk standing for a desk. It would be dramaturgically and critically naive to review ad hominem: this review can only talk about a staged character, ‘Gideon Obarzanek,’ not the person off-stage; and about the stage letter he receives from a theatrical pupil. The question of the percentage of ‘reality’ involved is, in this case, at the very least dumb, and at the very worst unethical.

The dramatic structure has ‘Obarzanek’ alternating between two activities: first, he reads out a letter sent to him by a young dancer, clearly smitten by ‘Obarzanek,’ who initiates a collaboration, hoping that he will “bring out the fabulous” in her, and then finds herself feeling progressively more vulnerable, let down, and growing increasingly more disappointed, hostile. The voice of the letter sounds clear notes of adoration, insecurity, need to be liked and desire to please, and although it is said to belong to a woman, it could easily belong to a young man. Asked to perform something she has not done before (“this task was designed in a way that I could only fail”), her insecurity starts coalescing into a perception of betrayal: “I stood there, humiliated.”

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Dance Massive: Let’s dance – and we do (reviewed: bluemouth inc.’s Dance Marathon)

Dance Marathon, Dance Massive. Photo: Ponch Hawkes.

DANCE MARATHON IS ONE OF THE MOST COMPLEX, MOST SOPHISTICATED AND YET MOST DELIRIOUSLY ENJOYABLE PERFORMANCE WORKS I HAVE EXPERIENCED IN A LONG WHILE, AND THE CIRCUMSTANCES IN WHICH THIS REVIEW HAS COME ABOUT WILL ALLOW ONLY THE MOST SUPERFICIAL SCRATCHING OF ITS SURFACE. THE NEED TO PRODUCE A WRITTEN RESPONSE TO A PERFORMANCE WORK BY THE FOLLOWING MORNING BECOMES A GREAT IMPEDIMENT TO ANALYSIS IF SUCH WORK REQUIRES YOU TO DANCE ALMOST NON-STOP FROM 8PM UNTIL MUCH PAST MIDNIGHT. BETWEEN MY RAW EXPERIENCE AND THE REFLECTION ON IT THERE HAS BEEN TIME ONLY FOR SOME VERY DEEP SLEEP.

Dance Marathon, staged by Canadian interdisciplinary theatre collective bluemouth inc, functions on at least two levels, which have not entirely come together in my mind. The first is referential. It is staged as a version of the dance marathons popular in the USA in the 1920s and the 1930s. Starting off as Charleston-era one-person (largely female) showcases, the willingness of young dancers to compete in endurance dancing, seeking quick fame, prompted presenters to organise increasingly more elaborate marathons, weaving variety acts and celebrity appearances through the event, introducing complex rules of elimination, theatricalising personal dramas of the contestants and attracting large audiences. Short breaks were introduced for the dancers, allowing the overall length of the marathon to stretch to days, weeks, months. During the Depression era, dance marathons became the bread and circuses of the time, reflecting the large amounts of free time the unemployed citizens of America now had—but also offering that intriguing combination of promises: faint traces of fame and glory, cash and prizes, on the one hand, and work, food and shelter for a short while, on the other.

We may not know any of this, however, and still experience Dance Marathon as a satisfactory reference to a popular form, because the similarity with contemporary reality television is so stark. We enter; we queue to register; we fill out a form waiving health risks; we get a number; we complete a small dance card with personal trivia that will become crucial for the unfolding of the show; we talk to each other in mass anticipation. Our Mistress of Ceremonies introduces the rules: feet moving at all times, no knees touching the floor. We are randomly coupled and, I may add, this is all very exciting: we do dance, with great abandon, the way I rarely see Melburnians dance. There is no audience, although we are being filmed. Do we notice or care? No. As we have heard from reality TV participants, nobody does.

The evening includes dance lessons, games, elimination rounds, celebrity guests, skills showcases (Bron Batten does a mean tap dance), prizes. The logic of elimination is entirely congruent with both reality TV and the pedagogical rules of making all children feel included in a game: very few eliminations in the first three quarters, then a large cull before the semi-finals (bringing the numbers down from 65 to 6); contestants are eliminated on mainly irrelevant grounds, with great attention to preserving the diversity of faces; and the overall winner is decided in a micro-cart race. It is the most inclusive format that an elimination game could possibly assume. Just like those real people on TV sets, smiling under a cloud of swirling confetti, so are we feeling extremely gratified to be participating in something as lovely as Dance Marathon.

However, as a first-hand immersive experience, Dance Marathon is the complete opposite of its own references: it is rewarding, pleasurable, even empowering. In a town of reluctant dancers, it was quite marvellous to see people with no clear dance skills throw themselves around next to highly trained professionals, the former unselfconscious, the latter unselfconsciously corny. Moments of provided entertainment quickly became something to participate in, rather than just watch — in a way similar to Jerome Bel’s The Show Must Go On, the emphasis on the silly imbued the audience with great freedom to act. A reading of a sad poem prompted waves of expressive dance. Every so often, in the middle of a dance number, a choreographed formation would emerge, and we would move aside to observe better these bluemouth inc dancers whom we thought were here just to play. Overall, Dance Marathon worked like a truly wonderful party, in which the organised entertainment blended in perfectly with the fun we were able to have all by ourselves.

Dance Matathon, bluemouth inc. Photo: Gordon Hawkins.

The question worth posing is, why? This close to the experience, the answer can be only vaguely attempted. Dance Marathon foregrounded the elements of game with rules and challenges that stripped away a whole layer of agency from the participant, paradoxically liberating us from having to make choices, thus making us also safe from ridicule or awkwardness. Freud elaborates on the transition from children’s games to adults’ jokes, the latter being essentially more self-protective and tendentious. A joke protects its own pleasure before the intellect. A game, on the other hand, is pure pleasure codified — the purpose is not to win, but to follow the rules. Once inside the girdle of the rules, we are probably as free as we can ever be. It makes one wonder about the extent to which the emergence of immersive theatre — essentially games for adults — responds to some deep need we have today for simple pleasures.

On the other hand, it was very rewarding to see a huge mix of people — from the dedicated contemporary dance audience to people coming straight from swing classes, to those just having a Saturday night out — utterly enjoying, and understanding, an event that questions the theatrical form to this degree. It reminds one of the fact that dance, of all the ‘highbrow’ art forms, has the strongest connection to the street and to play — a point not made often enough.

As Deleuze said somewhere, we do not have a body, we are a body. In other words, our body is not an object we put into practice, but the entity through which we experience the world. This is why Dance Marathon, however satisfying on the level of reference to bread and circuses, exists primarily as an extraordinary party, allowing us to dance with strangers, be blindfolded and drawn into complex choreographies, and even attempt a mass (unskilled) rendition of the dance sequence in Jean Luc Godard’s Bande à part (1964), as Anna Karina, Claude Brasseur and Sami Frey progressively accelerate on screen—and all with great pleasure.

Bande à Part – Dance Scene from Maria Tavares on Vimeo.

A perfect end to Dance Massive.

Dance Massive: bluemouth Inc, Dance Marathon, performers, creators Clara Adams, Stephen O’Connell, Clayton Dean Smith, Cass Bugge, Lucy Simic, Cameron Davis, musicians Steve Charles, Peter Lubulwa, Eugene Ball, Carlo Barbaro. Arts House, Meat Market, Melbourne, March 26; www.dancemassive.com.au

First published on the RealTime website, as a part of RealTime’s critical coverage of Dance Massive 2011. Reprinted in RealTime issue #102 April-May 2011 pg. 19. The 2011 Dance Massive archive can be accessed here.

This is a dear review of mine, because it was written in an only-half-rational frame of mind. Dance Marathon – which I had enjoyed immensely – ended around 2am, and my deadline for the review was 12pm. I got home, fell asleep (I was exhausted and exhilarated), slept until about 9am, sat down and wrote this. The published article is not far from the first draft.

While I no longer think that Dance Marathon is the masterpiece I proclaim it to be here, many of its qualities are undeniably in the experience itself, not in the semiotic skeleton that remains in our minds afterwards. Theologically, I understand myself to be a secular Catholic; something akin to a secular Jew, with an appreciation of ritual and ceremony in and of themselves, not as a shortcut to an omniscient, omnipotent God. Dance Marathon seems to me to possess many of the best qualities of the religious liturgy, quite beside its own postmodern understanding of what it is. As you can hopefully read between these lines, it is undeniable that I had a rave time.

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Dance Massive: The ambiguities of happiness (reviewed: Shaun Parker’s Happy as Larry)

Shaun Parker: Happy as Larry. Photo courtesy of the artist.

I ENCOUNTERED SHAUN PARKER’S HAPPY AS LARRY WITH A VIVID FEAR OF REPEATING A RECENT EXPERIENCE OF SEEING A PERFORMANCE ON HAPPINESS DEVISED BY SOME THEATRE UNDERGRADUATES. AFTER AN HOUR OF WATCHING THEM FROLIC AND TUMBLE, GIGGLE AND DANCE, I BELIEVE THE ENTIRE AUDIENCE WISHED THEM DEAD. NOTHING CAN BE QUITE SO IRRITATING AS WATCHING A PERSON IN A PROLONGED STATE OF BEING DEEPLY HAPPY. WE DO NOT IDENTIFY, QUITE THE CONTRARY: WE FEEL EXCLUDED, DISRESPECTED, IGNORED. WE MAKE COMPARISONS TO ARYAN PROPAGANDA. WE FEEL ENVY.

Not without reason have the classic theatrical forms focused on showing us great tragedies, or ridiculing deeply flawed characters. That’s something to identify with easily: suffering and smugness. Herein lies the paradox of mimesis: another’s happiness is not transferable by identification, does not become my happiness. Show me a happy person on stage, I am likely to see only a self-satisfied bastard.

Happy as Larry shows us people in prolonged states of happiness for no less than 75 minutes, with no narrative arc or character development to introduce variety, and no recourse to the spoken word. However, within this field of monotony it focuses on the varieties of experience and personality, loudly proclaiming its employment of the Enneagram’s nine personality types to create an interesting range of joyful experiences.

We watch very different people enjoy very different activities: a ballerina delights in perfectly executing a classical figure; two young men copy each other’s movements flawlessly, their happiness being both shared and competitive; three women dance, laughing, lightly and not overly concerned with precision; a roller-skater learns to control his wheels. Adam Gardnir’s elegant set, a rotating blackboard slab, keeps the meter of the show, sweeping dancers upstage and bringing new scenes on. While most activities are representations of a simple, even childlike delight in bodily coordination, synchronised movement or skill, some are complex and intriguing. A narcissistic seducer, compulsively revealing his tattoo, dances despite Dean Cross’s chalked suggestion: “Don’t just do something. Stand there.” Miranda Wheen, on the other hand, appears on the scene only as a mediator of other performers’ journeys: she tries to contain the seducer’s movements, or picks up and steadies the roller-skater. Her satisfaction is palpable, and yet there remains a niggling trace of disappointment as the stage is never hers, her fulfilment never self-generated.

Ghenoa Gela, Happy as Larry, Shaun Parker & Company. Photo: Prudence Upton.

It is this democratisation of what could otherwise easily be a fascist insistence on unity of experience that guides Happy as Larry safely out of dangerous waters or sparking a riot in the audience. The rotation of interacting, interfering characters opens up a space for identification. While Parker spends too long hitting a single emotional note, thus provoking some boredom, he also repeatedly manages to bring us back by creating a fresh image of a kind of joy we have previously not considered—such as Cross’ deep, rich euphoria expressed through forceful sliding across the stage, leaving powerful and inarticulate daubs of chalk on the board, a possible representation of artistic creation. Moments of such recognition are powerful if infrequent, and it does make one wonder about how little time we spend thinking about what makes us happy, and how much worrying about what worries us.

The choreography and the technique are beautiful, and this is to a large extent a dance to enjoy for the variety of dancing bodies and styles. However, the dramaturgy is held together more by the rotating slab and the excellent soundtrack (available on iTunes, no less!) than by any sound sense of purpose. What backbone there is is provided by a recurring attempt to illustrate the fleetingness of happiness—from trying to draw a square around a balletic swirl to the ever-growing ridiculous chalk diagrams of Marnie Palomares’ limbs. Like Luke George’s excellent NOW NOW NOW, Happy as Larry allows the pursuits of the present moment to resolve in absurdity. Now is only ever now, and the detritus of these moments is not happiness itself, any more than the collection of props in a gallery could ever be a decent substitute for Marina Abramovic.

After many false endings, the final scene turns unexpectedly bleak: the choreography resolves into unison repetition of movements one could expect from football hooligans—raised fists, chest banging, machine-gun mime. This is repetition for its own sake, dark and not at all joyful, the very image of the death drive. Is this what happens when we try to retrieve irrecuperable happiness? There is not enough solid dramaturgy to know for sure. One by one the dancers leave the stage, leaving Dean Cross entangled in the balloons, themselves detritus from the beginning of the show which, I forgot to mention, involved a sequence of very simple stage trickery. Light switches drawn on the blackboard ‘operated’ stage lights and a flock of balloons was summoned with a snap of fingers. Happiness seemed a very simple thing at that time.

Dance Massive: Shaun Parker, Happy as Larry, director/choreographer Shaun Parker, dramaturg Veronica Neave, musical director Nick Wales, composers Nick Wales, Bree van Reyk, production design Adam Gardnir, Arts House, North Melbourne Town Hall, March 22, 23; www.dancemassive.com.au

First published on the RealTime website, as a part of RealTime’s critical coverage of Dance Massive 2011. Reprinted in RealTime, issue #102, April-May 2011, pg. 18. The 2011 Dance Massive archive can be accessed here.

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Dance Massive: into the dance-scape (reviewed: Narelle Benjamin’s In Glass)

Paul White, In Glass. Photo: Ian Bird, courtesy Sydney Opera House.

PLENITUDE IS A GOOD WORD TO DESCRIBE NARELLE BENJAMIN’S IN GLASS—NOT IN THE SENSE OF ABUNDANCE, PERHAPS NOT, BUT CERTAINLY IN THE SENSE OF AMASSING, OF MULTIPLIED SAMENESS. THE GORGEOUS, PRECISE BODIES OF KRISTINA CHAN AND PAUL WHITE ARE QUITE ABLE TO COMMAND THE STAGE IN SINGULAR, BUT IN GLASS MULTIPLIES THEM THROUGH GENTLY ANGLED MIRRORS, FILM AND INTERPLAY OF LIGHT AND SHADOW—MAKING AS MANY AS SIX OF THE SAME DANCING COUPLE AT ONCE.

They mirror each other, too, sometimes in perfect synchronicity, sometimes with a calculated lag; then they split into duets with a recognisable male-female dynamic. This shifting between synchronicity and sensual dialogue evokes intriguing parallels with psychoanalytical thought, as the two dancers seem to achieve a completion of sorts in paralleling each other’s movements: through learning to imitate and respond to each other they seem to grow conscious of themselves, each other, the world, their relationship. Without going too deeply into Lacanian psychoanalysis, the notion of the mirror stage, in which reflection of one’s self allows self-conscience to emerge, is a notion dear to all performance—recurring in theories of performativity from Judith Butler among others. For a while there, the multitude of reflecting Chans and Whites exists without leader or follower: a perfect tribe of dancers, an image of primordial unity. There is some logic to this interpretation: the mirror stage is but a moment in our lives, and irretrievable—and Chan and White spend the later, larger part of In Glass out of sync, seeking each other. If the mirror starts as a vehicle for happy unison of the many, it soon turns into a visual maze, a passage through a glass, darkly.

Much of the dramaturgical responsibility in In Glass rests on Samuel James’ visual design, which adds a layer of video to the already complex reflecting images. Through the projections, the mirrors shatter, dancers’ limbs multiply into insectoid, almost abstract arabesques and a forest landscape engulfs Chan’s and White’s bodies as they slip behind glass. Chan, a comparatively small woman, repeatedly wanders off into the forest, as bare-footed and lost as that child in McCubbin’s painting. When she reappears on stage, she is prostrate, asleep, as if she had been spirited away without any agency of her own. In these moments In Glass appears to tell a story of star-crossed lovers, or even (to remain psychoanalytical) of that impossible thing we seek in everyone we fall in love with—the faint memory of our pre-conscious unity with the world. The repetition of loss, search and encounter echoes itself in slight inflections, as reclamation of lost ground, which never turns out to be quite the same.

Benjamin’s choreography reaches its apex with the introduction of two smaller, oval mirrors, which allow the dancers to multiply only some of their body parts, and merge into fabulous beasts. Paul White becomes a three-headed Narcissus (or Cerberus), licking and kissing his own reflection. The moment is exquisite: as the light from the mirrors scans through the audience, occasionally blinding us, we are brought into the same space as White, now as sublime as a psychotic monster. Kristina Chan’s transformation into a many-limbed Hindu deity is equally captivating: White stands behind her with the mirrors, multiplying her arms. Both dancers reflect and multiply in the larger mirrors behind them, forming a gigantic pastiche of human matter, not unlike an organic Rorschach blot. In these moments, what has so far been their internal quest grows larger, universal, archetypal. The performers could be gods or animals.

However, such moments of confronting strangeness are too rare. For the most part, In Glass insists on a certain mellow beauty which, however satisfying on a purely aesthetic level, keeps its tone too even, too centred, to build a genuinely satisfactory dramatic arc. The beauty of individual scenes is undeniable; the purpose or intent of the entire endeavour much harder to ascertain—video and choreography become sequential eye candy, creating the pleasant effect of dance wallpaper.

I am reminded of early 20th-century dance, its insistence on harmony and pure expression of the body, and, even more, of Gertrude Stein’s ‘landscape plays.’ All of Stein’s principles—the interest in reaching the unconscious, the continuous dramatic present, the play that one can contemplate as one would a park or a landscape, the seeming homogeneity of content which, actually, goes through subtle variations and loops—are present in In Glass. Stein eliminated the dramatic narrative on purpose, proclaiming that it always made her terribly nervous. In Glass comes with no such manifesto, but it does seem to be trying to create a landscape of its own sort. And it succeeds: even if we are not sure what it was saying, we do believe we have heard it say something.

The greatest part of the experience of any dance work is retrospective, the memory of a body at a constant vanishing point. As such, it is hard in a review that follows so closely after the event to say with certainty what this experience was. Perhaps that three-headed Narcissus will crystallise into an indelible image in a week’s time? It is too early to tell.

In Glass (The Studio – 2010) from Sam James on Vimeo.

2011 Dance Massive: In Glass, choreographer Narelle Benjamin, dancers Kristina Chan, Paul White, composer Huey Benjamin, visual design Samuel James, costumes Tess Schofield, lighting Karen Norris, Beckett Theatre, Malthouse, Melbourne, March 15-20; www.dancemassive.com.au

First published on the RealTime website, as a part of RealTime’s critical coverage of Dance Massive 2011. Reprinted in RealTime issue #102 April-May 2011 pg. 17. The 2011 Dance Massive archive can be accessed here.

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Dance Massive: Journey of the tribe (reviewed: Helen Herbertson and Ben Cobham’s Sunstruck)

Trevor Patrick, Sunstruck. Photo: Heidrun Löhr.

WHAT A DIFFERENCE CONTEXT MAKES! IN 2008, SUNSTRUCK FELT LIKE A WORK ABOUT THE DROUGHT— THE THICK, ENDLESS, DUSTY THING EVERYWHERE AROUND US ON THIS OLD ROCK OF A COUNTRY. THIS RAINY BUT APOCALYPTIC YEAR, I HEAR SOMEONE ASK IN THE FOYER, PRE-SHOW: “THIS IS NOT ABOUT CLIMATE CHANGE, IS IT?” I SENSE FUNDING OPPORTUNITIES FOR AN IMMINENT WAVE OF THEATRE AND DANCE, LEAVING US AWASH WITH DRAWING ROOM DRAMAS IN WHICH THE AID-WORKER DAUGHTER INTRODUCES HER BOYFRIEND, A SURVIVOR FROM A SUBMERGED ATOLL, TO HER CLIMATE SCIENTIST FATHER…BUT SUNSTRUCK IS NONE OF THESE.

One of the great benefits of Dance Massive is that it brings some important dance works that may not have received the attention they deserved to a receptive and curious audience. Having been among the relatively few who saw Sunstruck at the 2008 Melbourne International Arts Festival, it is very rewarding to now see it delight a whole new audience.

Nick Sommerville, Sunstruck. Photo: Heidrun Löhr.

At the time, I compared it with the paintings of Russell Drysdale, to Camus’ protagonist who kills an Arab, blinded by the sun. The simple geometry of these works was concordant with the simple geometry of Sunstruck: the single source of light, the single circle of chairs for the audience, the black of the two male performers’ clothing. The series of gestures, interlocking (yet seemingly independent) movements that the two performers engage in—the youthfully strong, mannish Nick Sommerville and the older, fluid, catlike Trevor Patrick—build to create a universe of silent masculinity, in which one can only self-express whilst blinded by the sun. At the same time, the heat, the absence of rain, as much as it delivers them into ecstatic abandonment, also appears to strike them down. Or is this just a beginning of something new?

Trevor Patrick, Sunstruck. Photo: Heidrun Löhr.

In 2008, I saw a personal journey in Sunstruck, a sort of dictionary or compendium of particularly masculine Australian body language—there was great restraint, silent grief, competitiveness, care and extraordinary liberation of body and emotion which, unsurprisingly, ended in weeping. A great deal of the choreography, indeed, is very close in form to mime—staring at strong light, combing hair, smoking a cigarette. However, this time I saw what Helen Herbertson talks about in her director’s notes—a death, a childbirth, the ecstasy of existence, the heavy load of being alive. It was a journey of a tribe rather than of the individual.

But it is hard to describe Sunstruck, because it is not technically ‘about’ anything—it is an experience, rather than a work of representation. The crucial aspects of the work, though, are also the easiest to overlook: the great dark space, greetings from the artists, receiving a warm drink, sitting in a close circle. The atmosphere it creates—of quiet meditation, but a communal one, not unlike sitting around a campfire—is the container for the experience. If after the show has ended we all remain seated in our chairs, quietly enjoying the tangible community we now are, that would be why. We have seen different things in Sunstruck, but we have all shared a cup of the same tea.

Nick Sommerville and Trevor Patrick, Sunstruck. Photo: Heidrun Löhr.

Dance Massive: Sunstruck, concept collaboration Helen Herbertson, Ben Cobham, devisor, director Herbertson, design, light Cobham, performers Trevor Patrick, Nick Sommerville, Arts House, North Melbourne Town Hall, March 14-16; www.dancemassive.com.au

First published on the RealTime website, as a part of RealTime’s critical coverage of Dance Massive 2011. Reprinted in RealTime issue #102 April-May 2011 pg. 12. The 2011 Dance Massive archive can be accessed here.

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