Tag Archives: Meryl Tankard


This review has appeared on Spark Online.

Dancenorth’s Underground, presented at the Arts House at this strange gap at the tail end of the year, when much of the theatre on offer is perfunctory and much is splendid, itself sits in this gap,being in turns yay and nay.

It opens in an underground station, looking dangerously like Shaun Parker’s This Show is About the People,and proceeds to exercise some very similar muscles. (I haven’t seen Parker’s show, I am basing this on hearsay. The production photos,however, were stunningly alike.) Both Parker and Gavin Webber, the director and choreographer of Underground, had worked with Australian Dance Theatre under Meryl Tankard, and the influence shows. Undergroundis worldly, emotionally mature, and cool. The music is pumpin’; there is gum stuck under the seats, so to speak. This is a dance tribe quite separate from Melbourne’s own Chunky/Guerin clique; there is no space in its manic rhythm for finding one’s inner Isadora. It transpires with Europe, with Pina, with sex and physical violence, everyday clothes and places, everyday emotions. And it’s filled with everyday Australian characters (a business-sleaze, a clueless Asian tourist, a semi-chroming dirtbag, a private-minded book reader), and an everyday,domestic sort of unthreatening torpor.<

The mix grates at times. There are two types of conflicting progression in Underground.First, there is the playful lateral movement from quotidian to magic realism, with a sparkle of stand-alone ideas. The underground station,thus, will be the place where territorial skirmishes slowly escalate into full-blown wars, and looking for a lighter grows into station seats spinning on their axes, a text-messaging girl hanging off them and sliding down. An instance of slasher-film sounds while the Asian girl is revealed to be a martial-arts champion.This is a brainstorming quality present in much local dance, circus and may-I-suggest comedy. Tense Dave,in 2006, was one such inconsequential brainstorm. Yet there is also a detached hipster short-film feel to it. Filling the stage wall-to-fourth-wall with music and motion, varying the tempo to a great simulation of a film switching between slow and fast forward, it is the epitome of the Cool of one Vandekeybus, or the Vice magazine.

On the other hand, though, there are meanderings of humourless Germanic moodiness, a deliberate push for the heavy themes, with the grotesque and the confronting used with some nonchalance. The shift is mirrored in the use of space, which opens up from the tight, rigidly structured underground platform into a loosely defined, dreamy space of trauma, fear, anger and revenge. Interspersing the mundane with grotesque images of a business man dripping sleaze all over the Asian girl, the softly comical magic realism will suddenly shift into MTV-powered battle scenes taken verbatim out of Ultima Vez, with whom Webber has trained. While theirs is certainly an interesting technique,all violence of the sexes, bodies spinning, flying through the air,grating against one another, bouncing off, it is never certain if the acrobatics weren’t imported wholesale just for the looks, with little meaning surviving the voyage. At the risk of making it sound hugely derivative, it looked like Akram Khan’s recent Bahok without the dramaturgical girdle: whereas Khan’s was insipid stage action rendered absolutely bullet-proof by hard dramaturgical logic, Undergroundwanders in and out of themes with much less precision. Once introduced,the darkness is never fully banished, and alienation of proximity, and individual action in the disperse responsibility of the crowd, are mercilessly explored. Yet the progression is, in the last moment,undoubtedly circular, returning the Teutonic inquiry into the safe territory of the never-changing Australian eventlessness.

Moments of semantic void are usually not the moments of stillness:the intellectual flattening is created by empty movement, rather than the empty stage. The strongest moments of the performance are precisely in the pauses, many of these U-turns of stage activity that throw the viewer completely off balance, our expectations completely confounded.Thus the assumed ordinary reality will suddenly shift into a hint of a disaster outside (nuclear error?, environmental catastrophe? gas attack?), leaving the single bookish Kate Harman trying to make sense of a darkened station. Re-emerging out of semi-slapstick and mundane gadgetry, standing on the seats, she stretches out on the tips of her toes, trying to reach the neon lights, and this moment of endless inscrutability makes up for much of the needless running that happens before and after. At 75 minutes, however, it also assumes an epic quality (another nod to Vandekeybus), which justifies some of the variability, hinting at the rich family of sagas, operas, and all those endless theatrical rambles that accumulate significance and weight just from refusing to finish.

Overall, despite the logic of a hipster film, despite looking like a collage, Undergroundis a rewarding experience. However, it is a production strongest at the joints. All the influences, nods and loans, remain distinctively separate and, while the epic accumulation certainly works, do not add up to the most brilliant dance theatre in the country. The in-between moments, the contrasts, are moments when Underground overcomes itself, and makes strange.

Undeground. Dancenorth. Arts House, North Melbourne Town Hall.
Season: Wed 12 – Sun 16 Nov.
Tickets: $25-18.
Bookings: artshouse.com.au or 03 9639 0096.

Tagged ,

Meryl Tankard

1. PETER THOMPSON: What is it about dance that you love so much?

MERYL TANKARD:I think…it's just an expression of your insides, I mean your soul somehow. Tamasaburo, the beautiful Kabuki actor, once said that dance was an act of devotion and in some ways it is, because you are constantly…you know, your body is your only source of creativity, so it's coming from really inside.

PETER THOMPSON: So what does it do to people?

MERYL TANKARD:It moves them, it really does. You get touched in a way that you couldn't otherwise be touched. When I was studying I felt that it was the ultimate art form, because it combined music, visuals, but it used your body, and all you had was your body. It's like music, certain pieces of music will touch you and you can't really say why. It's even stronger with movement, because you have a human being there in front of you.



Songs with Mara. Photo: Régis Lansac.


3. I saw & wrote on Meryl's Inuk2 before seeing The Black Swan. A documentary on her life and work, it completely blew me away.


Meryl Tankard; two stories.

After the untimely death of the brilliant Tanja Liedtke, the just-announced artistic director of the Sydney Dance Company, the company commissioned work from three choreographers, ad hoc, to fill up 2008 while in transition. Meryl Tankard was one. Inuk2 was based on her 1997 Inuk, meaning 'human' in Inuit, a work I haven't seen. By a choreographer I don't know, performed by an ensemble that's just a group of strangers to me.


Meryl Tankard and Sydney Dance Company in rehearsal. Photo: Steven Siewert

The first is the key to the beauty of dance.

The key to the beauty of dance is half-unlocking for me through the way I always prefer to post photos of a dance moment, rather than video clips. The sheer beauty of the human body, of the movement congealed, arms and legs stuck in time, hanging off the layers of thick air. Can you see what I'm saying here? For the longest time I dreamed of being a theatre photographer. I would smuggle cameras into the auditorium and steal photos like kisses, of curtain calls, of bare feet, of midmotion and endmotion and premotion.

(I was hoping, one day, to take photos of rehearsals. A rehearsal is ontologically the other side of the construction of a shopping mall, or a suburb. Walking through Melbourne Central half-finished, once upon a time, I was observing the retreat of reality, of texture and meaning, in front of polished layers of the Gruen Transfer. A rehersal is a layering of truth, quite the opposite. Hence the opening photo.)

Meryl Tankard's Inuk2 was going to be my final splurge in this godforsaken land, a piece of Australia to take traveling with me. Was it? It was. After a stint at Next Wave (forthcoming) viewing 'indigenous' theatre that, to broadbrush, didn't seem to come from very deep, it felt almost aboriginal, unashamed, in the way it invoked this country, the experience of this country. It was a dance from the stomach, not the mind.

And it succeeds and it fails, of course. Just like Australia, it doesn't quite know whether it's gruesome drama or a gentle comedy. The first part, The Freeway, is exquisite: all 1930s or so, gentle, feminine, a pointe, with a beautiful girl dissolving into the ethereal immensity, say, of the road. Lost children, the engulfment of the wilderness. Beautiful lighting design. I thought, this is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen on stage. The next moment, as we come through to the other side, suddenly we have feminist gymnastics. The Tribe is the longest, most repetitive and most philosophically dubious part: although it gave me some food for thought over politically engaged art, what if the feminist in me disagrees? What if women will never beat men in physical fight and what if that's not the point? So I suffered through. Perhaps it's my aversion to group sports.

The third part, The Party, after the interval, is another brutalist look at Australia: goddamn, there is something about that billboard of the blue sky. It was wiping the floor with the audience. Dancing, drinking, mating rituals, and a harrowing sequence that will be remembered as the Binge Drinking moment; all under this billboard. The rubbish! The crying! Balkan Beat Box in a dingy discotheque: we are a global tribe after all.

With the unruly and imprecise (not to mention aggressively laid-back), but so is Australia, The End out of the way, all four corners of this country were covered: a brush at sublime, the youthful energy, the unstructured dark night, and the final slapstick song&dance. No wonder one is confused about whether life here is happy or utterly miserable. It seemed so Australian that it almost made fun of my intention to keep Inuk2 in my heart during overseas travels; as if it said, this is how we do things here! When we're unsure of the message or the mood, we attach a lightweight coda.

Inuk2 is patchy, but gutsy. Convinced in ideas, but not in execution. It is very much the product of a company in transition working with a new choreographer. Not everyone comfortable in their roles, not everyone utilised best. The bold and beautiful Sarah-Jayne Howard visibly excels, but is also Tankard's frequent collaborator and not a member of SDC. The random succession of music, moods and styles was deliberate, and if it worked, it worked to the extent to which strong scenes rhythmically broke this mechanical rotation of scenes, this MTV drone. Again the photo quality of dance. Suspension of air and body. But there was a too-muchness: too many superfluous people on stage, too many disagreeing elements. Nina Simone!, Inuit singing!, r'n'b! The water extravaganza at the end was annoying, rather than adorable, and not everyone seemed convinced by their direction.

So, like tourists, we are left with a collection of beautiful images not quite giving us the answers. The lines in the airport tarmac. The blue sky billboard. The drunk woman. The tribal games. The rubbish. Oh the rubbish. And if that didn't remind me of one very early, muggy morning in Portugal, when newspapers and rubbish were rolling everywhere, taking over the streets (something about the street cleaning in Portugal was explained to me), and I felt cold, unhappily in love and disappointed in the state of humanity, and I'm sure many people had the same pangs of recognition in same intervals, I don't know if I would call it successful.

As it ended, though, with the beautiful images hung at regular intervals on the walls of this lunapark ride, it was puzzling and beautiful and rewarding.


Have a look.

Photo credits: Regis Lansac


The second is the theatre audience.

Sitting in the foyer of the Arts Centre at these un-indy shows, these big ballet shows with ballet audiences, always full of skinny (skim?) girls with long curled hairs and slight tweenager make-up and semi-high heels, and their mothers with plucked eyebrows and furs, you understand, all black and stylish, I used to feel like I used to feel in front of Europeans (we all have our Europeans, perhaps). I used to feel alone, and short-haired and perplexed in front of this teeming femininity, somehow untaught the rules of being a girl and, by extension, of being civilized: the rules and reasons to hair removal, to make-up, to the tricks of always smelling of expensive perfume, not dry sweat, and the entire cacophony of confusion over what women do in toilets.

The awareness of my grandmother, who may have read the entire Chekhov – reading is a cheap hobby, thank Lord for socialism and libraries – but has never been to ballet. The expensive good seats, the glossy programs with artistic pictures (quite unlike the little gold-coin-donation ones I am used to), it all combines into a feeling of not quite awkwardness, but, rather, of being completely alone.

I am sure there are those who don't like the idea of cheap seats, of matinées, of young immigrants speaking too loudly in their theatres, stepping on their feet or making out in opera. I'm sure there exist those willing to argue of the benefit of rules of conduct, dress codes, conversation etiquette. More so in Europe, or even North America, than in this convict colony. But they exist.

Later, when the show starts, it doesn't matter anymore. The questions of how many good eyebrows are raised over scenes of binge drinking don't even feature. We are all equals in front of art. But outside, in the foyer, I am as alone as in front of death. I am de-tribed.

Does that change our perspective of the play?

by Jana Perkovic

Tagged , ,