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.
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.