Category Archives: dance

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.

abbott03
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 Pina Bausch

Pina Bausch photographed by © Gert Weigelt.

What was it that attracted people to the Tanztheater of Pina Bausch (and her colleagues like Johann Kresnik in Bremen, Gerhard Bohner in Darmstadt, Reinhild Hoffmann und Susanne Linke in Bochum and a little later Sasha Waltz in Berlin – not to mention smaller cities like Freiburg, Heidelberg, Bielefeld and Muenster)? I think, first of all, that Tanztheater dealt with the problems of the young generation that had grown up in Germany after the war. It was a protest against the establishment generation, its parents who had been responsible for Germany’s decline under the Nazis. That meant clearing away all convention, all assumptions on which society rested. Theatrewise it meant tearing down the frontiers between the separate departments of drama, opera and ballet, with the dancers beginning to speak and to sing and to tell stories of their growing up and their problems with puberty, about their most private and actual conflicts and the difficulty of accepting themselves. These were the top topics of what they called their pieces instead of – as formerly – plays, operas and ballets. There was constantly the crossing of borders and a stylistic melange from all sorts of sources. Pina often arranged her dancers in revue formations or let them tell or bawl out in songs reminiscing about the past or telling of their hopes for the future. And while classic enchainements were generally (though not completely) banned like devil’s work, imports and adaptations from other areas like sport, acrobatics, cabaret, musicals and the movies, also from other ethnic cultures, became commonplace.

The best article on Pina Bausch in English I have found so far, and well worth a read. *

* The article originally appeared in DanceView. A Quarterly Review of Dance, Vol. 26, No. 4 Autumn 2009.

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On dance on film

[pro-player]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MMrRF4lHflU[/pro-player]

I am posting this by popular request: because so many people recently wanted to know where to see it, because I showed it to my boyfriend two nights ago (someone who knew not a single thing about dance films) without editorial comment and he said, when it ended, ‘I think this is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen, of any kind, because I re-watched it recently and had a moment of remembering how art can make one feel entirely quiet on the inside, because I sometimes think that I could do nothing but watch dance films my entire life, because dance film is perhaps my favourite art form, in the whole world.

Dance film has a power to draw me like no other form. I have a self-assembled archive. I watch dance films the way I read novels; out of pleasure, slowly, revisiting favourite passages, skipping to bits I particularly like.

I knew and loved dance film much before I knew how to properly look at a painting, much before I stopped giggling in front of conceptual installations, much before I could get to the end of a poem. It made sense to me straight away, just like dance did.

Continue reading “On dance on film” »

The pre-cognitive alternative (reviewed: Les Ballets C de la B’s Out of Context – For Pina; Needcompany’s The Ballad of Ricky and Ronny)

Out of Context—For Pina, Les Ballets C de la B. Photo: Chris Van der Burght.

IT IS PERHAPS IRONIC, AND PERHAPS TRAGIC, 20 YEARS INTO A POST-IDEOLOGICAL ERA, IN WHICH CHOICE-LED CONSUMERISM HAS REMAINED THE SOLE SURVIVING ETHOS, THAT ART IS INCREASINGLY PREOCCUPIED WITH THE QUESTION OF THE STANDARDISATION OF HUMAN EXPERIENCE. WHAT SHOULD HAVE DISAPPEARED WITH THE SOVIET UNION SEEMS, ON THE CONTRARY, ALL-PERVASIVE.

From architect Rem Koolhaas’ notion of the “generic city” to theorist Fredric Jameson’s understanding of how postmodernity empties time of causal progression, analysis across disciplines returns to the idea that all this variation of screen sizes and skirt lengths is just a buzzing distraction from the standardisation of life on all levels, from feelings to social interaction, psychology to geography, to which There Is No Alternative.

Nothing exemplifies this buzzing vacuum better than the flying circus of internationally touring theatre, in which winning formulae and fashionable styles are often tediously replicated across languages and bodies, and all apparent cultural diversity collapses into trendy homogeneity. One such flying circus, Needcompany, is currently touring Europe with a production that interrogates precisely what happens to the human soul in this generic society.

The Ballad of Ricky and Ronny, a collaboration with Anna Sophia Bonnema and Hans Petter Dahl, is the first in a planned trilogy of pop-operas about a disaffected middle-class couple. It is sung entirely in international English, the thin, bland second language of most of the contemporary world, combining the tinniness of Nico and the verbal rhythms of Patti Smith with the drowsy beats of Flaming Lips. Ricky and Ronny once experienced love, idealism, the 1960s. Now, they cannot put a finger on the cause of their despair, as they lack any serious grievance. Instead, they milk their bloodless English, collected from Hollywood movies and pop music, for tired invectives and sentimental clichés. They try to muster stage provocation with bondage-wear and sexual experimentation. And yet they linger on stage in impeccable Euro-clothes, studiously avoiding physical contact, while their unnameable despair coalesces into a phantasm child, an hallucination made out of pink snow and yellow sperm, and they eventually commit a meaningless suicide. To underline just how little pathos The Ballad intends to create, an immaculate French maid sits upstage right throughout the performance, leisurely fiddling with the tech.

The opera is a structural, Zizekian tragedy: Ricky and Ronny are defeated by monster consumerism which satisfies desires before they can even fully form, leaving them in a state of voiceless agitation, or what cultural commentator Mark Fisher would call ‘depressive hedonia.’ Thematically, the work sits in the conventional territory of dramatising cocooning middle-class despair without a cause. Its memory of love that used to redeem draws unlikely associations with Sarah Kane, whose despair is also moored in the deepest belief in love. However, Ricky and Ronny’s anxiety has no shelter throughout the performance, as the work refuses to believe in the metaphorical monsters its protagonists build to outsource their existential angst, much less defeat them in order to bring about any happy ending.

The Ballad of Ricky and Ronny, Needcompany. Photo: Maarten Vanden Abeele.

The problems are threefold: eliminating the poetic aspects in the figuration of the bourgeois ennui does not, by itself, reveal its socio-political structure; The Ballad is no more penetrating a social critique than a conventional zombie flick. Secondly, made entirely out of generic elements, it is one of the most tedious performances I have ever seen, so commonplace through and through that it tends towards invisibility. Finally, there is an annoying solipsism at the heart of a performance that so deeply represents and replicates the very condition it denounces: it appears to have frustrated every Eastern European audience it has encountered, including the one that saw it with me at Eurokaz festival in Croatia. While it must be said that the immaculate staging and the direction of movement build the formal perfection of the piece, I have rarely been so pleased to see an audience rebel against understanding an artwork. For it means that tragic standardisation is not a universal condition, despite all the global English employed to construct the argument.

A new work by another Belgian company, Les Ballets C de la B’s Out of Context — For Pina, approaches the matter from a radically different angle. Alain Platel’s company is among Europe’s most respected, and the new work was showing at Sadler’s Wells for only two nights before rushing back to the festival circuit (it was scheduled at Avignon later in the season). The UK critics were rather sceptical towards a company that meshes vernacular movement with high aspirations (‘fun’ and ‘skill,’ two terms dear to British dance, are quietly sidelined in Platel’s vocabulary), but Out of Context has, in other places, been hailed as their best work yet.

The movement, woven out of the unconscious tics, spasms, hysterical and involuntary gestures that Platel has encountered in his prior work as an orthopedagogue includes pouting, scratching, over-the-top disco dancing, parodic mime and is consciously poor in style, making almost no references to any ‘serious’ dance tradition. Platel has refused to call himself a choreographer; Out of Context is an exquisite choreography nonetheless. Unlike his previous works, it is played on an empty stage, to no programmatic score. Bookmarked by nine dancers entering from the stalls, undressing to their underwear, then dressing and leaving again at the end of the show, it has three clear phases: initial rituals of mating and acquainting with animal sounds in the background evolves into the second phase, in which lines of pop music are thrown around together with exuberant dancing until, in the elegiac third part, the dancers retreat into singularity again. The piece defies description by virtue of sheer over-accumulation: 90 minutes of startlingly original movement with virtually no repetition, on nine different physiques that, even when amassed into synchronicity, preserve individual differences. (The piece is dedicated to Pina Bausch, in recognition of the foundational importance of her psychologically driven strategies for European dance.) Not having any narrative frame allows the audience to experience this decontextualised mass of movement on the level of affect, not cognition, free-associating stage images to deep memories. The result is emotionally penetrating and deliriously enjoyable.

Whereas The Ballad of Ricky and Ronny is a work so deeply illustrative of the nihilistic element within consumer capitalism that it irons itself into a completely inexpressive pancake, Out of Context locks itself within the last bastion of human expression that has escaped the Fordism of soul: the pre-cognitive, the involuntary, the spastic. We could see an eternal, unwinnable race at work, in which ever-shrinking chunks of life are accessed, broken down, conquered and reproduced—perhaps Platel is simply mapping previously inaccessible sides of the human experience. But it is also good, in some fundamental way, to experience a performance that leaves the audience elated rather than crushed.

Needcompany/MaisonDahlBonnema, The Ballad of Ricky and Ronny, authors, performers Anna Sophia Bonnema, Hans Petter Dahl, libretto Bonnema, music Dahl, costume, lighting MaisonDahlBonnema; Eurokaz Festival, Zagreb, June 23-24; Out of Context—For Pina, Les Ballets C de la B, concept, direction Alain Platel, dramaturgy Hildegard De Vuyst, danced & created by Elie Tass, Emile Josse, Hyo Seung Ye, Kaori Ito, Mathieu Desseigne Pavel, Melanie Lomoff, Romeu Runa, Rosalba Torres Guerrero, Ross McCormack; Sadler’s Wells, London, June 17,18

First published in RealTime, issue #98, Aug-Sept 2010, pg. 25.

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unheroic love (reviewed: Stephanie Lake’s Mix Tape)

Rennie McDougall, Jorijn Vriesendorp, Mix Tape. Photo: Heidrun Löhr.

AFTER BYRON PERRY, ANTONY HAMILTON AND MICHELLE HEAVEN, STEPHANIE LAKE IS THE FOURTH YOUNG DANCER TO PRESENT A FULL-LENGTH CHOREOGRAPHY UNDER THE AUSPICES OF CHUNKY MOVE IN THEIR NEXT MOVE SERIES. A SPECTACULAR DANCER, LAKE TOO IS AN ARTIST WHO HAS CLOSELY COLLABORATED WITH GIDEON OBARZANEK AND LUCY GUERIN, HAVING OVER THE YEARS CONTRIBUTED TO MANY OF THEIR MOST ACCLAIMED WORKS.

Lake’s previous short works have been charming and soulful miniatures exploring banality: displays of physical affection, emotional reverberations of pop music, everyday language — all important ingredients of Mix Tape, which purports to be a study of love. This is unheroic, unremarkable love, built out of banal language and humdrum gestures (such as, indeed, making a mix tape). Lake builds the work out of three distinct elements: audio recordings of interviews about love, pop songs (spanning Bob Dylan and Joanna Newsom, Caribou and Fleetwood Mac), and the bodies of four dancers (invariably young, slim and petite). The stage is domestic, but minimal: a bookshelf filled with tapes and music players, including an old reel-to-reel, and suitcases full of clothes. The effect is resolutely homey, verging on agoraphobic. It is not merely the setting that is domestic: the performers linger on stage, lying down and changing costume, inhabiting it as their private space.

The movement energetically illustrates some of the conflicting emotions brought up in the accompanying recorded interviews and songs: two couples interlock in intimate embraces, planting small kisses in hidden spots, while at other times bodies are helplessly flung about or confront each other in violent fights. Lake shows great ability to create beauty out of everyday motifs (in particular, she uses the vocabulary of domestic affection to great effect), but the choreography is greatly indebted to Guerin: from tiny but swift hand and facial gestures, through loose and less articulate movements of the torso, down to strong reliance on domestic gadgets as catalysts of choreography, mirroring duets and the predominance of 45-degree spatial relationships. The semi-documentary nature of the work displays the influence of Obarzanek’s methodology, but without his editing discipline.

Most troubling, however, I found the choice of performers. Is it possible to illustrate the possibilities of physical affection on such a narrow range of bodies? The voices in songs and interviews were greatly more varied. I longed to see the complex emotions they expressed developed by wiser, older bodies whose lived experience would allow them to express some of the subtle complexity of long-haul love. The second problem is numerical. Two couples can represent neither the universal exceptionality of a single couple, nor the diversity of a multitude—at best, they seem to represent a parochial range of, say, ‘me and my friends’.

The merely illustrative nature of the choreography rarely pulls the interviews and the songs into focus: as a result, spoken word seems to hold more meaning than it necessarily ought. The individual introspective revelations are skimmed through, and yet the work never builds into a sociological study either. It rambles, rather, remaining charming but fragmentary, its shape never rising above a sort of list of different things we might say about love. It is difficult subject matter, on which everything has been said many times over—including within dance. The dangers of falling into glibness and pure cliché are enormous, and Mix Tape only occasionally avoids these. While Lake’s approach, equally open to sentimentality and to sociology, is intriguing, it requires greater structure and critical distance to succeed.

Chunky Move, Next Move: Mix Tape, direction, choreography Stephanie Lake, performers Sara Black, Rennie McDougall, Timothy Ohl, Jorijn Vriesendorp, lighting design Benjamin Cisterne, Blubottle, sound design Luke Smiles–motion laboratories, costume design Harriet Oxley; Chunky Move Studios, Sept 2-11

First published in RealTime, issue #99, Oct-Nov 2010, pg. 31.

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On the dyingness of things (reviewed: MIAF 2010: Stifters Dinge; David Chesworth’s Richter/Meinhof-Opera; Hotel Pro Forma’s Tomorrow, in a Year)

Stifters Dinge. Photo: Mario Del Curto.

WHAT IS A ROSE BEFORE IT HAS A NAME? WHAT IF OUR ABILITY TO INTERPRET AND INTERVENE, OUR AGENCY TO DECIDE WHAT THINGS ARE, RECEDED AND WE COULD SEE THE WORLD WITHOUT ADJECTIVES, UNMEDIATED BY INTENTION? TO WHAT EXTENT ARE WE MADE IN TURN BY THE WORLD WE THUS CREATE? AND WHAT IS THE AGENCY OF THINGS?

BETWEEN CARNIVAL OF MYSTERIES, HOTEL PRO FORMA, HEINER GOEBBELS’ STIFTERS DINGE, DAVID CHESWORTH’S RICHTER/MEINHOF-OPERA, SOME VAST GROUND ON THE TOPICS OF SYMBOLISATION AND REPRESENTATION WAS COVERED. IT SOUNDS PREPOSTEROUS; BUT THIS IS HOW.

richter/meinhof-opera

David Chesworth’s Richter/Meinhof-Opera was a highly anticipated take on the Red Army Faction’s Ulrike Meinhof. Announced as a 45-minute, pocket performance artwork (opera it wasn’t), it was an even shorter, quieter beast than expected. Tackling a potentially inexhaustible subject with an absolute minimalism of input and effect, it treads that usual fine line between the open-ended and the non-committal. It barely skims the complex story of Meinhof, respected journalist who joined a terrorist organisation, and whose simultaneous canonisation as left-wing martyr and demonization as Communist murderer still divides Germany. The only trace of the other members of the RAF is a record player, playing an Eric Clapton track, exactly as it did when Baader committed suicide in his prison cell. This is a rare instance in which the music goes beyond atmospheric soundscape; the other is a string duet, which mellifluously contrasts with the rest of the work, enhancing its thinness somehow. A few of Meinhof’s best-known quotations are projected onto ACCA’s shard-like walls, while centre-stage stands Gerhard Richter (Hugo Race), who famously painted RAF members’ death portraits in 1988, and was accused of mythologising terrorism.

The intended core of this work is the enormous disjuncture between direct action, advocated by Meinhof (often paraphrasing Brecht), and the indirectness and detachment of representational art, which often gives life to such ideas. The inability of our own cynical, ideologically unconvinced contemporary era to present the full spectrum of Meinhof’s time is another big theme. However, to say that Richter/Meinhof-Opera ‘explores’ them would be to give it excessive credit. Between Richter’s moody, detached canvases, the monochrome photos of the stylish Faction (which overwhelmingly comprised young women) and the occasional discursive duet (the libretto is a slim pastiche of quotations), the myth of RAF is presented as a matter of aestheticising or not; and the issue of direct action as a matter of professional ethics (to identify or not with one’s subject matter). Cold War politics lie forgotten, and ideas are not so much revealed as hinted at.

Even Richter, whose engagement with RAF is the focal interest of the opera, remains shorthand for the generic Artist. Evading all the big questions on this big topic, Richter/Meinhof-Opera feels and looks as if in development, like a sketch for a bigger work.

stifters dinge

Those who work with things (sculptors, architects, furniture makers) are often perplexed by the readiness with which more idealist disciplines (theatre, poetry) turn this material into signs and ideas. The result is frequently naive mystification, or embellishing fetishism: we have all seen signed urinals, soup cans, as well as their less rounded children—from derelict buildings employed as metaphors to artsy tapestries. What makes Heiner Goebbels’ Stifters Dinge so remarkable is that it does none of this, and has its audience enraptured. Its form is sui generis: a peopleless performance, or perhaps just a giant moving contraption. And yet, its workings are magical, for idealists and materialists alike.

The dramaturgy of Stifters Dinge is all in a sequence of apparently unrelated mechanical events: light changes, mechanical actions, sound clips and video projections. These are organised around a host of motifs: principally, the writings of Adalbert Stifter, a 19th century Austrian novelist whose prose is notoriously thickly furnished, upholstered, landscaped. (Literary lore has it that modernisation was already making advances into the order of things, and that 19th century naturalism was a kind of urgent stock taking.) Other motifs are the Renaissance dicovery of geometric perspective (chiefly Paolo Uccello’s paintings), utilitarian traditional music (Greek, Papuan, Colombian), voice recordings of Malcolm X. With technical perfection, the sequence of mechanical events coalesces into a world, all whilst remaining first and foremost mobile matter, without metaphors or superimposed meaning. The work builds into a deeply satisfying and meaningful totality by making us aware precisely of the bottomless materiality of its devices. When dry ice bubbles up in the three shallow water pools, seeing the trick does not stop the entire audience from holding their breath in awe. Stifters Dinge purges the stage of illusion and interpretation, but the ‘things’ that remain are neither threatening nor banal. Rather, they assume almost sacral fullness.

carnival of mysteries

Carnival of Mysteries, conversely, is an image of a carnival world. It has it all: tents, noise, nudity, candy floss, its own (inflated) currency and many short acts of varying skill and engagement. It is as entertaining and uneven as any carnival. It is also no more dramaturgically cohesive, nor exploratory: neither does it try to bring a superior level of artistry to the content, nor interrogate the form (in the vein of One-on-One Festival; RT99, p10). With many times more mini-shows than can be experienced in the allotted two hours, it is a somewhat frenzied experience, lacking the relaxed atmosphere of a fair. But the intensity does not translate into superb artistry, at least not in the fraction of the shows I witnessed. Should we be deconstructing it critically, suspending critical judgement, or witnessing it referentially? If Carnival is the answer, what is the artistic question? Is it a lowbrow event for a highbrow audience, with highbrow performers? Is it a replacement for Spiegeltent, which used to be the place at MIAF for circus, burlesque and other kinds of friendly lowbrow? A ‘carnival but of another kind,’ it is both too close, and once removed.

tomorrow, in a year

Tomorrow, In A Year, Hotel Pro Forma. Photo: Claudi Thyrrestrup.

Hotel Pro Forma’s Tomorrow, In a Year, an ‘electro opera’ about the life and work of Charles Darwin, was the most controversial show of this year’s MIAF (its response coming close to the outrage caused by Liza Lim’s The Navigator in 2008; opera is clearly fraught cultural ground in Melbourne). It is a conceptual work, with no plot to retell. It explores the thematic links between four moments in Darwin’s life—including the death of his daughter (potentially linked to his marriage to a first cousin)—and the implications of his theory . The endless mutability of the natural world, whose laws form us despite our pretended detachment, and whose laws we can never break, is the terrible heart of this work. It opens with potentially bewildering, undifferentiated stage sludge, an image of the original primordial soup of life; it ends as accelerating hydroponic chaos, or perhaps complex order?

The stage imagery is poor: only two planes of horizontal movement, no interaction between the performers, green laser beams and much dry ice. Using botanical drawings and video footage of water, Hiroaki Umeda’s algae-like choreography and the occasional verse about geological time and entombed carcasses, it explores a complete intangible: the fact that the material world is bigger than a human being, that we do not become through it, but are crushed by it.

But unlike Chesworth’s non-committal opera, it is fully exploratory. A note of the Romantic sublime runs through the work, unnoticed by those who bemoan its coldness. It unearths a potential Western counterpoint to the Japanese concept of ‘mono no aware’: the awareness of the dyingness of things, of the essential inability of matter to last. Just as cherry blossoms are less pretty than tragically transient, so is Tomorrow, In a Year not so much beautiful to watch as it is a despairing attempt to grasp cosmic complexity.

In the absence of meaningful stage action, enjoyment of this opera is strongly predicated on appreciating the music, by the Swedish electronic duo The Knife, which forms its narrative, emotional and intellectual core. It is a complex composition of natural and electronic noises, bel canto, house beats, borrowings from Purcell, early polyphony. And yet this collage of pop and found remains staunchly anti-metaphorical, a postmodernist pile of stuff asking to be understood literally: when Kristina Wahlin sings that “epochs collected here,” she is relating a geological fact, not a poetic truth.

While the work has been hailed as showing the future of the operatic form, it seems to succeed largely in musical terms. Visually, it attempts an abstract variation on a nature documentary, with results too reminiscent of late 1990s raves to be genuinely eligible for the label ‘innovation.’ Knowing that cyborgs, virtual reality and Dolly the Sheep were all the rage circa 1998 provides some dramaturgical solace, but does not compensate for Tomorrow, In A Year falling short of its promise.

2010 Melbourne International Arts Festival: Richter/Meinhof-Opera, direction, music, sound design David Chesworth, text David Chesworth (after Tony MacGregor), performers Kate Kendall, Hugo Race, lighting Travis Hodgson; ACCA, Oct 14-16; Stifters Dinge, concept, music, direction Heiner Goebbels; Malthouse, Oct 8-11; Carnival of Mysteries, creators, directors Moira Finucane, Jackie Smith, production design The Sisters Hayes; fortyfivedownstairs, Oct 6-30; Hotel Pro Forma, Tomorrow, In A Day, directors Kirsten Dehlholm, Ralf Richardt Strobech, music The Knife; Arts Centre, Melbourne, Oct 20-23

First published in RealTime, issue #100, Dec-Jan 2010, pg. 10.

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Degrees of risk (Reviewed: Fragment31’s Irony is Not Enough; Jochen Roller & Saar Magal’s Basically I Don’t But Actually I Do)

Leisa Shelton in Irony is Not Enough: Essay on My Life as Catherine Deneuve, Fragment31. Photo: Ponch Hawkes.

THE LAST TWO PERFORMANCES IN THE ARTS HOUSE FUTURE TENSE SEASON, BY MELBOURNE’S FRAGMENT31 AND THE GERMAN-ISRAELI TEAM JOCHEN ROLLER AND SAAR MAGAL, SHARE DOUBLE FOCI: IRONY AND TRAUMA.

Fragment31’s Irony is Not Enough: Essay on My Life as Catherine Deneuve performance is a theatrical rendition of Anne Carson’s poem of the same title, which turns the poet into a third-person Deneuve, and narrates her infatuation with a female student through the doubly ironic prism of cinema and classical references. What would Socrates say, she wonders, her words laced with mature, weary detachment. Deneuve, the cinematic Barbie doll, effortlessly blank, is inserted in the place of a complex self. (In >A href=”http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2006/dec/30/film”>The Guardian, December 30, 2006, Germaine Greer remarked that so devoid of personality have Deneuve’s roles been, that she cannot recall a single line any of her characters ever uttered.)

Fragment31 play with the representation of the fractured desiring self by simulating film. Shelton/Carson/Deneuve walks to the Metro; receives a phone call in her office; waits in a hotel room. Each scene is sculpted in filmic detail, each physically and narratively disconnected from the other, each floating as an island of naturalistic imagery in the mangle of props and wires of the Meat Market stage space. Sound, light, set, actors and musician, and designers, onstage too, come together in fitful fragments—the coalescing of the desiring, decentred self into one sharpened and fuelled by love. Even the narrator, Carson/Deneuve, is played by two actors: Leisa Shelton for body, Luke Mullins for voice. It is an attempt to discipline desire with a muffle of irony, dissimulation. But irony is not enough to stop infatuation; self-knowledge does not mandate control. Desire shows through. The poem crackles; the stage version, murkier and not as focused, less so.

Jochen Roller, Saar Magal, Basically I Don’t But Actually I Do. Photo: Friedemann Simon.

If in the first work irony is employed as the girdle of trauma, to keep the fractured self in one piece, in the next work irony is a safe, fenced pathway to the exploration of trauma. Basically I Don’t But Actually I Do is Israeli choreographer Saar Magal’s answer to a question: whether to make a work about the Holocaust with friend German Jochen Roller or, rather, not about the Holocaust at all, but third generation Israelis and Germans.

It opens with a discussion over the order of epithets—which layer of identity comes first? They agree: German Jew, black Jewish German, even gay German black Jew; but, says Magal, “we’re not going to talk about Palestine.” Magal and Roller change clothes, from the yellow of the Star of David to the brown of the SS uniform, and back. They play Holocaust testimonies on tape. They enact a series of iconic WWII photos: Magal collapsing into Roller’s arms, Roller shooting Magal, vice versa. Magal says, “This man stole a book from a Tel Aviv bookshop!” And Roller recites, “I don’t remember. Everyone was doing it. I was simply there.”

We are asked to take our shoes off, walk, sit and, later, to get up. We don’t understand. “Aufstehen!” shouts Roller. Some of us are randomly marked out, and one person pulled out of the crowd, to dance briefly with Magal, and then sent back. The show creates small moments of terror: we are dislodged from our audience complacency, but nothing bad ever happens, because it’s not that kind of show.

Basically I Don’t But Actually I Do is a catalogue of images enacted, repeated, but only as traces. It assumes a traumatised audience, for which every hint will be a trigger of memory. But, remarkably, it is a work that refuses to create false memories. It tests recognition; it has exactly as much content as the audience brings to it. It is up to each person to see genocide in the stage imagery, hear the Nuremberg Trials in the dialogue. The piece gently probes. How much do we still remember? What does it mean to us? What does it do to us?

In Australia (as opposed to Germany or Israel), the answer is not much. There were some walk-outs, which I cannot imagine happening at a Holocaust tear-jerker (for reasons of decorum). But for those to whom it meant something, Magal and Roller created a tasteful, careful little memorial space, in which a past event was reconnected to the present, and the relationship between the two weighed up.

One could say that the risks in Basically… never felt sufficiently dangerous, the stakes never high enough to justify the pussyfooting (one German critic called it “politically correct”). The love woes of Deneuve/Carson are saturated with much greater danger, despite the ironic title. However, Basically… uses irony differently, as a way of coming closer to something unspeakable, rather than pulling away from it. If traumatic desire is a sore one still wants to pick, the Holocaust is a trauma of a completely other kind, one to tiptoe around carefully, holding hands.

Fragment31, Irony is Not Enough: Essay on My Life as Catherine Deneuve, creators, performers Luke Mullins, Leisa Shelton, music Jethro Woodward, set Anna Cordingly, lighting Jen Hector; Nov 16-20; Basically I Don’t But Actually I Do, creators, performers Jochen Roller, Saar Magal, lighting Marek Lamprecht, soundtrack Paul Ratzel; Arts House, Meat Market, Melbourne, Nov 24-27, 2010

First published in RealTime, issue #101, Feb-March 2011, pg. 38.

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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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