Tag Archives: Dancehouse

Dance Massive 05: More or Less Monstrous (reviewed: Atlanta Eke’s Monster Body)

Atlanta Eke, Monster Body
photo Rachel Roberts


But once an innovation happens, it loses its singularity in iteration. It thus cannot be appraised simply in the macho, military terms of ‘revolution,’ ‘innovation’ or ‘shock’: it becomes essayistic, formalist, a tool in a toolbox. But Monster Body is a carefully conceptualised and executed work, and loses nothing when the shock wears off. Instead, it provokes more thought, with greater clarity.

It is hard to see Monster Body without having first received warnings about its nudity, urination and feminism. On the surface, it is a confronting piece: Eke, swirling a hula hoop, greets us wearing nothing but a grotesque dinosaur mask. A series of classical ballet battements follows, morphing into rather more ordinary walking and crouching movements, accompanied by synchronised growls and shrieks. In the piece’s most notorious segment, Britney Spears’ “I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman”, that Trojan Horse of post-feminist self-expression, blares as Eke placidly pees while standing upright, then rolls on the same patch of floor in gently erotic poses.

Atlanta Eke, Monster Body
photo Rachel Roberts

However, the piece is neither overtly angry nor in-yer-face combative. Eke maintains dispassionate focus: the ambient lighting never creates separation between audience and stage, and the work seems to ask us to observe and judge, rather than rise up in arms. Notice, for example, how much more monstrous than the mask is Eke’s naked body—even though it is both a culturally docile (depilated in all the right places) and aesthetically ‘successful’ (young, toned, thin) body. We are accustomed to seeing rubber animal faces more than epithet-less nudity. Notice how unpleasant it is to watch a woman growl: inarticulate sounds and purposeless body movements need not be particularly extreme to cross a boundary of what a healthy woman may do with herself. The residue of the spectre of hysteria still lurks in our minds. Observe how very easy it is for a female human to appear monstrous, as if it has only been partially digested by our civilization. And when a man in a hazmat suit appears to clean the floor or hand Eke a towel, observe how his very presence upsets the all-female stage, how ineffably strange it is to see this man neither represent, uphold nor fight for any kind of patriarchy.

Echoes of other artists appear reduced to bare essence. Eke and another female performer fondle each other’s bodies with a pair of rubber hands on long poles: this is Pina Bausch, but gentle, a moment that relies on our body memory of uninvited hands sliding down our calves for its emotional impact. Or, Eke fills her body stocking with pink water balloons, posing in her new, distorted figure, half-undressing and ending up with the stocking knotted into a bundle on her back, hunched under a heavy load of blubbery things that look, for all intents and purposes, like a pile of teats, or breast implants. The image echoes a whole canon of female disfiguration in art (I thought of Nagi Noda’s Poodle Fitness) as well as that of the misadventures of plastic surgery and of certain kinds of pornography, but it simply asks us consider what a human might look like once it has more breasts than limbs.

Monster Body, Atlanta Eke
photo Rachel Roberts

And then, in a musical intermezzo to Beyonce’s “Run the World (Girls)”, hip-hop empowerment, complete with an aggressive, ultra-sexualised choreography, is performed by an ensemble of variously-shaped girls, their nakedness only made starker by their running footwear and black bags on their heads. Drawing a link between the objectification and torture of people inside and outside of Abu Ghraib has already been made, with similar means, and perhaps more clarity, by Post in Gifted and Talented), but Eke emphasises the vulnerability of these well-performing bodies, bodies that participate in their nominal liberation. Suddenly, Beyonce’s form of bravado displays exactly the weakness it is designed to hide. The painful powerlessness of this posturing is revealed by the sheer effort it requires, by the way it poorly fits a naked body, stripped of the armour of a hyper-sexualised costume.

As much as I tried, and despite everything I have read about it, I failed to see much of an all-encompassing exploration of human objectification in Monster Body. It seemed so clearly to draw a narrative arc of feminine non-liberation in present time, from the restrictive culturally condoned vulnerability of Britney to the restrictive culturally condoned strength of Beyonce. Its obvious interest in audience as a meaningful half of the show also seemed to have fallen by the wayside, leaving a palpable void. However, as an essay on the physical restrictions of being a woman today, and a deeply thought-through one, it was very intellectually engaging. Shocking it wasn’t, but I suspect that was not its goal, either.

Dance Massive, Dancehouse: Monster Body, choreographer, performer Atlanta Eke, performers Amanda Betlehem, Tim Birnie, Tessa Broadby, Ashlea English, Sarah Ling; Dancehouse, Melbourne, March 22-24;http://dancemassive.com.au

First published in RealTime, Dance Massive special edition, Mar 2013. All rights reserved.

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Revelling in the now (RW: The Little Con, Dancehouse)

Ryuichi Fujimura, Jonathan Sinatra, Alice Cummins. Video still: Ryuichi Fujimura.


Some theorists, such as André Lepecki, make a big deal out of the melancholy of the dance critic, imbuing the experience of writing about movement with a sense of loss (however unintentionally) that I have always found melodramatic. But the question of remembrance is related to culture, to fashion, to fame, to legacy and as such is more interesting to the critic and to the choreographer than to the dancer. To dance is to revel in the now.

Dance improvisation has to be understood as something very different from finished choreography. Choreography is to movement what a play is to stage presence: a set of directions, located outside particular time and space; universal and thus generic. Says William Forsythe: “The purpose of improvisation is to defeat choreography.” All the arguments made in Performance Studies, in favour of presence over representation, apply.

To witness an improvisational dance performance requires the observer to look beyond the movement itself. It cannot be judged as choreography, because it is deeply unrefined, unedited movement: at best serendipitous, often cacophonous. To watch improvisation is to watch a performer shed layers of performance until, if lucky, we are left with a body moving as if for the first time; a raw and vulnerable, unpredictable life; pure presence. As Paul Romano, one of the Little Con organisers, says, “Improvisation is living amplified.” In that sense, improvisation is more thoroughly dance than any other kind.

At The Little Con special, the audience sits in a cross-shaped line of chairs, dividing the performance space into four rectangles, each with a different ‘curator.’ The one closest to the entrance is animated from the start: Fiona Bryant and Lucy Farmer are engaged in frenzied movement anchored in a recognisable social reality, like over-caffeinated secretaries. At five-minute intervals, other rectangles join in. After an hour, they similarly fade out.

Different quadrants expand on different areas: Bryant and Farmer present a poppy, humorous and very accessible exploration of states under pressure. Tony Yap and his two dancers, on the other hand, explore both ritual movement and voice, using the tools of the Malay shamanistic trance dance tradition: singing on the very border of inarticulation accompanies movement. Peter Fraser, whose background is in Bodyweather, and his three dancers, work strongly as a cohesive team of bodies, splattering across the walls, chairs and floor of their quadrant, but always extraordinarily attuned to each other’s presence. In this wealth of movement around me, literally around me, I am only vaguely aware of what is happening in the last rectangle, occupied by Alice Cummins, practitioner of Body-Mind-Centering®, and collaborators.

As they increase, some collisions are very satisfying: Cummins’ presence electrifies the interrelations of Fraser’s quartet. Some are more disruptive of the precarious balances created. There appear at least glimpses of every pitfall of improvised performance: competition for attention, imitation as a means of achieving a semblance of unity, a certain aloofness as a vehicle for comedy. But interaction is sometimes hilariously consonant: as Tony Yap delivers a long, focused shamanistic gargle of sorts, Fiona Bryant, in a red dress, with scissors and shoulder pads, climbs on a chair and starts screaming in response.

The key to it all is the extraordinarily heightened presence of the performers, and the accordingly sharpened concentration of the audience. Since the movement cannot be predicted, there is no arc to any gesture. Except for the final 15 minutes, the absolute absence of structure creates an experience without horizon. Much of the joy comes from watching audience members respond with great focus to interaction that they cannot anticipate the ending of: two boys slowly leaning to one side of their chairs as Farmer appears to be attempting to walk over them. In another moment, Cummins shifts across the floor, but ends up thoroughly immersed in picking through my frilly skirt.

Only once it is over do we notice that the space has assumed the temperature and humidity of a Turkish bath. It has been an exhausting, exhilarating hour. There is simply no melancholy to this experience, no sense of loss. As Martha Graham elaborates, the dance comes from the depths of man’s inner nature, and inhabits the dancer; when it leaves, it lodges itself in our memory. In The Little Con, this trajectory is revealed on stage from slow start to exhausted end. The mystery of the choreography, a finished thing which appears out of nowhere and is gone, is something quite different from movement that rises like a roar from the core of the dancer, levitates suspended and then slowly closes onto itself. These have been some of the most intensely focused minutes I have had as a performance audience, not unlike trance, or meditation. Who would have thought that our concentration span could be so long?

The Little Con is a monthly dance improvisation organized by a dedicated collective since 2005. It is hosted by Cecil Street Studio, the home of Melbourne’s improvisation community, but has also appeared at Deakin University and elsewhere. Sometimes it is free form, but throughout the year there are special, curated events, such as this one from curator Paul Romano.

The Little Con, curator Paul Romano, performers Emma Bathgate, Brendan O’Connor, Tony Yap, Lucy Farmer, Fiona Bryant, Peter Fraser, Kathleen Doyle, Alexandra Harrison, Jonathan Sinatra, Gretel Taylor, Alice Cummins; Dancehouse, Melbourne, Aug 6, www.thelittlecon.net.au.

First published in RealTime, issue #104, Aug-Sept 2011, e-dition.


Deborah Hay’s work returns to Melbourne

The news has just hit my inbox: Dancehouse is presenting a choreography by Deborah Hay (whose If I Sing For You was shown, with great popular success, at MIAF 2008). I am terribly busy, so I will reproduce the press release down below:

DANCEHOUSE in partnership with Critical Path, STRUT dance and Bundanon Trust presents:

‘In the Dark’ choreographed by Deborah Hay

Four solo adaptations performed by: Fiona Bryant, Atlanta Eke, Luke George and Carlee Mellow – June 17 – 20 at DANCEHOUSE.

Bookings Now Open

“In my role as choreographer I provide the tangibility of a movement sequence and the intangibility of strategies to engage in the performance of that movement.” Deborah Hay

In March 2010 ten Australian artists were selected from nearly 50 applicants to participate in the Deborah Hay Solo Performance Project at Bundanon Artists Residence in NSW. They were selected by internationally renowned dancer/choreographer, Hay, with the assistance of local dance luminary Ros Warby, who also assisted during the 10-day intensive.

The intensive was followed by a daily practice over 3 months in preparation for presenting the solos in a public performance season. Victorian artists, Fiona Bryant, Atlanta Eke, Luke George and Carlee Mellow will perform their adaptations of In the Dark at Dancehouse from June 17 – 20.

This project is based on Deborah Hay’s Solo Performance Commissioning Project that runs annually in Findhorn, Scotland.

Deborah Hay – Living in Manhattan by 1960 and studying at the Merce Cunningham studio, Deborah Hay joined a group of experimental artists who were influenced by Cunningham and John Cage. The group, later known as the Judson Dance Theater, became one of the most radical and explosive art movements of the twentieth century.

Dates: June 17 – 19 at 8pm and June 20 at 4pm
The exact order of dancers on any given night may change, as production requires.

* Thursday 17th: Carlee Mellow, Fiona Bryant, Atlanta Eke
* Friday 18th: Fiona Bryant, Atlanta Eke, Luke George
* Saturday 19th: Atlanta Eke, Luke George, Carlee Mellow
* Sunday 20th: Luke George, Carlee Mellow, Fiona Bryant

Where: Dancehouse 150 Princes Street North Carlton
Tickets: $22 Full, $18 Conc, $15 Dancehouse Members
please click here


Brief: Xavier Le Roy @ Dancehouse

Before I forget; the best dance piece I’ve seen all year, bar Sasha Waltz (still undecided), has been Xavier Le Roy’s performance Product of Circumstance, a one-night showing at Dancehouse last week. There is a write-up in The Age, but to call it a review would be absurd.

It is a description of sorts, and not an inaccurate one.

Xavier comes from that French tradition of very streamlined conceptual dance (Jerome Bel, Mathilde Monnier), rigorously following an idea and executing it with a scientific sort of measure, fidelity. It sometimes looks like this:

And when it works, it’s fabulous.

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Dance Massive

While I’m catching up on sleep whenever I can find a spare hour – which makes my days wildly unpredictable for everyone else – you can find my reviews of Dance Massive performances accumulating, with painful regularity, on the RealTime website, some other website, as well as distributed around the Dancehouse, Arts House, and Malthouse (how’s that for a trio of hice?) in paper form.

In an unusual doubling-up, Alison muses on the very same shows.

Hopefully you’re all enjoying the dance invasion. I’m very happy to note that the audience numbers look more than great, with a large percentage of delighted small children filling the seats. At The Fondue Set last night, they were responding to post-modernism with shrieking exhilaration. How very wonderful. Here are the future dance connoisseurs in the making.

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The Heart of Another is a Dark Forest

As published in Laneway.

Twelve Restless performers are confronted with twelve Rawcus performers, fully-able bodies with those with disabilities of different level and quality, in this fascinating exploration of the mystery of the other. Program notes quote from Kafka:

When you stand in front of me and look at me,
What do you know of the griefs that are in me
And what do I know of yours?

The Heart of Another is a Dark Forest opens with a loop of beautiful live music: guitar, piano, pan flute, cello. I’ve often noted that the fusion of genres in Australian theatre happens less between theatre, performance and dance, and more often with visual arts, music, and puppetry. That is, rather than eschewing dramatic narration for rebellious deconstruction, it engages in a sensuous tickle of all the senses, a total experience. This process usually creates, like in this case, lyrical theatre, stage poetry (as Maeterlinck demanded: “la pièce de théâtre dout être avant tout un poème”), in which the linear time of ascending action is replaced by slowly accumulating image-time, what Gertrude Stein would have approvingly called theatre as landscape.

Some of the most successful Australian theatre of recent times meticulously researched the possibilities of this approach, from My Darling Patricia’s Politely Savage and Peepshow Inc.’s Slanting Into the Void, to Vitalstatistix’s Cake (it is not surprising, therefore, that a number of names overlap in the credits of these shows). To analyse The Heart of Another with an analytical mind, thus, may be doing it great disservice.

There are moments in this performance of terrifying human beauty. More terrifying because resolutely silent – by which I don’t mean that speech isn’t present, merely that the words don’t amount to a statement, explanation, or challenge. They remain a part of the stage poetry.

Right at the beginning, all performers assemble on stage, merely breathing until they slowly smile. The variety of persons, of bodies, is astonishing – the sparse means of physical theatre work extraordinarily well at showing the individual beauty of each one of this enormous, diverse ensemble. Where will they all go?, you wonder. How will they all move? Where will this dense human mass disperse? It does and doesn’t: despite choreographic skill at emptying and populating the stage, The Heart of Another seemingly keeps the theatre densely upholstered, filled to the brim, with thick emotions, with faces, costumes, movement, but most crucially with objects.

A man is back-lit behind a life-size child drawing of a man. A woman cuts out a red heart in the paper, and through the hole starts pulling out a red scarf, a paper chain of little girls, toy animals, which another man gives to a girl, who assembles the lot in a wooden box. A mass of people unfolding a silk scarf, each with their own little assemblages: a collection of chocolate coins, or plastic roses and a plastic wedding cake. Someone’s memories, someone’s very private mementos. A girl puts words in a sequence of glass jars; another listens inside each one. Even the backstage is used to reveal a dark, private space behind the representational space at the front. At different times, the performance is counterpointed by a romantic duet, or a solo in dark sfumato.

On the one hand, it is a performance firmly situated in this world, latching onto an endless array of objects and gestures and relations and characters. At the same time, by refusing any response to this world apart from the hermetically, solipsistically intimist, it is a dance of deep, almost painful privacy. Using semi-abled performers, by definition a quiet part of our society – indeed, any society – underpins this sensuous introspection.

At multiple points, perhaps because of the opening quote, I was reminded of Kafka’s love letters to Milena Jesenska, among the most painfully intimate love correspondences of all times. There is more than a flimsy connection of this barely un-symbolist theatre to the love-letter format, with its own solipsism, planar non-narrative time, and an alchemist power to turn awkwardness, unease, fear and disgust into heavy, difficult and intensely private beauty. Instead of judging, we are led to feel. As a way of approaching the problem of able-bodiedness, this is not unintelligent. Everything in The Heart of Another is heart-breakingly beautiful in silence: loneliness, desire, the inability to connect, the girls and the boys. Members of the Rawcus ensemble seemed unaware of how much admiration they incited: the foyer buzzed with excited whispers on the beauty of particular girls.

There are, however, problems for the analytical mind. Keeping in mind that Australia is a resolutely mute culture in many aspects, that much of its best dramatic writing explores the poetic rhythms of non-communication and non-discussion (eg, Holloway’s harrowing Red Sky Morning), its predilection both for physical theatre and for ‘theatre as a poem’ becomes problematic, politically problematic.

Aesthetically, the silence of objects and people makes for very intense theatre. But, in a rich yet delicate landscape of visual effects within The Heart of Another, every object, motion and gesture resounds with what is left unsaid. The moment in which girls, all the girls, one by one join in a group homogeneous movement, although some simply cannot do it properly, struck me as somewhat aloof. In another, a man with speech impediments reads on the back stage – stirring too many memories of war orphans forced to pose at anti-war rallies, of that banal exploitation of someone’s misery for some quick, cheap compassion.

The wallpaper, framing the entire set in a florally geometric, patterned repetition of the same, may have been intended only as decoration – indeed, I commonly see Victorian wallpaper in Australian performances. It is, however, present as an unconscious atavism, a constant reminder of the oppressive, bourgeois structures that sent us all here. It was a society that created textile printing, the industrial, regimented repetition of geometrically restrained, prettified nature. So we have it: the imperative of pleasant decoration, the imperative of sameness, and in the middle of it all, elementary human wonder dancing. The effect is incongruous, raising more questions than it placates with silence. Are we watching prettified disability? Does it need to come with lush music to keep us calm? Are we refusing to think? These are just some of the nagging questions in the back of my mind. To every such political problem that arises, the answer seems to be to smother it indulgently in beautiful décor.

In targeting the body first and the mind later, there is always the danger of abandoning problems half-way through; of not allowing the audience to see clearly, and of choosing the pretty option over the less aesthetically rounded. This can happen even if there is no intention of glossing over. It happened in Cake, with its cheap conflation of baking, pregnancy and femininity; it happened in Politely Savage, with its ornate orientalization of Australia, the 1950s, and the housewife. The entire subtext of Kafka’s love letters is that of a deeply unhappy existence. Many unpleasant things may have been pushed aside in The Heart of Another in order to please the senses, but we may only realise later.

Melbourne Fringe Festival. The Heart of Another is a Dark Forest, by Rawcus ensemble and Restless Dance Company. Directed by Kate Sulan and Ingrid Voorendt. Set design: Emily Barrie. Lighting design: Richard Vabre. Sound design: Jethro Woodward. Music: Zoe Barry. Dancehouse, September 24-28.

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reminded by…

14.xii.2007. Dancehouse: Play in a Room. Including Set Up, The Idea of It and Forget Me Not. By Shelley Lasica. Performed by Shelley Lasica with Deanne Butterworth, Tim Harvey and Joanna Lloyd. Music by Milo Kossowski.

Dance, for me, is theatre amplified.

When I say, I'm interested in the relationship between words and images, I am trying to explain my two favourite art forms: theatre and graphic novels. Both are attempts to show and tell by selectively employing elements of both, colliding and exploding with beauty and truth. The importance, to me, may be that, while I think I can make words do what I want relatively well, in more than one language (although I believe I'm much better at it in Croatian than in English, still), I also believe I think in images. The translation of my mental images into words seems to make it all the more explosive, all the more beautiful. Story of a, although terminally flawed, was my attempt to take book design that one crucial step further and make a text aided by images (book design, or heavy book design bordering on graphic design, is my third love): although, in retrospect, halfway through I got tired and started designing layouts; instead of influencing the text, graphic elements started influencing the reading. Music, as wonderful as it is, does not necessarily interest me as much.

Seeing theatre for the first time – and I was quite old, in my teens, and had to coerce parents into taking me – was a great déjà vú. I had, simply, always thought that theatre would be what it was. I had dreamt of it that way. Just like, when I look for graphic novels, I still look for graphic novels I know must exist somewhere, somehow. It was a great sense of hunger suddenly satiated.

Dance was this, but amplified, but removed. I saw my first dance performance with only a couple of humble theatre performances on my viewing resume and there it was, again, the feeling of perfection: the feeling of still and silent fulfilment. Dance has nothing to do with words, certainly not mine, and very little with my thought-images. Dance is images translating straight into movement, with no words ever explaining. Dance has, then and since, felt eerie, strange. Like someone scratching an itch I didn't know I had, and not quite getting rid of it. I love dance: it's like sex, it's like falling in love; it's a sense of off-centre half-fulfilled desire that goes completely past my conscious mind, that refuses to engage on that level. Dance, for me, is the sea, is falling, is motion sickness.

I try to see every dance performance around. I often have to force myself. There is a barrier I feel that I don't feel with anything containing words: a surface tension that makes it hard to break through. It is glorious in its muteness, it is silent human bodies being almost tragically human, like that pinned butterfly before dying; but it has the impenetrability of death. I get something from it, but I don't know what it is. I keep going, and the answer keeps flying past me, smiling but rapid.

The pinned butterfly in motion is more than a lame metaphor: I find silent graphic novels scratching the itch with far better accuracy and effect, because still, because frozen, because properly dead and opened up to my hungry scrutiny. I can look and re-look until my brain, still going over the speed limit, starts making sense. But in dance, I am hopelessly behind. I can only tentatively grasp the sequence of movement, the interlaced poses, the many images per second, dozens lost between blinks, between concentration drops. I feel I am skimming the surface and there, underneath, are all the secrets like water fairies. And I go back.

I am seriously considering asking to be present at rehearsals (with what authority, I wonder?) just to see the same movement again and again and again until it makes sense, until I can break it down and keep it in my mind. It's an exercise of mine, after each dance show, to try to re-create it in memory, always a hopeless failure.

I've seen more dance this year than any other year. I've seen Lucy Guerin×3, Gideon Obarzanek×2, Merce Cunningham×3 (or ×6), Sankai Juku×1, Fringe showlets ×3 (one of which, One More Than One, was stunning), BalletLab's Brindabella and, to close the year, Shelley Lasica. As much as I love Lucy, and Chunky Move's repertoire, it's shows like Lasica's, or Merce Cunningham's, pure unadorned dance, with meaning unliteralized, left unspelled-out, unpointed-out, that are challenging me as a person who feels, thinks and relates. That are stretching my capacity to exist, as a human being.

I don't feel I can say anything about these shows, with any authority whatsoever. I thought about all sorts of things, particularly at moments when I couldn't shut my mind up, my loquacious brain coming up with metaphors, comparisons, associations and zen aphorisms: Zeami, the spiritual beauty of dance students, relationship struggles, spatial confinement of living in European and Japanese apartments, feet, faces, sweat, how modern dances should abolish lycra, the significance of short hair and nails, the difference between hard and soft movement. None of which had anything to do with the chillingly beautiful piece of dance that happened, bit by bit, in front of me. The dance was just that, a dance in front of me. Smiling.

Smug bitch.

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