a very real unreal place

pauline manly: bernadette walong’s groundup!

BERNADETTE WALONG DANCES HER OWN DANCE. IT IS THIS IDIOSYNCRASY THAT MARKS GROUNDUP AS A PERFORMANCE OF DELICACY, SURPRISE AND RESILIENCE. CONTEMPORARY DANCE PERFORMANCES CAN DISPLAY GENERIC VOCABULARY AS SYMBOLS OF MASTERY AND VIRTUOSITY, SPEAKING THE GRAVITAS OF THE ACADEMY. TRAINING IS EVIDENT IN WALONG’S BODY AND CHOREOGRAPHY, BUT IT IS USED AS A CAPABILITY AND A PORTAL, NOT A DESTINATION. DISPLAY IS NEGATED IN GROUND UP. INSTEAD IT MOVES THROUGH VARIOUS STATES OF BEING IN A DIMENSIONAL AND MALLEABLE ENVIRONMENT. CLEAR BUT OPEN-ENDED NARRATIVES TETHER THE DANCING BODIES TO A GROUND FROM WHICH THEY CAN FLY. SOMETIMES THEY SEEM CLOSE TO A RAW IMMEDIACY THAT ALMOST SCREAMS.

As we enter the theatre, Walong, Barbara Adjei, Victoria Chui and Deidra Taueki are chatting in an alien language, already a clan, strangely communicative. They will continue to speak in a language I do not know but understand. In a densely woven and active aural landscape, sounds will range from the scouring of pots and pans to rhythmic washes, to spoken conversation and the banging of tin. The dense soundscape coming from many directions is occasionally unnecessary, too seductive or overly pointed. But ah, the voices of these women, providing potent emotional resonance as they gabble, laugh, cry and moan in stories that rely on shared humanity rather than simply shared language. Relationships, actions and narratives are firmly established in the rhythms, tempos, intensities and cadences of a language at once strange and strangely familiar. The sounds of this performance will stay with me, even entering my dreams, providing visual memory with a life and a tone, with a substance and a voice.

As the women vocalise their stories, they weave through a landscape of erect bamboo poles, like didgeridoos, like trees, dense like a mangrove. We see the dancers as we would in the world: partially hidden, disappearing, reappearing, peripheral, profiled. Rather than as in a theatrical presentation of full disclosure, this one makes me a voyeur to a world that would happen without me. These women exist in a place both real and surreal, of now and never, here and everywhere. They emerge from dark corners and dissolve into obscurity and, as I seek them out in the multi-focussed, semi-darkness, I am engaged and drawn into this place, this world, these sounds, these bodies.

Rocks, sand and vegetation naturalise the deep and broad performing space. It is a detailed environment: asymmetrical, differentiated yet coherent, textured, fertile and dangerous. A corrugated tin humpy hints at a more modern time, and renders this place Australian. The women, with archetypal dilly bags and wearing curiously apt black corsets, gather, carry, store, feed. The smell of fish wafts to nostrils surprised by olfactory depth in the theatre, making this place real.

Behind and beside the women, filmed images vary from a vast, abstracted moon to the close-up detail of the stitched neck of a white T-shirt. Live feeds of the onstage action top and tail the performance, enlarging, extending and revealing the minutiae of what happens before our eyes. Technology slaps me out of a complete immersion.

Movement in groundUP! ranges from perambulatory wanderings to the high art technicalities of pointe work: a Walong trademark. Although she has used it more effectively in the past, the pointe shoe is again used to lengthen the leg to creature-like proportions. Choreographic incongruity again shakes me awake.

In groundUP! , Walong stands out as the master to the apprentices. With a firm centre she descends to the earth only to lift up more easefully again. In relaxed muscular length she has delicate detail, holding understated balances that suspend time and space in a breath. She folds into herself and unwinds smoothly only to jump and twitch. A face relaxed and open lets the witness in to see not just a dancer, but a person. Beautifully simple, not displaying, communicating.

Solos display each dancer’s personality, some more delineated than others. Group choreography ranges from contemporary athleticism to a cheekiness most evident in the little raised hip twist with a gentle Broadway feel: a whisper of the chorus line amidst the mangroves. The group recedes, advances, gathers and dissipates, crossing the environmental membrane to enter audience space, always travelling. Soft knees make quiet and knowing feet move lightly. These mangrove creatures shake and chase and slide, then…they disappear.

groundUP!, choreographer Bernadette Walong, performers, Bernadette Walong, Barbara Adjei, Victoria Chui and Deidra Taueki, Henrietta Baird, set design Jason Pitt, lighting Simon Wise, costume Jacques Tchong, vocal design Jill Brown, musical score Calvin Rore, video design Lisa Duff, assistant video design Willurei Kirkbright; Performance Space, CarriageWorks, Sydney, Aug 14-23

RealTime issue #87 Oct-Nov 2008 pg. 41

© Pauline Manley; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 October 2008
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