Absence and yet presence

Eleanor Brickhill visits Dance Exchange at Artspace

Over the years, Russell Dumas has developed unique material, stuff of classic lineage. His work, … and yet, has phrases I’ve been seeing since 1978, rendered in qualities and contexts which always seem to defy repetition. But there they are again, and with Dumas’ seemingly infinite aesthetic will, always appear in ways that make you wonder why you didn’t think of them yourself.

… and yet seems at first to be spread thinly. There’s a lot of old material, some phrases from Envelope, to name some, shared between a potentially unwieldy assortment of performers, a lot of new dancers, several older ones, and a diverse bunch of visual artists, all trying to assimilate in their own ways this core work. I was glad I saw both the first and third weeks’ performances, quite different in effect, because each threw clear light on the other. What was missing in the first week was there later on, so that the sense of the whole work came over time, not all at once.

… and yet might be described as an exhibition of various qualities of absence and presence, which might sound like a mouthful. But, no, it really was. Ostensibly, there’s movement and there’s video. But really what you get are different qualities of presence, a terrain shaped by Margie Medlin’s lights, playing in her special way, in a sculptured and mobile space.

In this particular manifestation of the material, a few serendipitous logistical problems highlighted what I think could have been the core of the work. At first, the opening week’s performance seemed no more than charming but, I hasten to add, that probably wasn’t Dumas’ intention. It seemed almost as if he was trying to turn the presence of the dancers into a kind of absence, wishing them away by throwing the focus, like a ventriloquist’s voice, in another direction.

It might be simply an artefact of Russell Dumas’ style, which leaves an impression that you’ve just called the dancers to the door in the middle of the night, woken from a deep sleep, T-shirts rumpled and hair sticking up like cat’s fur. Their motion is so intensely and carefully wrought, as if the impulses to move are coming from somewhere very deeply buried in their bodies. When you watch someone with real expertise you feel that’s the only valid place for it to come from. There are no tricks, but a passionate sensitivity and will for precision, and an almost plant-like heliotropic moving and growing together. In experienced bodies, it’s pristine. In the students’ less cultivated bodies, it occasionally gets silly.

I imagine the first problem was how to actually use these inexperienced bodies so they became a part of the environment rather than a feature of it. One possibility was to shift the focus so there seemed to be a landscape of presences in the space with a capacity to appear and then dissolve into it in various ways. The vertical pillars, the length of distance from one far wall to another, the long horizontal shadows, the low receding roof, became architectural features: an environment, not a performance. As I stood in the semi-darkness, I became aware that people I saw standing quietly, or inching hesitantly through the space could equally be members of the audience or performers; the action sometimes resembled a distant game, too far off to hear the sounds of calling out. The sidelines were anybody’s territory, dancers in a camouflage of track pants and T-shirts looking remarkably like part of the crowd as they stood, also waiting and watching.

I remember various scatterings and clumps of gaunt figures, a long way off, shifting slightly; dancers, alone or in twos and threes, clinging, sliding and rebounding from a far wall, amongst shadows. Their relationship to what they were doing was not playful, but could have come from that. It wasn’t grounded in physical accomplishment, though it might have come from that too. Mostly, they were dwarfed and overtaken by their own looming shadows, much more the real presences in the space, able to extend further and move faster than flesh could, at times a teeming, flighty crowd.

In the back of my mind was an awkward idea that there was a video loop going on somewhere in the space and I was meant to appreciate it somehow as part of the same venture: 21 three-minute contributions by visual artists, who cut and manipulated footage of Dumas’ work with other material of their own, to their own tastes. And there it was, flickering away ineffectually to the side, a lot of probably fabulous material stuffed into a tiny box with the volume off.

Boundaries for this work are typically ambiguous. The architecture and the presences of people and shadows, the light, the time, space, shape, medium, personnel, are all fluid and shifting. Who can tell where the work might begin or end? This ambivalence of focus, the ‘other-sidedness’ is to me what is important in … and yet.

After such spacious and lofty design, the last performance began for me with the feeling that there were just too many people, and an awareness of the awkward indecisiveness of the audiences’ herd-like behaviour. Shall we go there, or there, or maybe there? Gee, I don’t know. So everyone stood milling around foolishly in the middle of the space, trying to keep out of the way while maintaining a degree of dignity and a decent vantage.

Personally, I enjoyed the whole upending of the previous situation. I remembered the recent Next Steps program in which various attributes of the space became a central focus for the work. In that case almost everyone, performers included, seemed to be at the mercy of the environment. In this case, it was just the audience. There was nowhere for them to be, or to go. People jockeyed for position, competing for space with the dancers they had come to see. The dancers were unfazed and made sure they were not the ones to lose possession, relentlessly manoeuvring their way through the herd, handling with authority what had obviously become their own territory over the past weeks.

This unexpected authority was the really good part, an interesting flip-side to the first week’s apparent quiescence: a firmly established practice, the richness and density of the material, the solidity and weight of the light. You suddenly realised what had been missing: physical expertise, the sense that the material was more complete, better rehearsed and the relaxed luxuriant appearance of some of the interstate dancers—Judy Oliver, Reyes de Lara and Sally Gardner, whose contributions lent a pleasant acerbity. Gardner’s opening solo seemed to bind the dissipated focus of the crowd to her, as she moved with the limpid clarity of a dancer whose dance is simply and importantly the play of her own body.

While the quiet distance and architectural spaciousness of the first week had been dismantled by the presence of so many seemingly uninvited guests, there was a welcome clamour now, a sense of work and purposefulness, and a kind of comfort in the warm, human presence of dancers and audience in close proximity.

… and yet, Dance Exchange, Artistic Director Russell Dumas, Artspace, Sydney, August-September 1995.

RealTime issue #9 Oct-Nov 1995 pg. 37

© Eleanor Brickhill; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 October 1995
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