All swans together

Virginia Baxter, DW98 and post-show forum,

Lucy Guerin, Heavy

Lucy Guerin, Heavy

1. Up there for thinking…

In Sandra Parker’s very musical choreography for Waiting movement is syncopated through bodies, space and time. In the post-show forum she says that once she heard Lawrence Harvey’s music, she could have just kept going. The composer says the collaboration alerted him to all the things to which he was blind.

In Shelley Lasica’s elegant Live Opera Situation music is used contrapuntally. The dancers rehearse to other musics (Indian music, opera), then internalise those patterns and absorb them with others from composer Franc Tétaz. The instability of the relationship between the music and the dancers’ bodies is one of the aspects of the work that the choreographer suggests the audience may experience, but not necessarily.

In Sue Healey’s Stung it’s not humour but strangeness that grabs. The stricture imposed on dancers to embody bees perversely allows us further into the human bodies. Without hands as the logical extension of arms, we concentrate more on the subtleties of shoulders and backs. With new rhythms we observe the ways a body can buzz. This work began with Darrin Verhagen’s music. He’s worked with Sue Healey before and knows what she likes. He knew it would be about bees but is surprised by its humour.

The post-show forum with choreographers, dancers and composers was intimate, relaxed and tentative. It reminded me of the discussion after the screenings of the Microdance films at Intersteps in Sydney last year. Listening to choreographers fresh from the collaborative experience speaking about the difficulties and pleasures of working with film and music, it occurs to me how much more there is to know.

All three collaborations in DW98 broached potentially interesting topics for discussion. What would happen if Sandra Parker had kept going? What is the relationship between Shelley Lasica’s agenda and her audience’s; what if bees were not funny at all? Watching these and other works like them, I can’t help wishing for more—more investigation, more time to refine, more performances and of course, more thinking and talking about the process of creation and its reception by audiences.

Organisers of the MAP Symposium, responding to a “burning need” for critical appraisal, proposed bigger and, on the surface, more crucial questions than these: the place of ballet; the impact of technology; the indelible inscriptions of training; Asian influences; attitudes to space; pop culture. There’s an urgency in the tone of the promotional material suggesting that dance is at a watershed with lines between forms blurring, disappearing. The implication is that dance may have lost its way and that one of the aims of MAP is to “locate” contemporary dance once again in all its forms in our time and along the way, while maintaining crucial distinctions and countering hostilities, to bring it back into conversation with ballet.

One way into this conversation was an interesting prototype shown at the MAP Symposium, Mathew Bergan and Erin Brannigan’s video, Arrival and Departure. Young Australian choreographers talk about the ways they accommodate and make use of their ballet training. Formerly with Bangarra, Bernadette Walong likes working with the dancers from the Australian Ballet but finds herself trying to “soften their joints”; Garry Stewart likes to re-contextualise ballet vocabulary in his work; Brian Carbee is surprised to find himself returning to it. In a later forum Lucy Guerin says she uses its disciplines as a platform for departure. For Rosalind Crisp, it lends a level of legitimacy that gets her teaching work to support her contemporary practice.

Beyond this, the weekend symposium presented a huge array of dancers attempting with varying degrees of success to connect bodies of work with the designated topics. Some prepared papers, some extracted from longer ones. Others improvised. One showed a film. Only one danced. While considerable ground was covered, for me nothing came quite as close to crucial as the more intimate discussions I saw after DW98 which might be why, in the rare breaks between talk, I began to compile a taxonomy of shoes and some sketches towards a choreography of the panel.

2. …down there for dancing

A democracy of Blundstones pervades the MAP Symposium with some notable exceptions, like Vicki Fairfax trying to set the tone at the opening session in blue suede pumps and Op Art stockings. First up, Libby Dempster and Amanda Card and Chair Robin Grove introduce a sober topic (“Ballet and its Other”) in buckles and brogues. Dempster ventures a binary or two—Ballet is the governing tradition in Australia and counter-traditions don’t exist. Philipa Rothfield jêtés from the audience, “Must the other be counter?”, down and up again, “What about Iragaray’s idea of difference as plenitude?” More diverting are Dempster’s gestures at the fictions that sustain the mind of the ballet—the ballet dancer’s body as signifying not simply harmonious beauty but efficient functioning of musculature with nothing wastefully complex; an extroverted body; a phallic body; the female ballet dancer’s body as a public body, freed of interiority, a body fit for bearing universal values.

In a classical ballet scenario, Amanda Card would be the wise maid with the basket on her hip, deftly plucking fragments from a forgotten history of contemporary dance in Australia and, finger under chin, casually questioning the importance of a local, distinctive dance product. Her final comments, more in keeping with Card’s contemporary training, spring from internal stimuli, abandoning all identifiable technique. Australia’s history she says, legs out and crossed at the ankle, is full of ideas of the foreign, the colonial, the illegitimate. Our uniqueness may be our lack of uniqueness. The place is an afterthought, a dumping ground (to which, thanks to Jerry Seinfeld, we can now mercifully add an anus).

In the question time that followed we experienced the first of the always awkward dance between the “any old bodies” in the audience thinking on their feet and the “superior bodies” of the panellists whose steps have been choreographed into refined arguments.

In session two (“Ungrounded Bodies/Escaping the Body”) panellists individually tango round the topic of technology. Gideon Obarzanek shares boots with Duncan Fairfax in refusing it—though for different reasons. Gideon takes inspiration from television (especially animation) and film (especially editing) but using technology to create dance doesn’t interest him. He talks about creating a hyper-real, an “animated look” on stage and of working with the idiosyncratic bodies of his dancers—choreographing the by-products of yoga in Narelle Benjamin’s body, coming to terms with Luke Smiles’ tensile, fast logic. I move him into a sexy duet with Chrissie Parrott in high heels at the other end of the panel. She’s hooked on Motion Capture for good reasons (choreographic possibilities) and controversial ones (a desire to remove the monotony and potential injury for dancers in rehearsal). In the audience, Christos Linou, fresh from his performance dealing with drug addiction and AIDS, shifts uncomfortable at the mention of the disappearing of the dancer’s pain from the choreography. Chrissie teeters on her heel then glides forward, imagining her digital dancer wandering the net picking up choreographic ideas. Duncan Fairfax raises his eyes, “Gee, I’m gonna seem like even more of a Luddite now”, but dives in, executing a few grand jetés along the way. I was expecting wild applause or hisses as he concluded his paper on dance as among other romances “the primordial experience of being” as opposed to technology which “forces us into a picture.” But no. In the choreography of the panel, a polite symmetry pervades. Good dancers don’t bump into one another. Opposing ideas line up and, like the panellists, rarely touch. In one small (very Australian, I thought) gesture, Duncan sends a smile in Chrissie’s direction as if to say, “nothing personal.”

Anticipating splinters, Trevor Patrick wears earth shoes to elucidate—hands poised perfectly on either side of his papers—the subtle body in his impressive work Nine Cauldrons (Microdance). I’m struck by the difference between the speaking artist (slight man in cardigan) and his dancing self (intense, hip, wry). He pulls us inside his calm bubble, talking softly about the subjective camera versus the static stage, the way the moving eye takes the audience closer. “Of all the Microdance films”, says Rosalind Crisp in time, his is the one that “lets me into the body.” Zsuzsanna Soboslay, rocking the baby Mir Mir, whispers in the panel’s ear that theatre audiences are more alert to the subtle body than they might think. Before the shutter was open, she believes, they were already letting themselves in.

“In Search of the Body”: hyphenated dancers in a leggy line compare histories of training. Ballet dancer Paula Baird-Colt joins Jennifer Newman-Preston and Sue-ellen Kohler vamping till ready in medium high boots while stage right Italian booted philosopher William McClure argues for moments of pure passivity of thought between moves, something like…fainting. In a shocking move, Kohler removes her shoes and in the middle of one of William’s sentences (“Dance is a form of…”) adds a few phrases of her own (sinewy squats, high stretches). “…thinking”, they conclude. In her recent work Premonition with Mahalya Middlemist and William McClure, Sue-ellen spoke more eloquently on the subject of next steps than this environment permits. Attempting to explain her position, she stretches her fingers and shakes them in the air, casts her eyes up and out. “When I look at dance, I look at dancers she says, “At people, not technique.”

The tradition of talk I gather is not strong in ballet circles. Nevertheless, Paula Baird-Colt in long and certain sentences lays to rest the notion that for this dancer anyway classical ballet limits individual expression (“There may be 60 dancers but also 60 different ways of dancing even though we’re all being swans together”). Of her relationship to choreographers like Kylian, Duarte, Tharp, she says, “They are you. You offer them things.” How can there be any conversation between this dancer and the one next to her, thinks Rosalind Crisp in the audience, her toes curling inside her shoes. Paula’s position is totally objectified. But then she executes a perfect pirouette: “Twyla Tharp’s In the Upper Room I would perform for myself every day without an audience”, she says.

In the lively boot-oh session (“The Asian Connection”) colour is suddenly an issue: brown Blundstones for Chair Rosemary Hinde; Yumi Umiumare in lace up bovver-boots; Tony Yap in brown Docs; Michelle Heaven, recently returned from Japan with Sue Healey and company, still has dust on her tan riding boots; Peter Eckersall anticipating a quick exit from even vaguely essentialist agendas, opts for grey leather scuffs. Eckersall worries at the transition of forms—Butoh is about the body in crisis and sprang from a set of social conditions in Japan. The Australian version, he fears, ditches the politics and replaces it with a new-agey version of the oriental as meditative, Zen-like, primitive. I contemplate a cast change and shift Yumi Umiumare and Tony Yap to the panel with Kohler and McClure. Both are engagingly fluid in their talk-journies. Yumi trained in classical ballet from 9 years of age, lost herself to the intensity of Butoh and is in the process of retrieving her body’s memory in Australia. Due to a clerical error in his home town of Warrnambool via Malacca, Tony Yap became a visual artist instead of a performing one. Re-directing himself via Deborah Hay and Grotowski-inspired companies like IRAA he wound up with his own Mixed Company creating dance-theatre inspired by Taoist traditions in which he attempts to achieve an emptiness, a method not of training but of being human. “Before a performance” he says, “I want to die.”

In the familiar territory of performance space, Angharad Wynn-Jones’ boots are well-travelled. Eleanor Brickhill’s, like her essay on studio practice, appear nicely polished. Shelley Lasica wears rubber soles and Natalie Weir half-boot, half-shoe. For Shelley, explaining her attitudes to space is a writhing dance. Words must be substituted, sentences restructured for precision. She speaks about the space between speaking and doing, space as behaviour, about bringing the audience into the space of personal enquiry. She has updated her thoughts to make space for those of speakers at the forum just before this. Natalie Weir is a little nervous and moves in straight lines. Creator of works for companies such as Expressions and Queensland Ballet, Dance North and recently The Australian Ballet, she sees space as defined for her. She works within proscenium arches, many of them in regional centres. Her works must tour. Space is self-contained (“as in real life”). She is excited by dancers, their breath, their energy, the way they charge and truly create the space and, sure, she’d like audiences to experience more of this but often she must work with front on staging, the audience looking as if at a picture. Eleanor Brickhill steps tentatively forward to address the unbridgeable gap between.

Popular culture unleashes the sneaker. While Philipa Rothfield time-steps in lace-up boots, Michael Kantor, unlaced, freeforms his desire for a vulgar, provocative, unaesthetic theatre of ideas (“Prepare to be hated”). Before he started working with dance companies, DJ Jad McAdam believed that dance was something to do, not watch. Now, displaying the word “Simple” on his shoe tongue he queries the counter (to what?) while Gideon Obarzanek in dyed Docs pays homage to the popular culture that’s modelled him more than any other. Lucy Guerin neatly marks out in mid-heels the way she uses popular culture (especially music). “Trash and profound thought may co-exist.” In Robbery Waitress on Bail she takes a tabloid story as a starting point, projects it so the audience’s desire for narrative is satisfied and then attempts to dance the endlessly elusive everything else. A woman in the audience comes up with one of the best questions of this popular, though (except for Lucy Guerin) oddly culturally unrevealing session. She asks McAdam “How come club music is getting better and better while club dancing is getting worse and worse?”

I remember in a collaboration with dancers in the early 80s being warned by the choreographer not to overtax the dancers with talk because their bodies would seize up. In one shocking moment I learned that dancing and talking about dancing are different. Up there for thinking. Down there for dancing. Postmodern dance readjusted my centre of gravity. For very different reasons MAP has temporarily tipped it off balance again which is no bad thing. Now I desperately need to see someone dancing.

DW98 and post-show forum, Danceworks, Wesleyan Hall, Albert Park, July 24; MAP Symposium, The Bagging Room, C.U.B. Malthouse, Melbourne, July 25 – 26; Arrival and Departure (video), director Mathew Bergan, producer Erin Brannigan

RealTime issue #27 Oct-Nov 1998 pg. 11

© Virginia Baxter; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 October 1998
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