Contaminating bodies, existential dances

Jonathan Marshall: Melbourne Festival dance

Michelle Heaven, Brian Lucas, Chunky Move, Tense Dave

Michelle Heaven, Brian Lucas, Chunky Move, Tense Dave

The thin membrane of skin separates one supposedly independent, free, voting individual from another. Yet when bodies bleed and ooze, when one body’s psycho-neural shaking is communicated beyond the family into society as a whole, we react with horror. Bodies are supposed to be cohesive and self-contained in all but the most intimate of contexts. However in the wake of AIDS, digital technology and postmodernism, society has been forced to acknowledge that bodies are not always self-contained but rather dangerously contingent, contaminated, fluid and interconnected.

Sandra Parker’s choreography has focused for some time on such disturbed bodily metaphors. Her dancers oppress and manipulate each other and themselves in an aggressive yet disturbingly banal fashion, such that their sense of solidity, of clear presence in performance and unambiguous intent in movement or expression is violated. Parker’s bodies have an almost camp quality, performing with such force as to suggest the essentially socially-imposed nature of our psyches.

If the body is thought of as sound, Katie Symes’ score epitomised what was most successful in Parker’s Symptomatic. Symes created an aural realm of large, yet sonically dirty, oppressive spaces, of environments filled with constant throb and hiss that allayed the nerves by imparting a sense of banal, urban familiarity, while also suggesting dehumanisation and tense endurance. The body in performance took on the same character as a fluoro-lit carpark, rich in potential for movement, yet enclosed by a feeling of blighted industrial space. Overall Symptomatic was replete with moments in which suggestions of tension and character slipped through the performers. Though this was alluring it lacked the clear tempo or musical development that characterised Symes’ score. Yet in sketching such a suggestive realm that both denied and invoked emotional trauma, Symptomatic’s contradictory possibilities remained in memory long after the performance.

In-Compatibility the first collaboration from Tony Yap and Yumi Umiumare as their new company “—”, was similarly energised by troubled bodies. Yap’s approach comes from Grotowski technique and shamanic inspirations, while Umiumare’s style is based in butoh and modern dance. Their many collaborations have rendered them as intense, symmetrical presences who, simply in shaking their heads or thrashing quietly at each other’s side, capture the slightest nuances of each other’s jazz-like improvisations. In-Compatibility is the first co-production from these 2 involving other dancers since Yap’s Narcissus Dream (1997). While Umiumare and Yap related to each other in violent and delicate ways (such as a particularly beautiful moment when Umiumare simply lay on top of her partner, her head at his feet, and vice versa), the use of the 3 other dancers was problematic, producing only marginal—albeit evocative—detailing.

Musicians Tim Humphrey and Madeleine Flynn have a wonderful sense of light, slightly neo-Dadaist/Fluxus improvisation that has complemented Yap’s solo improvisation performances. Their approach nevertheless added to the rather studio-feel of this production. In-Compatibility was superb as an initial study of pained, ecstatic bodies, but presented so that its clarity and more tangible intentions remained mysterious. It was an interestingly structured improvisation, but the kind of subliminal ‘order-behind-chaos’ achieved by the likes of John Coltrane was lacking.

Rather than these tensed, conflicted, chaotic bodies, director Kate Denborough staged the surreal body in her Kage Physical Theatre production of Nowhere Man. The piece was full of wonderfully inventive illusionistic devices and sketches, recalling an expressionist magic show or a music hall performance. Tramps in hats and coats played at vocal sound effects before launching into a short hip-hop section; later the audience marvelled at a pair of sashaying torsos bearing 3 plastinated heads (1 from the neck and 2 others sprouting from upraised elbows). These were great suggestive moments, but overall, Nowhere Man had little to say. A character from the margins of society was introduced and we followed his dreams and his fears—including a superb, almost Pataphysical discourse on the value of “quadrupedism”—but that was about it. Denborough’s direction was tremendously seductive in its assurance and sharpness of execution, recalling Phillippe Genty’s equally illusionistic work. As with Genty though, Denborough’s latest production constitutes the popular face of surrealism, referring to little beyond its own strange, magical dreamscapes and piecemeal iconography. Denborough’s images were immediately intriguing and engaging, making them highly accessible, but not especially sophisticated in conception.

The highlight of the Australian material in this year’s Melbourne Festival (besides the Phillip Adams gem Nativity) was Chunky Move’s Tense Dave. Chunky Move has long been burdened with its status as Victoria’s “flagship dance company”, making it difficult for the institution to live up to its marketing. It was therefore intensely satisfying to see Chunky Move fulfil its promises here.

Michael Kantor’s program notes for this piece which he co-directed with choreographers Lucy Guerin and Gideon Obarzanek describe his marvelling at the dancers “creating a shell of work based on an initial idea and then filling” it out and “infusing” it. Despite the dangers inherent in this process, it was precisely this quality that made Tense Dave so effective. The simple narrative constituted an apparently rigid framework through which the audience followed an increasingly gob-smacked Dave (Brian Lucas) as he circled an eternally revolving space within which otherwise free-floating events, movement sequences, dramatic games and encounters occurred. As with Guerin’s The Ends of Things (2001), the performance began with the man alone in his self-contained space which suddenly and disturbingly exploded outwards. This space coincided with 3 other apartments, then with an unending stream of social and psychological realms as the 4 partitions separating the initial rooms began roaming about the revolve before fracturing into further divisions before finally flying away, leaving a frighteningly open, unadorned environment in the centre of a bleak stage.

Like Symptomatic, Tense Dave examined what happens when bodies and minds flow into each other, exploring where our most secret fears, desires and nightmares come from: through the walls, from the minds of others, and what happens if our dreams blend with others’. Lucas’ lanky Dave was juxtaposed with the jagged, ropy tension of Luke Smiles’ tangles; or the equally pointed yet desperately grasping presence of Michelle Heaven (clambering across Dave’s forehead like a fairytale imp); the easy, weighty power of Brian Carbee (whose commandingly mellifluous voice introduced the fears and games of yet more characters); and Stephanie Lake’s poisoned-chalice of melodramatic sexuality. Tense Dave’s overall message amounted to little more than a retelling of Sartre’s existentialism, but by letting these ambiguous performative images hang unexplained on stage, the directors produced a piece rich with psychological suggestions and contaminated bodies.

Symptomatic, DanceWorks, choreographer Sandra Parker. dramaturg Yoni Prior, sound Katie Symes, lighting Jenny Hector, design Anna Tregloan, performers Deanne Butterworth, Phoebe Robinson, Katy Macdonald, Tim Harvey, Asher Leslie, Athenaeum II, Oct 11-25

In-Compatibility, “-”, choreographers/performers Tony Yap, Yumi Umiumare, performers Tom Davies, Nic Hemple, Meredith Elton, musicians Tim Humphrey, Madeleine Flynn, lighting Dori Dragon Bicchierai, design Michael Pierce, 45 Downstairs, Oct 16-20

Nowhere Man, Kage, director Kate Denborough, performers Gerard Van Dyck, Merfyn Owen, Dylan Owen, Byron Perry, Antony Hamilton, Fiona Cameron, Christine Envall, Steven Richards, Gordon Wilson, sound Franc Tetaz, lighting Marko Respondeck, design Paula Levis, N. Melbourne Town Hall, Oct 20-Nov 2

Tense Dave, Chunky Move, choreographers/directors Lucy Guerin, Michael Kantor, Gideon Obarzanek, performers Brian Lucas, Brian Carbee, Michelle Heaven, Stephanie Lake, Luke Smiles, lighting Niklas Pajanti, sound Franc Tetaz, design Jodie Fried, original design/concept Bluebottle (Andrew Livingston, Ben Cobham), Malthouse, Oct 2-11

RealTime issue #58 Dec-Jan 2003 pg. 8

© Jonathan Marshall; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 December 2003
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