Don’t fence me in

Anne Thompson: Antistatic 99

In Russell Dumas’ Cassandra’s Dance, at the Opera House Studio, one sensed the enormous discipline, focus and specificity. Dumas located this dancing in a visceral sound score by Paul Healey and in a provocative set of references—columns (suggesting Greek architecture), the walls and floor of the Opera Studio (a space which profiles high art) and in relation to the myth of Cassandra. Watching this dance I reflected on art as doomed prophecy, classicism as a relic and the frailty of the body, knowledge and history. Could performance be an intense, agitation that passes all too quickly? This was a rich offering.

In Helen Herbertson and Ben Cobham’s work, morphia series—Strike 1, light partnered the dancer, at times barely illuminating her and at other times framing her. Watching this dance was like that stumble from sleep when the house seems strange and part of a dream. Herbertson, like a wind-up doll, moved and stopped, changed rhythm and her stiff gestures, and was intriguingly, beguilingly flesh and mechanical at the same time. Cobham sat in the large space and brought to life this picture show on the distant stage. I was drawn into some sort of relationship with my own terrors and childlike wonder. Again a specific cultural heritage was invoked; this time, German expressionism and its troubled relationship to fascism. I also recalled Gordon Craig’s vision—the performer as uber marionette.

In contrast, works by Ishmael Houston-Jones and Trotman and Morrish in the opening program have the impulse to yield ‘an effect’, in particular for the speech of the performer to direct the audience’s experience. In this kind of improvised storytelling performance I feel drawn into a social relationship with the performer. I feel obliged to laugh, be entertained or empathise. Interestingly, Eleanor Brickhill deliberately invoked a specific social context, the cocktail party, to speak about the act of performing. I enjoyed the juxtaposition and conflation of these 2 places of interaction. I was reminded of the pleasures and discomforts of both settings and of how difficult it was to ‘simply be’ in either. However the text and dancing were arranged in such a way so as to allow my relationship to the event to keep shifting. I was glad never to feel that ‘pinned against the mantelpiece’ party feeling.

In KunstWerk, Alan Schacher searched as if hunted, feeling his way, fitting in, moving on to an industrial soundscape by Rik Rue. This image of a body mapping a place which offered no rest, an alien place, resonated with me. It came close to an image of my current experience of watching performance.

I like dancing to be framed. I like dancing to conjure up a field of references and associations, to provoke reflection. I don’t like to be too specifically positioned by my, or the performer’s, personal history. I don’t seek nor trust ‘empathy.’ I want instead that shock of having a feeling I didn’t expect. In a world where I am asked to empathise continually I want something more from live performance. I fear I have, as Philip Adams describes it, compassion fatigue.

Russell Dumas, Dance Exchange, Cassandra’s Dance, The Studio, Sydney Opera House; works by Herbertson, Brickhill, Schacher, Antistatic, The Performance Space

RealTime issue #31 June-July 1999 pg. 12

© Anne Thompson; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 June 1999
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