horror stretch

jana perkovic: splintergroup, roadkill

Roadkill, Splintergroup

Roadkill, Splintergroup

TANZTHEATER IN AUSTRALIA—SAVE FOR MERYL TANKARD AND SHAUN PARKER—IS THE DOMAIN OF SPLINTERGROUP AND PRODUCER DANCENORTH. THEIR VISIT IS A RARE TREAT FOR THE EUROPE-FRIENDLY PALATE.

Theirs is a dance grounded in the world as we know it: it transpires with sex, with physical violence, club music, everyday clothes and places, everyday emotions, everyday torpor. It is a dance resolutely post the abstract, monochrome modernism of Russell Dumas’ Dance Exchange, and with no patience for either the intimist slowness of Michaela Pegum, or the anti-spectacular navel-gazing of The Fondue Set.

From Sweeney Todd to the Grand Guignol, horror in theatre has a long and respectable, if forgotten, history. The stage, balancing its semiotic inevitability of real, material signs (chairs, lights, bodies) with a necessarily abstracted construction of situations, is a strong place from which to wildly associate gestures and events with submerged fears. As Hans-Thies Lehmann puts it, the signifying nature of theatre points to the constitution of meaning in general.

Dance Massive, coincidentally yet appropriately, is teeming with monsters. We have the slick, almost romantic spectacle of haywire eugenics in Mortal Engine. On the other end of the theatrical scale, Jo Lloyd’s one-man short, Melbourne Spawned a Monster, is a delicious attempt at a Penny Dreadful in 2009, and achieves sublime, almost tragically alienated banality. Originally danced by Lloyd, the choreography sits uneasily on Luke George’s body, hips swinging and shoulders circling into a feminine figure only to grow into the Hulk-like, psychotic body of a monster. The intimate relationship with abstraction that contemporary dance has cultivated allows for the full effect of these figurative disharmonies to be experienced.

Roadkill, our third horror-show so far, instead opts for the cinematic road. It possesses both the manic rhythm of a music clip and the tactile, solid mise-en-scène of film, grounded with some very heavy props: a phone booth and a car. Twisting mundane reality into pop-cultural hallucinations, Roadkill wouldn’t look out of place in David Lynch’s oeuvre. It edits and furiously remixes cinema language recreated on stage: bodies twist in slow-motion, car crashes rewind, sounds cross-fade; even panning and zooming out into a panoramic shot are achieved, the latter with some clever use of miniatures. The result is hyperreal: an impossible, yet undeniable, assemblage of scenarios.

Opening with a couple stranded in the outback, waking up in their broken-down car to birdsong and increasing paranoia, Roadkill rummages through every commonplace fear we are taught to cultivate, from rapist strangers to hitch-hiker murderers. Yet each progressively more surreal scenario hiccups back to the initial moment: after each fantasy catastrophe the couple wakes up again.

Roadkill was developed with the assistance of Sasha Waltz and Guests (p10), while Gavin Webber’s company has cultivated a style imported almost verbatim from his training with Ultima Vez, and the two influences clash without merging. The aggressive, 1990s MTV cool of Ultima Vez sits in the uneasy company of hysteric banality reminiscent of Waltz’s early works. Consequently, Roadkill attempts two conflicting types of dramaturgical progression. On the one hand, there’s the realist descent into hard-edged, psychological horror, as movement slows down into gripping narrative sequences eschewing dance, gesture or certainty for suspicion, double-edged hints, and short circuits of frightened imagination—theatre outweighs Tanz.

When Grayson Millwood, the stranger danger, appears out of nowhere, Sarah-Jayne Howard locks herself in the car, brimming with unspoken fears. Millwood and Webber’s conversation mutes, the microphone amplifies the sound of Howard’s car-bound breathing. Avoiding psychological profiling, Roadkill utilises the full range of horror devices at its disposal: from thundering, seat-vibrating beats; unreliable sources of light (at times reduced to a torch flickering towards the audience); repetition of uncertain scenarios with variation and other intrusions in linear time; Luke Smiles’ impressionist soundscape; overheard fragmented conversations; to moments when the only certainty is the enormous fear of the characters, mirrored, medusa-like, back on the audience.

On the other hand, Roadkill slides laterally into surrealist comedy of absurd, brainstorming exaggerations: the first stranded morning escalates into an anatomically improbable backseat romp; a car chase is illustrated with Webber and Howard running past with trees, road signs and dead animals. An argument between the couple is interrupted by a rain of pebbles. When gravity changes direction, Webber prevents Howard’s dead body from flying away with a pile of stones, while Millwood hovers upside down in a phone booth. Moments later, he appears, hanged by the phone chord, in a strange descent back into horror.

As Mortal Engine’s abject images demonstrate, terror resides in the least defined, least certain. Filmic attention to detail works against desired effect in Roadkill, and the production labours very hard to make strange without resorting to abstraction. To suspend reality, every hyper-real moment needs to be contradicted by another; every movement forward by an inexact rewind. The strongest moments of the performance are precisely in the pauses, uncertain junctions of dramaturgical sway, U-turns of stage action: Webber driving a toy car over Howard’s prostrated body, or a long, ambiguous duet between the two men, their mirrored motion broken by outbursts of aggressive collision. Which one is the other’s fantasy becomes unclear, as they spin against each other’s neck, shoulder or waist in Vandekeybus-like, energetic contact work. Having spun in rewind over the car bonnet, Webber and Howard comfort each other in dreamlike, decelerated grief. Which one, if either, is dead, we are left to wonder.

Without anchoring wildly imaginative hysteric outbursts in myth or psychology, Roadkill struggles to find its emotional gravitas. The result is a highly palatable comedic horror, an upbeat and furious montage of improbabilities.

Splintergroup, Roadkill, choreographed and performed by Gavin Webber, Grayson Millwood, Sarah-Jayne Howard, composition, sound design Luke Smiles/motion laboratories, dramaturg Andrew Ross, lighting designer Mark Howett, Bluebottle, producers Brisbane Powerhouse, Dancenorth, toured by Performing Lines for Mobile States; Arts House, Meat Market; March 5-8; Dance Massive, March 3-15

RealTime issue #90 April-May 2009 pg.

© Jana Perkovic; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

9 March 2009
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