How to write about the performing body

Gay McAuley

Peta Tait has brought together a fascinating collection of essays about a range of live performances which include dance (Meryl Tankard, Chrissie Parrott, Company in Space), performance (Sydney Front, Open City, Lyndal Jones, Peter King, Stelarc), community theatre (Death Defying Theatre), contemporary circus, professional wrestling, Mardi Gras dance parties, butoh-derived work (Tess de Quincey, Yumi Umiumare and Tony Yap), amateur theatricals in the early years of the Swan River Colony, 19th century ethnological shows and even mainstream theatre (John Bell). The premise of the book is to explore the ways in which “physical bodies in live performance present vital and compelling expressions of ideas” and Tait stresses the importance of the commentaries being “responses to the live body and its action as it makes cultural significances, rather than merely extracting authorial thinking—rewriting the intended text—since a body in performance often produces unintended significances.” The extent to which the authors fulfil this challenging task varies considerably and, indeed, some of the historical pieces are obliged to imagine the live body which certainly problematises the notion of ‘liveness.’ However, the differing approaches to the task of performance analysis represented here comprise one of the most interesting features of the book, and raise methodological questions that go to the heart of performance theory and performance making.

The book is published in The Netherlands, which should put Australian publishers to shame, and is the eighth in a series of monographs entitled “Australian Playwrights.” While most of the artists featured would doubtless be surprised or even appalled to see themselves thus categorised, the series editor (Veronica Kelly) is to be congratulated on her attempts to open up the series to include “a broad range of drama, performance, dance and physical theatre being currently devised both inside and outside the now problematic fields of text-based or authored writing.” Maybe the next move should be a change to the title of the series to reflect the scope of this new enlarged field.

The vitality of Australian performance-making in the last 20 years or so and of Australian writing about performance are both showcased in this book, and both are equally impressive. The performances described have often occurred below the radar of official culture, unfunded or underfunded, ignored by the mainstream press, and occupying marginal spaces in the community, but this stream of work, while it has not transformed mainstream theatre and dance, has certainly transformed dominant ideas of what constitutes theatre. New terms have come to the fore to reflect the border crossings and blurred genres from which much of the vitality has derived, university departments of drama and theatre studies are increasingly including the term ‘performance’ in their titles, and even the funding authorities have been forced to recognise the existence of a vibrant current of creative work although they have not yet found a felicitous way to name it: Hybrid Arts is the latest attempt, with its undertones of regret for lost purity.

It is not entirely clear whether the focus of the book is Australian performance or writings about performance by Australian critics and theorists. The subtitle, Australian Viewings of Live Performance, suggests the latter, but in practice neither category seems completely watertight. There is, for example, Sharon Mazer (a New Zealand based American academic writing about American professional wrestling), and David Williams (a UK based academic writing about British, Italian and French equine performances). These 2 pieces are insightful and beautifully written (Williams’ description of the misery endured by the 12 horses tethered for 3 days in a live installation in Rome’s Galleria L’Attico by Jannis Kounellis continues to haunt me), but one can legitimately query their inclusion in a book about live performance in Australia.

The scope of this review precludes detailed comments on each of the 18 essays and, while it is invidious to single out one or two, I cannot resist drawing attention to some personal favourites: Jane Goodall’s delving beneath the surface construction of the native as either hopeless victim or savage in photographs of the ethnological shows that were so popular in the 19th century, in order to point to the agency of the performers themselves in this construction; Julian Meyrick’s exemplary study of the impact of found spaces on the work produced in them and the way he weaves together his own spectatorial experience, interviews with the practitioners and responses by contemporary newspaper reviewers; Adrian Kiernander’s brilliantly evocative, non technical but nevertheless very precise, descriptions of what Meryl Tankard’s dancers are actually doing in their attempts to transcend the constraints of physical and natural laws; Edward Scheer’s combination of perceptive descriptions of Tess de Quincey in performance with long extracts from interviews with her so that the essay permits her to be doubly present; Jonathon Bollen’s mix of personal anecdote, social analysis and intelligent use of critical theory to explicate what he calls “doing dance party” as distinct from “making” dance party; Kerrie Schaefer’s analysis of Sydney Front’s Don Juan which draws on careful description of the work in performance as well as her knowledge of its gestation process and audience response over the course of the work’s several runs.

Having attempted to encapsulate the content of each of the essays that so appealed to me on a first reading, I now realise that what they have in common is the mobilisation of multiple voices (responses from spectators and reviewers, programme notes, interviews with the practitioners, explanatory notions derived from relevant critical theory) together with careful description of the semiotic systems in play in the performances and the writer’s own lived experience of the work. It is in the weaving together of all these different elements, none of which is sufficient on its own, that Peta Tait’s goal can perhaps best be met, and that we can see the beginning of a new discipline of performance analysis. The book includes 30 black and white photographs of the performances being analysed, nicely reproduced on glossy paper, but surprisingly, none of the authors refers to these photographs in their essays. Photography, it seems, is not one of the “voices” being mobilised in this new discipline and it is particularly disappointing that the one “photographic essay” (by Julie Holledge and Mary Moore) is treated so insensitively: the text separated from the photographs and simply included in the table of contents, the photographs presented not as an essay but lumped in with the other illustrations at the opposite end of the book. In this respect, then, the book throws out a challenge to performance makers as well as analysts: is there a use for performance photography beyond publicity and can photographs make a serious contribution to discourse about performance?

Body Show/s: Australian Viewings of Live Performance, editor Peta Tait, Rodopi, Amsterdam/Atlanta GA, 2000

RealTime issue #47 Feb-March 2002 pg. 38

© Gay McAuley; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 February 2002
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