Let's get lost

Keith Gallasch, The MAP Symposium

Overheard: “…independents need guidance—they’re flailing about with spoken word and new media.” “I thought that’s what independents are supposed to do, flail about, get lost, go their own way…”

Maps come with a purpose, with exploration, measurement, verification, namings. Maps offer hope and certainty though they can be inaccurate and knowing how to read them is a whole other matter. Maps can be confining. Maps capture a moment, only a succession of maps tells a story. One map can be overlayed with another—same terrain, same time but different story. So it was at the MAP Symposium, a genteel reading of half-formed dance maps, chance meetings, misdirections, losings, fallings off of the edge of the known.

Although only an acronym (for Movement and Performance), the MAP title and aims represented a conscious choice, a suggestion of let’s get everyone on the same terrain (hence the ballet presence), let’s help find a way through the barely charted paths of new media and popular culture and the competing spaces for dance—the theatre, the studio, the site.

For a symposium aimed at harmonious mapping, there was no more provocative way of setting out than with guides Libby Dempster and Amanda Card. Not that anyone actually got upset and pulled out of the expedition, but we were left bemused, pondering two maps, both of occupied territory—the imperialism of 19th century ballet and subsequently of European and American modernism over Australian dance.

Dempster’s map was at first glance binary in form, but every inch of the terrain she revealed turned out to be occupied by ballet, ballet and ballet, its self-mythologising and its fundamental denial of the feminine—ballet’s ‘other’ was pushed off the map, if it was ever on it, a lack rather than a counter-force or a substantial difference. Nowhere to go. Map? What map?

Amanda Card looked at the dance landscape and saw “not the hegemony of the classical but a society of bricolage” and took us off on a dialectical jog on which she established first that because we don’t remember a dance counter culture it doesn’t mean there wasn’t one: “lack of a memory of a counterculture—not a lack of a counterculture.” We went with that and she led us back through the century to the life and imagined work of Sonia Revid in Australia to…a dead end. Revid left no legacy, no inheritors, no school…Just when we thought we were getting a footing, the map was whisked away, it had no history. Dance is not literature, words are not enough. It’s about bodies and the embodiment of tradition.

But Card was kind enough to lead us a few tentative steps in a new direction on a new map, one that acknowledged that the choreographers and teachers that came after Revid did leave a legacy that was, yes, European or American, with a reminder that we ourselves were “foreign, colonial, illegitimate.” She pronounced, “our uniqueness is our lack of it,” declared us “the ultimate postmodern culture” and threw down a collaged map which Australian dancers have created from foreign traditions, imitation and sheer bricolage. But what kind of map was it—she deftly removed the romanticised Australian landscape, noting various attempts by Graeme Murphy, Jill Sykes and others, even Russell Dumas, to make the time-honoured link between the arts and the bush. We were left standing about looking at what was left, wondering is it any good? and what’s wrong with a tradition from somewhere else, if we’re still part of it? Will we go on?…But our guide had gone. Both of them. And we’d only just set out.

Of all the art forms in Australia, dance is the one that seems most beleaguered by the weight of imperial tradition, the same weight that crushed Indigenous culture and guaranteed imitative white arts in the colonies. The other arts don’t have anything quite like the ballet as bogeyman, though the opera and symphony orchestras can be similarly if less devastatingly invoked. Whatever, the Dempster-Card mapping was mildly received. Had their audience heard it before? Had they been ‘hegemonised’ into silence by ballet? Were they shocked at the small space offered them on these maps and their apparent insignificance? Well, it’s not always easy to read the mood of a conference in Australia; participants are slow to formulate questions, issues are not pursued, chairpersons these days have become ‘facilitators’ instead of interrogators, disparate papers are read in queues, connections are not made, no one wants to appear too smart. And there were many at the Symposium for whom this ballet issue was not worrying or they’d accommodated it in some way—as illustrated in Mathew Bergan’s video with ballet-trained choreographers who’d moved into other dance. They were interested in other maps. And there are those who think that we are at the end of a period of domination, in an era of manifesting our own identity, drawing still on the overseas traditions of which we remain a part, but making our own distinctions. It’s a pity therefore that (and for a number of good reasons the curators explained) there wasn’t an Indigenous component in the symposium.

Even more than our white colonial plight, the initial repression of Indigenous culture and its recent ‘acceptance’ (as art, as spirituality, as cuisine, but not too readily as politics or ownership of the map)—is even more telling about this place we are mapping, in the relationship between Indigenous and modernist dance traditions, say, in the constant querying of Bangarra about its syntheses.

Some places we were led turned out to be mapless, the paths evaporating and reforming in a few dialectical turns—“dance is a dematerialisation of modern life…an ethics of dwelling”; dance is “ungrounded…(but)… located in the entire phenomenal world.” These came from Duncan Fairfax in a session on dance and the new technologies. Fairfax had been citing Heidegger, “Dance’s purpose is to open us to a primordial experience of being, a verb, not a noun.” While this was satisfying for the true believers, a nice interplay of the physical and the transcendent, its claim to convince us of the problems inherent in the deployment of new media in dance were problematic in their absolutism—technology “denies corporeality”, puts us at a greater distance from our bodies, it’s “a new drive for control”, “it reinforces rather than transgresses.” Dance is good, technology bad, no dialectic here, no steadying ground on which to map our present. The baddies are Stelarc, Orlan and Robert Wilson—“rumoured”, said Fairfax, to want to replace his performers with techno-substitutes!

From the other side of what was soon to become a session of vaguely competing cosmologies (well, that’s what it felt like, another kind of mapping), Chrissie Parrott did an interesting if undialectical turn. On the one hand, motion capture technology for her is functional, a tool for choreographing without dancers and for saving dancers pain and injury. On the other, the result, which Parrott described with loving lyricism, is an animated dancer (built from the performance of a real one), a very real creature with the potential for an ethereal internet life of its own, exploring various choreographies.
A queasy floating sensation brought on by hovering between Fairfax and Parrott’s opposing universes was relieved by Trevor Patrick, working with the old technology of film, but technology nonetheless, and declaring a Taoist “impulse to unite mind, body and universe” in “a performance about transcendence, self transformation and change.” He said he saw “film as an important adjunct to performance” (something that Parrott was insistent on too, but watching her video presentation, we weren’t really sure what she had in mind). Patrick spoke of the “experience more and more of going into my own body, but people were not necessarily seeing that”, so he turned to film: “dealing with the desire to show what I felt.”

I felt my feet touch the ground and then caught Gideon Obarzanek’s declaration that he was not interested in dance on film, or new technology, but in making films (not about or necessarily including dance, as in his film Wet), and that in dance, picking up on the lingo, his “dancers’ bodies are grounded”, that he works from “the qualities of the bodies, pushing the limits, achieving a hyperreal quality.” The blur between self and other in his own work is through choreography; he said of working with Fiona Cameron recently: “It’s true that I’m not on stage but it’s hard to tell which movement is hers and which is mine.”

The ground had shifted, the conceit of dance as a terrain, a map of competing forces and traditions had shifted to a philosophical, even spiritual, plane and onto the body as map. But it was no ‘mere’ body, but the body as psyche, the body philosophical, ‘hard-wired’ (the techno-talk in the symposium for the inscription of ballet on the body), transformable, the cyborg even.

William McClure, abetted by Sue-ellen Kohler in a rare physical/existential moment in the symposium, took us off the edge of the map of received technique and stepped into…“pure sensation, unmediated by culture”, with the next step, “not a technique, but to keep feeling”, a moment of forgetting…and finding that meshed in various ways with the primordial of Fairfax and the selfless states of Butoh described by Yumi Umiumare and Tony Yap (“you have to stop the mind thinking”) in a session on Asian dance experience (where this time Peter Eckersall tried to keep our feet on the ground). Is this a quest for a new map, or no map? Were we also heading back to the Dempster-Card ‘maps’ when we heard McClure oppose “dance as a type of memorial…and European at that” and ask, “Does the next step have to have its authority in the past?”

In the closing session I noted the flood of binaries (male/female, culture/nature, body/technology, theatre/studio, high culture/low culture, ballet/other, tradition/moment etc) across the weekend, not as a bad thing, but interesting given the attempt to bring a range of very different artists and topics together, and also to indicate that there was much that was ‘in opposition’ that was neither resolvable nor worth fighting over with any intensity. You don’t think of maps as binary, but as complex representations of difference. However, they are mostly two dimensional, drafting the high and the low, pointing north and south, east and west, and like binaries in general providing ways of thinking…as long as they don’t become the only way of thinking, ignoring the third factor (the dialectical spin-off), change, or all the points in between. A map is as good as it is useful, as long as it is current, as long as it can be queried. Maps in MAP were variously fatalistically fixed, liberating, pragmatic, cosmological, fluid, physical, generated by dance, abandoned. As postmodern diversification of forms and the ideas that go with them persists and intensifies, the likelihood of drawing a common map in an event like MAP steadily declines. Occasional points of contact can be made, interests shared, common causes fought for. Some maps simply cannot be overlaid without creating something unintelligible. Nonetheless, the poetry of these sometimes competing maps was the most striking thing about them, the strangeness of their envisioning, the metaphysical yearnings, the blurrings between choreographer and dancer, artist and technology, the autobiographical impulse, the existential moment that took us off the map.

The MAP Symposium, curators Vicki Fairfax, Erin Brannigan, The Bagging Room, C.U.B. Malthouse, Melbourne, July 25 – 26

RealTime issue #27 Oct-Nov 1998 pg. 7-8

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 October 1998
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