words for the time being

virginia baxter: russell dumas, huit à huit—dance for the time being

“THIS IS NOT CONTEMPORARY DANCE”, INSISTS RUSSELL DUMAS IN THE MINI-MANIFESTO THAT ACCOMPANIES HUIT À HUIT—DANCE FOR THE TIME BEING, HIS DURATIONAL PERFORMANCE WORK CREATED WITH 13 DANCERS IN THE STUDIO AT DANCEHOUSE. “MODERN AND POST MODERN DANCE ARE DEAD. SINCE THE LATE 1960S CONTEMPORARY DANCE HAS BEEN THE ‘BLACK BOX’ THAT RECORDS, BURIES AND RESURRECTS THE DISASTER.”

We enter said black box at the centre of which is a narrow table, along its length a collection of perhaps one hundred small pinched red clay figurines, some glazed, some not. The rudimentary shapes each crafted by Dumas suggest a grand gathering, or simply a continuum. Audience members are invited to create their own lighting for the display from a console in the corner.

Next, in an anteroom as we wait to enter the live performance upstairs, we sip green tea and watch videos of an earlier series of works in which Dumas invited a number of artists to edit footage of his work with dancers Nick Sabel and Josephine McKendry.

Finally, we tiptoe into the sunlit studio. The usher’s voice momentarily interrupts the pious hush of the gathering crowd. We have entered the rarefied world of Russell Dumas and his dancers in which “dance is not a language.” I put aside my little notebook and decide to test memory.

A lot happens over the next 80 minutes. Writing about it induces a sort of poetic wash of words: hands splay, feet grip, hips lift, twist then soundlessly fall…wordless weight shifting. Simple description also falls short: Three young male dancers balance in unison. In the larger groupings, 13 at one point, attention shifts more markedly to the room and its capacity to hold, its length and depth, corners, the distance between walls. Patterns are repeated and we realize after 50 minutes that we’re involved in a choreographic loop.

Should I upset the applecart and venture the reductive? The dancers avoid eye contact but if you’re quick you can catch the small facial movements as they evaluate distance and risk. The name of the game for the Dumas dancer is to carry out the task at hand, pure and simple but I swear I caught flashes of virtuosity and pleasure at just how elegantly a limb can extend at full stretch. Thankfully, hints of personality (Ms Green Nickers!) diverting assuredness (Ms Red Hair!) can’t help but break through the most undemonstrative of sequences. And I know “the concept of provenance is contentious” but at times I’m reminded of courtly or even ballroom dancing. And I won’t even go into the pleasure I took in being reminded of these movements later that night while watching something of the same bodily fine-tuning put to theatrical use in a male pas de deux in Splintergroup’s Roadkill. Perhaps I’d be safer with seductive? When I’m not absorbed in the movement, I begin to imagine my own body going through these motions. Watching the couplings as they explore how tangled you can become in another’s limbs and still not lose yourself, how that playful balance might be achieved, how two bodies might be better than one or how we all are at least two in one.

Perhaps dancer Josephine McKendry, who’s quoted in the program, knows best: “If there is a gap between perching ‘up here’ and looking ‘down there’, if there is a lapse between my body and the instruction it accepts, I might find or feign those gaps and lapses. If I were to give it a colour, it would be red. But how should I even know that much about it.” (Blue Palm/White Lies, 1989)

I’m no closer to a solution to my writing dilemma, when suddenly from the auditorium comes the beeping of a timer. The master holding the timepiece deems time is up and sends the dancers off to rest. When they return in 10 minutes time, they’ll take up where they left off and so the loop will run its course, audiences changing shifts. As we get up to leave I feel as if I have performed another of my subtle roles in the history of Russell Dumas’ “embodied practice.” Having admired the work of Dumas, his dancers and collaborators over the years, I know I’ll hold the memory of this room, this quiet, these bodies lifting and lightly touching down until the next time I’m invited to take up where I left off. I’m hoping it will be Dumas’ new work (“with thanks to Jonathan Sinatra for the concept”), a reality TV series, “So You Think You Can Walk.” I might even join in.

Afterwards, we talk with friends and while they’re fresh in our minds we re-constitute the moments of beauty that have touched us in this Dance for the Time Being. We talk about watching the slow progress of dancing bodies as four rectangles of sunlight moved across the floor on this Friday afternoon in Melbourne, March 6, 2009.

7 March 2009
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