A Melancholy New Dance

Rachel Fensham talks with Gary Rowe, visiting artist at Melbourne’s Dancehouse

Gary Rowe blows on a hand-painted slide in the cavernous reaches of the old Masonic Hall that is Dancehouse in Melbourne and we look for a patch of sun to talk. Rowe, a British artist and performer, is making a new work called Love Song After Death that will premiere here en route to London and Edinburgh.

Rowe combines a background in the visual arts, originally as a painter, with years of work as a dancer. In the 1980s he studied at Dartington College in the UK, an internationally renowned centre for new dance development. Under the visionary Mary Fulkerson, the course encouraged students to think of themselves as artisans—to experiment, make and show their own work. The list of visiting teachers sounds like a roll-call of pioneers of postmodern dance—Steve Paxton, Lisa Nelson, Miranda Tufnell, Laurie Booth, Nancy Topf, Valda Setterfield, Simone Forti, Michael Clark, Richard Alston. Deliberately disoriented, the students had to find their own paths through projects that ranged from social dancing to trapeze or Skinner Release technique. Rowe’s own epiphany came in front of a Mark Rothko painting and he chose to continue a process of choreographic enquiry within the postmodern minimalist tradition.

In its most rigorous form, postmodern dance has relentlessly questioned the vocabularies, frames and artistic functions of dance. Addressing questions to the maker as well as the spectator. The choreographic process is used to test and extend relationships between the visual and the textual, the spatial and the aural. The purpose of art is viewed objectively in contrast to the personal, expressive or spiritual quest and the choreographer’s task is to make patterns of movement articulate and intelligible in very particular ways. Precise, individual offerings of human endeavour are placed inside conundrums of time and space.

Rowe’s first independent work, Eclipse: an Apparition, was shown in a tiny but unusually shaped gallery. Using a grid pattern, he plotted visual and spatial connections for duets between three women. A long and silent work, the bodies violently orbited from the structure before returning to their trajectories. Created with no emotional intent, it held and affected its audience intensely. Subsequently his work has been mainly in the form of site-specific installations combining strong visual images and lighting effects with stylised phrases of movement. In River Crossings, for instance, projected slides from the Queen’s Collection hung like tapestries on the walls of a building. Against a battle scene backdrop and the mixed sounds of water, Ella Fitzgerald and an echo of gunshots, two men danced. Behind them, a woman and a young girl in period costume whipped foils through the air.

Love Song After Death retains a strong visual texture in the slides projected on the wall, objects and bodies. But this time, a text locates an emotional field. Rowe’s autobiographical writing was first reworked by the novelist Peter Slater into fragments of prose. In performance, actor Paul Hampton’s Australian accent distances the identification of the words with a personal self.

Rowe and Alan Widdowson dance duets and solos, hooded and clothed in white. “The invisible man,” laughs Rowe, although the piece peels off the flesh on an emotional world. Perhaps he is the shadow and Alan the angel. The shrouded piano becomes a dream house boarded up with its door unopened. From it emerges the music of Benjamin Britten and Erik Satie—songs of memory and desire. The body is not nude but dissolved, naked in reflected light, a surface for touching, for tattoos and erotic sensation. Addressing both feminine and masculine, the dancer tiptoes across the stage. “I don’t know what those boundaries are,” says Rowe.

It is part memorial—a lover dies, this time of AIDS. The dance is painful—a relentless, physical shuffling. In another room 400 candles floating in wine glasses form a carpet of remembrance. Repetition and stillness inform the work. Freud says that melancholia is the effect of ungrieved loss. Performance is often a problem of unacknowledged loss, both a refusing and an incorporation of the lost figure. Is it also a lament for a positive masculinity, a loss that pervades our culture?

Rowe is grateful for the space, technical and administrative support that Dancehouse has provided for this project. In Britain, as elsewhere, there are fewer opportunities for rigorous investigation of the aesthetics of dance. Popular emphasis on technical prowess is a far cry from the minimal necessities of continuing to say things as an artist, not simply to be a choreographer. Far from home, Gary Rowe has not been distracted and is making another ‘new dance.’

RealTime issue #7 June-July 1995 pg. 23

© Rachel Fensham; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 June 1995