A new song and dance

Eleanor Brickhill, Meryl Tankard’s Songs with Mara, Sydney Festival

In a search to develop an expanded awareness of human physicality, many contemporary dance artists find the boundaries of their familiar territory becoming blurred and indistinct, as if the more well practised and known a body’s motions become, the less fertile grounds they are for engendering meaning. Meryl Tankard’s Songs With Mara doesn’t so much blur these bounds as step over them, leaving them largely intact.

Within the series of 16 or more traditional and contemporary Bulgarian songs and instrumental pieces, inspiration for the movement seems to come not so much from the words, which have a simplicity of their own, but from within a compelling unity created by the dense homophonic voices and syncopated instrumental texture.

The first view of the dancers shows the women seated, spaced around an earth strewn stage, some with their own private pool of water at the foot of their chairs. With naked backs to the audience, they are lit as if to suggest an intimate female sensuality. They are still for a long time. Slight measured gestures—fingers at the back of the neck, stroking long hair—might wish to convey hidden sensual depths, but later it is certainly the complex sound textures, the movement of plucked strings and percussion and voices of Mara Kiek and the dancers that are immediately engaging.

Reminiscent of her Pina Bausch experience, Tankard’s Songs With Mara embraces a body image that has a familiar stylised elegance. Lyrical abandon in the upper body and arms, an ingenuous angularity and awkwardness of legs, all enacted with a classically well turned ankle, seems to do for the female image what short black frocks and stilettos have also done. There’s restrained passion conveyed by boundness: knees close together, a motif of hands tied at the wrists, the classic baring of the throat proclaiming vulnerability. Only the movement and weight of long hair expresses escape, tossed in arcs, drenched in the shallow pools, hurling water drops over the stage. These flung trails catch the light, making their own dance.

Choreographically one interesting piece uses a canonic progression, where the women, one by one, start a deceptively simple, imitative sequence of gestures. Travelling across the stage, their movement “voices” come together and separate again in small waves. At the side of the stage the men play a vigorous drumming.

The dancers sometimes enact working or washing motifs, the villagers’ sweat and toil perhaps reflected in the strategic aesthetics of water and earth. Because of the staging of some of the songs, it’s easy to read the role of Mara herself as if she is every rustic Bulgarian village’s wise woman. Her presence seems almost nurturing, setting rhythm and pace for a lot of the action, and as we know many of these performers were not previously skilled singers, their vocal work seems quite special and has enviable richness.

There was evident challenge in presenting both dancers and singers alike in a non-competitive, “communal” tradition. Everyone worked together and often you couldn’t be sure what the performers’ speciality was until their individual expertise was revealed in more virtuosic material. Even so, the worlds remained largely separate. Intimacy and warmth in a smaller venue than the Seymour Centre’s Everest Theatre might have fostered a more complex fusion. The relationship between a highly virtuosic theatrical tradition and the apparently simpler, more ritualised toing and froing of everyday existence was often expressed incongruously in an assumed rusticity and a coyness between the men and women, lying awkwardly with both the plangent vocal technique and more seductive body image.

Meryl Tankard’s Songs Mara, the Sydney Festival

RealTime issue #11 Feb-March 1996 pg. 32

© Eleanor Brickhill; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 February 1996
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