Art & the world: a question

Sarah Miller: Perth dance

Survival of the Species: Something’s Got to Give

Survival of the Species: Something’s Got to Give

Survival of the Species—now there’s a topical title—is a comment not only on the parlous living and working conditions of most dance artists in this country but also on the means by which a species reproduces itself, in this case mating rituals and relationships.

Context of course is everything. Like many people, I find myself struggling, in the wake of terrorism, war, the refugee crisis, elections and so on, to find meaning and relevance in the art that I view. So, is my disappointment with these works a matter of bad timing or something else? Confronted by so much trauma and loss of life across the globe, doesn’t the term survival take on a much more compelling edge? And conversely, shouldn’t it be possible to enjoy the sheer escapism of work that plays with flirtation, sexuality and the moody ambience of a smoky New York jazz club where the women are sinful and the men are dangerous?

That should be the case but in Something’s Got to Give, by Paul O’Sullivan, it’s hard to see these dancers as the epitome of a get down and dirty sexuality. While the men strut for the wrong women, and the women only have eyes for the posturings of the wrong man, the choreography is polite and the dancing tentative. The cut and thrust of an urgent sexuality suggested by the design and soundtrack gives way to careful phrases that stop just before the end of each bar. The dancing is so cautious in some instances that I start to worry about injuries.

Visually, Something’s Got to Give strongly references film noir. The design is darkly atmospheric, utilising blackness, slivers of white light and projected (uninteresting) reversed black and white images. The moodiness is complemented by the soundtrack, particularly Ennio Morricone’s Peur sur la Ville, so evocative of the aforementioned jazz dive that when the choreography shifts from sexual strut to adolescent push and shove—slap and tickle—either I completely miss the point or the work completely loses the plot.

O’Sullivan’s previous works have been beautifully controlled, self-devised solos that utilise his quirky sense of humour, idiosyncratic take on life and beautifully relaxed and loose limbed dancing. It was precisely these qualities that were missing in this project. I’m very familiar with the dancing of all these performers so it was disappointing that their performances were cartoonish rather than modulated, never moving beyond their respective comfort zones. O’Sullivan has yet to find a way of imparting his aesthetic and direction onto other bodies.

Sue Peacock’s Tempting Fate is a development from an earlier work, Near Enemies, and, as might be expected from this more experienced choreographer, is confident, taking choreographic risks that result in engaged performances. The design relied heavily on projected images of old 50s movie posters with Bette Davis, Doris Day and Robert Vaughan in hysterical technicolour. Equally filmic in its references, and with a strong musical through line from the soundtrack of David Lynch’s Lost Highway this project begins with a seemingly fatal shooting and explores various alternate scenarios from the dancepoint of the individual performers.

Throughout this piece a couple, Peacock and Bill Handley, come and go, occasionally discovered in a passionate embrace, sometimes just moving through the work, but at all times oblivious to the world of the other dancers. The highlight is a performative duet between the 2 with Peacock playing straight woman to Handley’s absurdity. I have no idea what it means. It is very silly but very satisfying. Handley, wearing his suit jacket like an apron, a hanky on his head topped by a small black hat, shuffles a reference to soft-shoe and party magicians, occasionally exposing his bare white buttocks to the audience. Of all the filmic references, Handley’s absurd physicality is by far the most effective, being less literal, more lateral, and highly evocative of those physical comedy greats Groucho Marx and Buster Keaton.

In the end, however, for this particular species to survive, there has to be a lot more risk and I suspect a lot more understanding of capital A art and how it might engage with the world. The relationship of film to live performance is particularly fraught. For most people, even a bad film is more compelling than a live performance. Consequently, dance artists need to be asking more questions and taking less for granted when it comes to putting steps with narrative and exploring form, structure and design. To do so, however, takes sustained development time. Given the vagaries of funding and the current political climate, nothing seems less likely.

Survival of the Species: Something’s Got to Give, choreographer Paul O’Sullivan, dancers Stefan Karlsson, Olivia Millard, Sue Peacock, & Sete Tele; Tempting Fate, choreographer Sue Peacock, dancers Claudia Alessi, Bill Handley, Olivia Millard, Sete Tele & Sue Peacock, lighting Andrew Lake, photography Ashley de Prazer & Graeme Macleod, Playhouse Theatre, Perth, Nov 1-3

RealTime issue #46 Dec-Jan 2001 pg. 28

© Sarah Miller; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 December 2001