As obvious and forgettable as gravity

Eleanor Brickhill at Green Mill Dance Festival

Susan Leigh Foster recently published an essay entitled “Choreographing History” in which she contemplates the intimate partnership between writing and moving bodies that lies at the foundations of revealed history, both inscribers of and inscribed by culture.

Many performances at the World Dance ’96 conference New Dance From Old Cultures vividly showed that dancers are historical bodies, people whose traditions are deeply etched in their own present personal mobility. Sometimes however, there was an uneasy relationship between individual dancers and the traditions they sought to acknowledge. It’s not as if dancers slide effortlessly through time just by an act of will. More often there is difficulty and loss in the passage. More formal, choreographed references to older traditions sometimes seemed laboured, unformed, or superficial.

Performances by two groups of Aboriginal artists—Ochres (Bangarra Dance Theatre and Yawalyu Women of Lajamanu) and The Opportunity of Distance (Tracks Dance Collective) threw into relief this problematic relationship. We watched the Yawalyu Women in a congenial group, painting each other’s bodies, in slow preparation. Unhurriedly, they shuffled through short phrases of small hitched jumps, their feet shifting as if through dust, not over bare floor boards. They often broke the passages while waiting for each other or the accompanying chants to begin. I had an unusual feeling of never having seen this before, of something genuinely ‘authentic’, unlike my experience of Ochres. The two groups seemed engaged in very different enterprises.

You might imagine the dancers’ movement in Ochres being like an archaeological reconstruction. Tiny washed and polished fragments of material arranged in order, then plastered together with an expanse of late 20th century rendering. The dancers’ bodies bear no resemblance to those of the Yawalyu Women. Having cultivated all the nuances of western dance deportment, they seem like observers of the culture from which the fragments come. Any desire for authenticity on our part could only be hung uneasily on the central Ochres Spirit character, played by Djakapurra Munyarryun who carried the weight of the piece. His cultural responsibility seemed onerous, unlike that of the Yawalyu Women.

Two forums for Asian Pacific performers included International Soloists (Korean Nam Jeong-Ho, Japanese Kazuco Takemoto, Indonesian Martinus Miroto and Australian Sue Healey) and Showcase, highlighting work from six tertiary dance schools, three white Australian, one black Australian, one from Hong Kong and one from Taiwan. If it was momentarily unclear whether the institutions’ works were selected for their differences or similarities (perhaps in some ill-conceived gesture towards multicultural exchange), the fairly blah choreography seemed indisputably a product of identically constructed European syllabuses. It produced a bland, easily practiced, homogenised, institutional kind of dance, which managed to asphyxiate most cultural differences.

The four solos I saw out of six from the International Soloists moved in another direction. Four dancers’ individual histories claimed our focus, their bodies telling very different stories of cultural affiliation and personal growth. Takemoto’s Peace of Mind and Healey’s Zella were both conceived through deeply excavated remembering. Healey’s story of three women, different generations, grew from past to present, her light physical style slipping easily from there to here. “My muscles were talking in tongues, my cells thinking, my skin remembering about something it knew a long time ago… .” Takemoto’s trajectory was less linear, moving deliberately, her thoughts visible and palpable, as she seemed to painstakingly carve herself out of the dense cultural air she breathed. She defined herself as poised, wired, subtle and very clear. Nam Jeong-Ho’s Kasiri was made of softer stuff, a little fog-bound and drifting, but still there was a sense of a journey somewhere, small, inconsequential jobs done, people changing and time passing. In Miroto’s Penumbra, change was more galvanic. With tiny steps, his body swayed, strong and controlled, to a drum beat. Finger and hand gestures had an undulating, spider-like intensity. His feet and legs seemed deeply rooted in the ground. He removed a mask to reveal his own fragile being, but the mask retained its independent persona, something to be reckoned with.

I remember Danceworks’ Descansos—resting places as visually stark and much more than a simple duet (Helen Herbertson and Trevor Patrick). The work created a profound sense of place, given body and depth by the very specifically sculptured and tiered areas. The audience looked down into a dark field where thoughts floated, isolated, disembodied; across a gap into a dim room where a presence wandered. The light fell in certain special ways, passing headlights through a window, sharp-edged slabs lying like a grave, oblique beams, isolated pools perhaps falling on the slow, small shifts in a single dancer’s face or body. Together with lighting designer Ben Cobham and sculptor Simon Barley, director Jenny Kemp has distilled these rarefied images, waking dreams live in these places of meditation.

The imagery of Douglas Wright’s Buried Venus is at first strong and startling, the dancers conveying a pace and tone at once fluid, plaintive, passionate and dangerous. They build a kind of visual anthology of human relationships with many images from other times and other dances. But eventually the theme falls apart under the weight of jumbled associations.

Sexed—Legitimate Images by Bryan Smith also piles up images, ubiquitous and highly cultivated, drawn from every Hollywood movie, soapie and American nightclub fantasy you can think of. Shelley Lasica pouts, drawls, and saunters, long-legged and red lipped, across the stage, dragging classic Monroe/Melrose Place lines in her wake. In the dimly lit territory behind the scrim, a chorus line of disco dolls dance with the demeanour and dress expected at every dance club in town. Sexed says our humanness, from the most profound and fundamental expressions of love and intimacy, is allowed to exist only via narrowly defined precepts formed by the glossed and fired imaginations of a few image-makers. But these legitimate images risk creating the same dead-endedness and predictability which Smith seeks to expose. Unless you already know Smith’s agenda, his commentary might be hard to decipher.

There were many other performances in the Green Mill program, some ‘successful’, others not. But all of them together illuminate us as a cultural species, a fact which is simultaneously as obvious and as forgettable as gravity. Sometimes, however, we are fortunate enough to notice that our perception of reality, even co-existent different realities, our capacity to believe certain things and not others, our judgements, even who and what we love, are all effected through an accumulation of cultural images and texting, from histories present and past, remembered and imagined.

Green Mill Project, Melbourne, July 1-20, 1996

RealTime issue #14 Aug-Sept 1996 pg. 10

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

1 August 1996