awestruck by dance

john bailey: dance in the melbourne festival

If I Sing to You, Deborah Hay Dance Company

If I Sing to You, Deborah Hay Dance Company


From Deborah Hay’s “counter-choreography” to Chunky Move’s literal interrogation of process, the dance works on offer variously deconstructed, reinvented and defied conventional expectations of the form. Of course, frustration as an aesthetic goal has its obvious limitations—in asking an audience to think about dance, the sheer wonder of performance can slip away in favour of a purely intellectual appreciation.


Wendy Houstoun, Desert Island Dances

Wendy Houstoun, Desert Island Dances

wendy houstoun’s desert island dances

The perfect contrast in this sense would be Wendy Houstoun’s coolly rendered Desert Island Dances and the vast, impenetrable Sunstruck by Helen Herbertson and Ben Cobham. Houstoun’s solo performance was an oral meditation on the history of movements she has acquired or been given over her long career, a cerebral exercise which purposefully prevented the audience’s immersion in its physicality by constantly pulling back to discuss it. Sunstruck, on the other hand, was an event of pure dance that challenged its spectators’ ability to rationally understand it, instead creating an intensely overwhelming experience that could not be reduced to words. In this sense, Sunstruck truly merits the term ‘sublime’, a word overused in arts writing and seldom deserved.

Houstoun is a leading artist who has worked with an enviable range of fellow dance- and theatremakers, including Lloyd Newsom’s DV8 and Tim Etchells’ Forced Entertainment. Etchells’ influence is especially evident in Desert Island Dances (and as a side note, it could be argued that Forced Entertainment has been the most profound influence on a massive range of Melbourne theatre at the moment, too). Desert Island Dances relentlessly questions the act of performance-making and liveness; like Forced Entertainment’s Bloody Mess, it attempts to invoke a sense of immediacy and spontaneity while actually maintaining an incredibly tight structure and logic. Houstoun talks her audience through a series of speculative moments: what if this happened? And what if I did this? And what if I then did this? It all seems loose, off-the-cuff, a performance always on the verge of beginning. But in this constant deferral, Desert Island Dances becomes a very cool work. Houstoun appears a fascinating dancer who only occasionally allows us to witness her, well, dancing. Moreover, the restrictions of the work’s solo nature become evident. It’s difficult to create a dialogue around dance-making when there’s only one voice to discuss it.


Two Faced Bastard, Chunky Move

Two Faced Bastard, Chunky Move

Two Faced Bastard, Chunky Move

chunky move’s two faced bastard

Chunky Move’s Two Faced Bastard explores similar territory to far more sophisticated effect. A large playing space is bisected by a curtain of vertical blinds; the audience is split in two, one half on either side. The work we see depends on our placement—on one side an abstract, contemporary dance begins while on the other a panel discussion on performance occurs. There’s a certain bleed between the two from the outset. The gently swaying blinds allow infrequent glimpses of “the other side” while the microphoned forum can be heard in both halves of the space. And soon enough, the collision of worlds becomes more obvious, as performers enter one another’s space and influence their new surroundings. Brian Lipson interrupts dancers to question the meaning of their movements; a relationship begins between dancer Stephanie Lake—who is situated on the “dance” side throughout the performance—and actor/dancer Vincent Crowley, who begins as a pivotal figure on the discussion side.

As things proceed, the engagement becomes more hysterical. At one point performers suit up in robotic battle outfits fashioned from boxes and polystyrene and charge through the curtain to wage war on their counterparts. At another, the audience is offered the chance to cross the stage and see what effect a new perspective will provide. And at no point are the performers able to step offstage; with no wings to speak of leaving the playing space simply means moving into another.

What all of this results in is a wonderfully dialectical form of performance. It is the presentation of conflict—between action and interpretation, dance and theatre, body and mind—which creates a third space of meaning. For much of the work we are acutely aware that we’re missing out on something, that our position only affords access to half of a work. But when, finally, the curtain pulls aside and all of the performers are made visible across the space, we realise that this concealment is itself an integral part of theatre, and that what we have been watching all along has been a single, coherent work, not two distinct productions which intersect at vital points.

Two Faced Bastard’s duality is probably due to the differing interests of its creators—it feels at times to be an exchange between Lucy Guerin’s focus on the moment of dance, on dance as a form of presence, and Gideon Obarzanek’s more conceptual explorations of the framing of works. It’s a deeply intriguing, and often very funny exchange, and it’s also apparent that the performers themselves have been crucial to the formation of the work.


Corridor, Lucy Guerin Inc

Corridor, Lucy Guerin Inc

Corridor, Lucy Guerin Inc

lucy guerin inc’s corridor

Several of Two Faced’s dancers also contributed to Guerin’s Corridor, a work that more closely adheres to the ongoing investigation of the theme of communication which has marked much of the choreographer’s output. Here, it is the way in which movement itself is communicated from one body to the next which is put into relief: set along a narrow strip bordered by an audience row on either side, the dancers ‘pass’ motion to one another in a variety of ways. Instructions are given via microphones, MP3 players, whispers and written text. Spontaneous choreography bounces back and forth along the space as dancers imitate one another’s moves; and the signal distortion increases as dissimilar bodies hastily attempt to replicate a particular phrase created by a distant figure.

Like Two Faced Bastard and Desert Island Dances, Corridor is dance about dance, in this case the process of instruction and translation of motion. It also serves up many memorable sequences of actual movement, preventing it from becoming a navel-gazing exercise or a piece which undermines itself in order to provoke. It’s smart, witty and very rewarding.


deborah hay dance company, if i sing to you

Deborah Hay occupies a different stratum entirely: the veteran US choreographer has created a vocabulary of dance that speaks to her contemporaries while remaining utterly distinct. She challenges her subjects to unlearn the inherited movements of their history; to become aware of the body’s momentary existence in any particular spatial and temporal environment; and to respond to the cues sent by this body in every instance. Hers is a kind of cellular choreography, and she asks her dancers to try to sense the signals of the trillions of cells which make up a single human figure. She has written extensively of her craft, and the writing is often obtuse and provocative in its esoteric nature. But it was a privilege to witness Hay’s theories in action, and If I Sing to You is a difficult but unforgettable experience.

The six dancers themselves appear a kind of sluggish organism as the work commences. It’s hard to delimit a particular starting point as they stand vacantly while the audience take their seats, and no conventional cues—the dimming of house lights, for instance—occur to mark off the performance. They stand closely, swaying slightly, surveying their surroundings. We are not watching six bodies performing. We are watching bodies ageing, evolving, existing. They may make noises. They may shift a foot, or lean, or react to another’s leaning. They are listening and watching.

Over the next hour, these dancers don’t dance. At least not in a recognisable sense—there is much movement, but it is startling in its unexpectedness. As trained performers, of course, these movements are not naïve, but are instead a kind of physical version of the negative space of visual art, the physicality that is made absent by choreographic convention. Hay forces her audience to think about dance not by telling us to do so—as does Houstoun’s work—or by explicitly exploring the problematics of thinking about dance, in the way that Chunky Move succeeded in doing. Hay simply does something so different that one’s preconceptions need revising.

If I Sing to You’s dancers are all female but decide upon the gender of their performance shortly before it begins. Some will dress in male attire if they choose, and the result will apparently affect the dynamics of the performance. Apart from a hilariously oversexed routine in which a facially-haired performer indulged in some animalistic thrusting, this conceit didn’t really contribute much to the performance I witnessed. This is a minor quibble, however. For a newcomer to Hay’s work, this piece was confounding, brilliant and impossible, without any dressings.


helen herbertson & ben cobham, sunstruck

And so to Sunstruck. In a gigantic, pitch-black warehouse in a remote area of Melbourne’s Docklands huddled a ring of chairs. Two dancers moved around the space. A lofty golden light on a rail-track circled behind us, casting luminescence and shadow upon the pair. It was a sun; we watched a world. The shifting light made shadows dance, evoking planetary cycles, a human sundial or shifting continents. There was no context, no explanation, but this interpretive openness conjured up uncountable possibilities. The two performers presented a rich contrast, Trevor Patrick a brittle, pointed form to the earthy muscularity of Nick Sommerville.

After the many, often successful choreographic experiments of the 2008 MIAF, Sunstruck alone seemed to genuinely achieve that daggy, old-fashioned result so rarely sought these days—theatrical magic, and the sheer wonder of the living body.

Melbourne International Arts Festival: Desert Island Dances, devisor-performer Wendy Houstoun in collaboration with John Avery, music John Avery, lighting Nigel Edwards, Arts Centre, Oct 9-13; Chunky Move, Two Faced Bastard, direction, choreography Gideon Obarzanek, Lucy Guerin, performers Vincent Crowley, Antony Hamilton, Michelle Heaven, Stephanie Lake, Brian Lipson, Byron Perry, Lee Serle, design Ralph Myers, lighting Philip Lethlean, costumes Paula Levis, composer Darrin Verhagen, Arts House, Meat Market, Oct 8-12; Lucy Guerin Inc, Corridor, choreography Lucy Guerin, performers Sara Black, Antony Hamilton, Kirstie McCracken, Byron Perry, Harriet Ritchie, Lee Serle, sound design Haco, set design donald Holt, lighting Keith Tucker, costumes Paula Levis, Susie Gerraty, Arts House, Meat Market, Oct 16-25; Deborah Hay Dance Company, If I Sing to You, choreography, direction Deborah Hay, performers Michelle Boulé, Jeanine During, Catherine Legrand, Juliette Mapp, Chrysa Parkinson, Amelia Reeber, Malthouse, Oct 19-21, Sunstruck, by Helen Herbertson, Ben Cobham, director Helen Herbertson, performers Trevor Patrick, Nick Sommerville, design, lighting Bluebottle, Ben Cobham, set realisation Alan Robertson, soundscape Livia Ruzic, music Tamil Rogeon, Tim Blake. Shed 4, North Wharf Road, Docklands, Oct 13-18

RealTime issue #88 Dec-Jan 2008 pg. 2

© John Bailey; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 December 2008