balletlab: into the otherness

varia karipoff: interview, phillip adams, brooke stamp

Matthew Day, Rennie McDougall, Deanne Butterworth, And All Things Return to Nature Tomorrow, Luxembourg residency, Trois C-L, 2012, choreographer Brooke Stamp

Matthew Day, Rennie McDougall, Deanne Butterworth, And All Things Return to Nature Tomorrow, Luxembourg residency, Trois C-L, 2012, choreographer Brooke Stamp

Matthew Day, Rennie McDougall, Deanne Butterworth, And All Things Return to Nature Tomorrow, Luxembourg residency, Trois C-L, 2012, choreographer Brooke Stamp

CONCRETE MIXERS DESCEND FROM THE CEILING. DECORATED WITH LIGHTS, THEIR BARRELS SPIN HYPNOTICALLY OVER THE NAKED PERFORMERS. THE SPACE IS INVADED. TOMORROW—THE SECOND PART OF BALLETLAB’S NEW DOUBLE BILL, AND ALL THINGS RETURN TO NATURE TOMORROW—ENDS WITH A UFO ENCOUNTER.

BalletLab’s Artistic Director and choreographer, Phillip Adams is unapologetic about his Spielbergian ‘Hollywood ending’ impulses. “It’s pseudo sci-fi meets kiddie pop,” he says, half-seriously. He is not afraid “to take the bullet” for being on the frontline of dance. “Failing is how you succeed. Somehow we land in our next stage of history,” he says. BalletLab, he explains is on the periphery of Australian dance while being squarely in the middle of it.

Responding to the end of postmodern irony and a return to the utopian impulse to build, BalletLab’s new work has been two years in the making and has covered some serious air miles. There were Adams’ experiences with rednecks and hippies in the Mars-like landscape of the Mojave Desert, and the company’s dance residency in Luxembourg. Underpinning the new work by long-term associates Adams and Brooke Stamp are concepts of utopia. Adams draws on utopian architecture including Frank Lloyd Wright and Paolo Soleri’s Acrosanti [an experimental town in the desert embodying the fusion of architecture and ecology]. Stamp takes a more temporal view. It has been 14 years since they came together, and while the pieces in the double bill are as thematically and tonally distinct as could be imagined, a “common energy and interest in the space” unites the experience, says Adams.

In Stamp’s first choreographic outing for the company, utopia is represented by creating spaces where dance is collectively improvised. Her ethereal work, And all things return to nature, draws on systems of improvisation that she has developed for “responding to sound or text, including philosophical texts.” For this piece, Indigenous Australian cosmology played a pivotal role. The Dreamtime is a description of cosmogenesis with Stamp elaborating on both mythology and science to investigate kinetically charged sound.

The work incorporates recordings by Garth Paine which act in a way to “sound the planets into being.” The Big Bang is said to have been a bass hum rather than an explosion. Physicist and author Frank Wilczek attempts to explain this “never-ending hum of the universal sounding board that permeates the universe” as the “relic of the primordial big bang” in his 1988 book Longing for Harmonies. Curiously, scientists who investigate physics and chemistry find a strong resonance with the ordered nature of music.

Deanne Butterworth, Rennie McDougall, Matthew Day (rear), Tomorrow, development at Abbotsford Convent, 2012, choreographer Phillip Adams

Deanne Butterworth, Rennie McDougall, Matthew Day (rear), Tomorrow, development at Abbotsford Convent, 2012, choreographer Phillip Adams

Deanne Butterworth, Rennie McDougall, Matthew Day (rear), Tomorrow, development at Abbotsford Convent, 2012, choreographer Phillip Adams

Eight channel speakers will bathe the audience in this energy, “activating” them. Stamp tunes into the vibrational hum of the universe to describe the nature of ‘being.’ Her fascination with these themes is most personally expressed when she says that when all else fails, the movement of the universe is one thing she has to fall back on. Asked about both choreographing and performing in her own piece, Stamp explains that it was a way she could embody herself in the same discourse, experiments, language and “field of connectivity through concepts of frequency and vibration.” It was also a way of removing the hierarchy between choreographer and performer. Adams proudly heralds the emerging choreographer’s work as “out on the regions of the galactical/experiential space,” which radically complements his own work.

A preoccupation with sound is also evident in Adams’ piece, manifest in terms of Paine’s experimental music and the choreographer’s inspirational visit to George Van Tassel’s “acoustically perfect tabernacle” and alien altar, the Integratron. Van Tassel was an aeronautical engineer and test pilot alongside Howard Hughes. He began building the structure in 1954 as a place for rejuvenation and meditation (after being spurred on by several encounters with aliens). Wires and strings underneath the building suspend and hold it together—“it’s an acoustic machine that traps energy,” Adams explains. A recording session at the space took advantage of the acoustics; blankets were moved around the room and these sounds feature in the piece.

Standing in the Mojave Desert the domed structure had an immediate effect on Adams as a work of art. Sound baths, healing crystals and “crunchy granola [hippy] types” also offered the right creative fodder for Adams who has previously looked at Australian suburban noir in Axeman Lullaby (2008) and radical 60s and 70s religious groups in Miracle (2011). Adams’ Tomorrow is a reconstruction of his experiences in the desert, including an installation created in situ by architect Matthew Bird and an encounter with gun-toting but friendly ‘white trash’ whose timely arrival coincided with Adams’ responding to the landscape by lying naked near the site of a UFO landing.

Adams has an eagerness to relay his findings, to bare himself and ask the audience to participate in an experience. Seating has been reconfigured around the performers in a circle. What Adams and Stamp both ask is for audience surrender—to sound or to rapturous abduction. Adams is also recognised as a creator of immersive performances, aided by collaboration. “My architect, sound designer and my lighting designer are choreographers”—while Adams takes on their roles. “It gets that deep and I think that has been BalletLab’s defining motif.”

Stamp is both a disciple of and an inspiration to Adams and has followed suit in embracing collaborative processes. Working with MATERIALBYPRODUCT designer Susan Dimasi on sublime hand-painted costumes earned the new show a spot on the Melbourne Fashion Festival calendar. In Dimasi Stamp found someone who worked on her level “where [we’d] have a dialogue about language and sound” or watch the dancers instead of prescribing what the costumes should look like. Dimasi is interested in the constant evolution of the garment through a dancer’s movement and the tears and sweat that alter them.

Adams’ Tomorrow lacks clothing, instead featuring a futuristic woven blanket—created by Dimasi after seeing Matthew Bird’s installation in the desert—which becomes a costume. The naked performers are “designed in the space” by the blanket. It looks painstakingly constructed, the strands of coloured fabric both tribal and un-earthly. Similarly, painstaking research and inquiry has gone into the details of this show. Stamp agrees “the depth of research is extreme. It’s where all the ephemeral properties of performance making exist and are never revealed.”

BalletLab, And all things return to nature tomorrow, choreographers Phillip Adams, Brooke Stamp, The Lawlet, Southbank Theatre, Melbourne, March 15-23

RealTime issue #113 Feb-March 2013 pg. 27

© Varia Karipoff; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

25 February 2013