Between representation and the real

Margaret Trail enjoys and worries at Mixed Metaphor 96

Mixed Metaphor 96 at Dancehouse presents “new collaborative works blurring the boundaries between movement, text, image and sound.”

Week One. I take my seat. A woman appears to be asleep on a pile of mattresses. The Princess and the Pea? But then the lights go down. In Now I lay me… Rochelle Carmichael and Kerrie Murphy evoke the thousand moments of a single night; the conscious, dreaming and twilight states as well as the nightmare of sleeplessness. Carmichael’s dance is at moments contorted, animal-like, a St Vitus’ dance displaying the ritual behaviours of autism. My fascination with this psychosis however is repeatedly interrupted by the need to make sense of narrative signs, such as, when Carmichael caricatures frustration. Thereafter the dancer becomes a character and I flounder in the attempt to force other images into the service of a story—and fail.

Upstairs to Tongue Fence by Entropy Productions. Ushered along a corridor towards a hideous cacophony and smoke. I love the terror/wonder when conventions of entering the theatre are altered. Around and through a rough assemblage of black plastic screens mayhem can be glimpsed. The noise is glorious. Instruments careen across the room, a cellist shrieks, dancers move past in formation, a digital clock blinks, a TV hisses. I am wide awake and listening, what does this chaos mean in 1996?

My eye is drawn by emerging patterns—I notice the noise-makers with one exception are male, the dancers female; the young men’s faces are unpainted, the young women’s nicely made up and hair gelled. My euphoria deflates. Given the evidence of such marked and traditional theatrical conventions, I doubt a radical performance analysis is at work. The challenge of this event begins to look merely like performers’ pleasure. Disappointed, I was ready to participate but am left feeing a witness, a mother.

Back downstairs, in An-Alice-is by Strange Arrangements, the unconscious unfolds again. This time in homage to the great explorers of that realm: Freud, the surrealists and Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll). Nigel Luck and Janet Lee, doll-like automata inhabit a space of shadows and eerie projections. They speak in monologues, using linguistic and conceptual trickery to illuminate relationships between concrete logic and the unconscious. I feel as if I am looking at a picture box containing revelations quaintly dated by this mode of narration, and better suited to a time now gutted by two world wars and television.

Week Two. The Last Gasp directed by Rinske Ginsberg, affectionately investigates popular culture of the nineteen forties, especially the place of the cigarette. All those lovely gestures, the inhalation and the ex, the very breath, the heaving bosom and the manly chest; camp in their consummate heterosexuality. The smoke is the only fluid sign in an otherwise controlled and vertical physicality. Snippets of film dialogue and popular song move in and out of synch with the human interactions. I am happiest in the disconnected moments. The multifaceted images are perfectly observed, slipping me into some other, darker, sweating place, inside a tiny puff, a slow blow or a hooded glance (surely, straight at me).

In Holiday on Death Row by Stride, text by Roger McGough, a heterosexual theme continues in a different style. Moving fluidly between dance and word sequences, Nicky Smith has skilfully directed this tawdry evocation of sexual frustration. The confident acting of Justin Radcliffe and Emma Stend brings with it the attendant problem of the ‘is it believable?’ kind. Increasingly I struggle with the premise that these young, perfectly formed bodies are mired in a hopeless suburban scenario where husband wants a root, wife wants a life. The final sequence is like a real-time Calvin Klein ad and although a delicious spectacle, I cannot reconcile it with the text. My tentative belief that dysfunctional heterosexuality is a problem of the suburban middle class is scuppered. Or am I being asked to consider the reified sexuality of advertising as a transcendence of the old brutalities of heterosexual sex?

From het-glamour to het-horror, we swing into the home straight for Elemental. Part one, a gambolling dance about life in a group house. Probably Carlton in one of those big terraces with about forty leaking rooms. The dance is loose and weighty, choreographed sequences moving from rough coherence to pleasant and jumbly. I have lived in houses where we moved like that. In the moments of not-dancing, the performers seem shy and hesitant and I lose focus or watch the sustained concentration of musicians. I wonder why they include these moments? Perhaps the acting genie appeared in rehearsal and the performers nervously obeyed her commands?

I am struck by the role of acting in all six works, which seems to have appeared as a result of formal decisions rather than as primary mode of expression. In experienced hands, as in The Last Gasp, this can be revelatory, where acting marks a weird place between representation and the real. But elsewhere the acting genie’s henchpixies—character, narrative, and suspension of disbelief—have thrown down the gauntlet to these artists who dared to summon them in the powerful spell of blurring boundaries.

Mixed Metaphor 96, Dancehouse, Centre for Moving Arts, Melbourne, June 20-30

RealTime issue #14 Aug-Sept 1996 pg. 37

© Margaret Traill; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 August 1996