Dance takes on performance

Sarah Miller

Jane Diamond, Cats’n’Dogs

Jane Diamond, Cats’n’Dogs

Jane Diamond, Cats’n’Dogs

I’ve had this creeping feeling over the past few years that the smartest performance work is coming not from a theatre base (physical or otherwise) or even from the visual arts.

It seems to be dance that is taking performance and turning it on its head. Somewhere along the way, some dancers have stopped being dancers or choreographers and become dance artists, much less concerned with step-making and much more with the art of performance. This is not, I stress, a move away from craft but towards it. Of course, it’s not a new move but such work seems increasingly visible, no doubt facilitated by the sophistication of work seen in Australia over the past few years of the calibre of Alain Platel, Kate Champion and Wendy Houstoun for instance. There is far less bleating from mainstream reviewers about whatever happened to ‘real’ dance and much more acceptance of contemporary dance generally. [Not on the east coast. eds.].

The shift is more apparent among more mature artists for whom just possibly the purely physical experience of being a ‘dancer’ may necessarily have had to change. Here in Perth, this shift in focus is experienced increasingly through the work of a small group of dance artists who often work together in various configurations and under different company names. In this emerging body of works, text, light, film, movement, space, sound and bodies collide. There is discernible content. There is humour. There is complexity and contradiction. There is a willingness to experiment. Gone are the vapidly sentimental and earnestly wafting performances of a couple of years back, which just goes to show that if you give artists a bit of time and money to work through stuff and keep developing their practical, conceptual and expressive skills, good work will emerge. This work has an edge and it’s pretty sharp!

A perfect example was Bill Handley’s Cats’n’Dogs, performed by Jane Diamond and presented by ID339 Dancegroup as part of a double bill at PICA earlier this year. Cats’n’Dogs was a wickedly edgy performance teetering on the smart side of madness. Jane Diamond, performing the role of Dulcie, a fanatical AFL coach, hard balled the audience (her team) as she relived her glory days on the field with “Dicko, Crawf and Simon, Mel, Chesty, Wheaties and Brim”, sex in the bunk of the Tasmanian Princess and other extraordinary moments in a life lived for football. Performed fast and hard, this monologue was not a dance piece per se but a glorious moment of vernacular performance, yet I doubt it could have been performed by anyone but a dancer and Diamond made this piece so completely her own. Whilst Dulcie is clearly a heterosexual gal, definitely a woman who loves men, with her football tucked under her shirt like a pregnant belly she conforms to no stereotype unless it is the rapidly disappearing Australian tradition of idiosyncratic characters; a rare experience for middle class Perth in the mid 90s.

Sue Peacock’s Near Enemies, performed by Paul O’Sullivan, Sete Tele, Shelly Marsden and Sue Peacock, made up the other part of the bill. This was a far less resolved and more rambling work which nevertheless tightened up dramatically over the course of the season. Performed in a cabaret set-up with a smoky late night dive atmosphere, this meticulously performed work stretched to achieve a level of theatricality that it never quite attained. Drawing on everything from stand-up to conjuring tricks to flash tango numbers and even a gangster shoot out and quieter more romantic moments, Near Enemies is much more a work in the making. Hopefully it will get the time it deserves to develop further.

Paul O’Sullivan returned to PICA in April with his most recent solo show, Anomalies, with dramaturgy by Sally Richardson and movement direction by Sue Peacock. Paul is an amazingly relaxed performer who effortlessly creates an atmosphere of intimate domesticity as he asks the really big questions: “why is the ocean so full of sea sponges?” and “are aliens real?” In Anomalies Paul stretched himself beyond what might have easily slipped into a too cosy retreat into the domestic to comment on our contemporary moment. In this case, to expand a statement made by a visiting alien that “what impressed him most about humanity was that it seemed we were at our best when things are at their worst.” Paul went on to ask whether the converse may also be true. “Can we be at our worst when we have very little to complain about?” This was a genuinely interesting piece of work, however the moment he donned a pair of black rimmed specs complete with fake fleshy nose to become a stuttering John Howard, incapable of saying sorry, it flashed into brilliance. The everyday suddenly transmogrified into an entirely more sinister experience.

Most recently, Company Loaded returned to PICA to present 3 works in progress. This company was conceived by Stefan Karlsson and Margrete Helgeby to provide a vehicle for mature dancers working with a wide range of choreographers. For Project One (their second project) the choreographers were Stefan Karlsson, Sue Peacock (working with theatre director Sally Richardson) and Lucy Guerin. Joining the choreographers were dancers Claudia Alessi, Paul O’Sullivan, Sete Tele and Margrete Helgeby who had to withdraw from the programme due to injury and was replaced by Shannon Bott.

This was an interesting programme which at times indicated that an increasing theatricality or use of text is neither necessarily nor inevitably desirable. This was particularly apparent in the work of Richardson whose use of cut-up bits of Shakespeare was infinitely literal and often naff. Mind you, it’s always tricky talking about works in progress given that what you see at such an early stage may have little or nothing to do with the end product. Karlsson’s contribution was by far his most mature choreographic effort to date. This was the most complete work on the night and was beautifully performed by the 3 male dancers. While working with a quite conventional vocabulary it was complemented by a great sound work by composer Cat Hope and lighting by Mark Howett, who did a beautiful job lighting the entire program. Lucy Guerin’s contribution made no attempt to present itself as a resolved or finished work and, perhaps perversely, I found it the most satisfying and complex. The concluding contact-inspired trio between Alessi, Tele and O’Sullivan was just extraordinary.

It would be nice to take for granted [sic] that all these artists will get the opportunity to keep working and developing. Of course, now that they’re mere ‘hobbyists’ as opposed to professional artists, life is likely to become even more difficult than it has been to date. Never mind the tall poppy syndrome, we seem to want to mow down even the modest sized daisies.

Cats’n’Dogs and Near Enemies, ID339, PICA, Perth, February 17-27; Anomalies, Paul O’Sullivan, PICA, April 6-16; Project One, Company Loaded, PICA, May 4-6

RealTime issue #37 June-July 2000 pg. 7

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

1 June 2000