Dance(r)s with futons

Philipa Rothfield: Ballet Lab, Upholster

Upholster, Ballet Lab’s latest work, has those qualities I have come to identify as typically ‘Phillip Adams.’ First, there is the complex partnering. This form of action is both impersonal in manner and interdependent in terms of body mass, obviously requiring input from the performers in the development of the choreography. I rarely tire of watching these activities because they are often surprising and intricate. Then there are the weird dances: waltzes, mazurkas and polkas that twirl and weave through space. These compositions exhibit the traces of ballet, as remembered perhaps in an acid flashback: time is collapsed, heterosexuality decentred, no smiles, just an ironic twist. Both these styles lend themselves to large group work.

Upholster has 7 performers. The piece is divided into 2 Acts—Renovate and Upholster. Renovate is more episodic than connected, purporting a “dystopic Kama Sutra performed on futons.” Naturally Adam’s partnering work was well suited to the convolutions of coital knot-tying. Most of the positions were sexually suggestive, except no-one seemed to have any feeling for anyone else. I guess that’s the dystopic element. I felt a slight sense of the mechanical about these interactions, in that the timing only allowed for a perfunctory shift from one position to the next. Perhaps this is the logic of the orgy—no time for tea and a biscuit, just a quick change of the rubber sheet and onto the next. Nonetheless, the entrance of Erskine, Heaven and Van Dyke (experienced performers) introduced a satirical edge which seemed to subsequently infect all the others. Simple enough, their menage à trois consisted of a “Twister” game involving buttoning each other’s knitwear into a tripartite body.

My favourite section in Act One involved a series of foldings of people and futons, rolling, covering, turning, exposing, conjoining. This worked exceedingly well, for the viewer’s eye was woven into the fabric of the dance, watching the futon fold over a body, and unfold to reveal another. The experience of surface becoming depth, becoming surface again, spoke well to the theme in that upholstery is the process by which the surfaces of furniture are constructed and shaped. On the one hand, it is an interior materiality (stuffing, foam, springs); on the other, it creates surfaces (the final façade).

Act Two was more straightforward and literal. Here, there was a set, a protagonist and a narrative of sorts. Michelle Heaven played a daggy, whimsical character who, like Pinocchio’s dad, made things with her hands. This time, it was the couch that came alive, animated by 2 performers. The ensuing dance with Heaven’s character was really interesting, calling forth imaginative physical solutions to an unusual duet. Like the folding futon section, the interaction with an inanimate but mobile object created stimulating morphologies. Heaven was turned, carried, twisted and transported. Whirling Dervish dances and post-alienation pile ups on the couch in front of the TV followed, leading to the final tableau—love-in between hippie boy and girl— flower power scene of redemption.

Lynton Carr’s vinyl mixes were great, including modern and classical moments. There were also some good atmospherics leading up to the last scene. Overall, Upholster was very rich in movement terms, obviously the result of a great deal of creative work. It was also fun. Thematically, I’d question the role of upholstery. If it was as inspiration for the design elements of the piece, the objects to be played with and the costumes, it played its part. What it didn’t do enough is investigate the nature of upholstery which, like flesh, covers bones, shapes bodies, yields to the touch. Can we think of human bodies as upholstered objects? There was an inkling of these issues in the folding futons section. There are also connections to be made between the wrapping of bodies and the wrapping of furniture. I also felt, perhaps mistakenly, that the Kama Sutra theme, and its decorative Hindu arm gestures, was a bit of an add-on, to give an exotic flavour to the whole. Because I saw it as more superficial than integral, I felt there was an element of “Orientalism” here, use of the exotic other to reflect western ethnocentric concerns, rather than as an engagement with that other.

Upholster covers a lot of ground. It is intricate and detailed, manifesting Phillip Adam’s deep-seated interest in design (see RT#37). While hinting at the conceptual grounds of upholstery, it weaves an aesthetic web. On the surface, beneath the surface, questions are covered over, but they are there to be discerned as the work unfolds.

Upholster, Ballet Lab, choreographer Phillip Adams, dancers Michelle Heaven, Gerard Van Dyke, Stephanie Lake, Shona Erskine, Brooke Stamp, Ryan Lowe, Kyle Kremerskothen, Athenaeum Theatre II, Melbourne, March 15-25

RealTime issue #43 June-July 2001 pg. 33

© Philipa Rothfield; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 June 2001