Dancing in the dark

Rachel Fensham braves the black holes of Next Wave’s dance program

Next Wave—festival of manifestoes, words not spoken and visions splendid—occupies a place in the nightworld. Time spent in the darkness of travelling, waiting and watching. I sit until the shape-shifters emerge and shake, blur and stop; this nocturnal in-and-out is unsettling. It is meant to be.

When the organisers of Melbourne’s biennial festival of young and emerging artists (born-again from a youth arts event) invited proposals for their performance program, apart from Brisbane’s Kooemba Jdarra (not covered here), they ended up with dance collaborations. So my black nights were spent in the following black holes.

It began with Character X, asking its audience: “What sort of information do you need to make a place for something to happen” (program notes). A character without a narrative is a distinct possibility (let’s not forget Pirandello) but what does a character “without context and meaning” look like? When five women arrive in Shelley Lasica’s alien nowhere, they have become silver clones—I think of them as lunar worms—twisting through the hips a half turn and a hold. Later, when dressed in the extravagant pink and purple fake fur of designer Kathy Temin, they travel as a protean clump before becoming a series of jesters, clowning in bonnets, boas and booties. The comic possibilities of this costume disrupt the previously languorous dancing but I would have liked more. Between desultory solos and nurturing group exercises, the collective dynamic loses energy with the sparkling exception of Lasica and Sandra Parker becoming a polyp—a jelly of bodies cowering and covering itself with tentacular limbs. Character X evokes a longing for a vaguely feminine utopia/

In Josie Daw’s Downloading the dance floor is an archaeological site; a place for retrieving knowledges embedded in books as well as the formal logics of gestural repetition. The set is littered with piles and platforms of books, frames and pedestals of books and a wide armchair lovingly made of books. The performers traverse with their noses pressed to the page; silhouettes of steps become bookmarks; a Chinese whisper of personal signatures coils its way around the bindings; a duel is fought with books as swords. Codes accumulate in the clash of dance styles, literal objects and improvised sound but the messages don’t transfer from one labouring body to another spectating.

At the door of Help—Multi-Dimensional Performance Enhancer, a lady in fluorescent tights gives me my 3D glasses and invites me to relax. Super-saturated landscapes illuminate horned androids whose plastic skins slide through fern gullies, oceans and psychedelia. There is a powerfully receding doorway—a gate into, a hallway, a courtyard, a corridor whose shadows hover at the edge of perception. These dancers are crystalline, bubbles of physical energy whose outlines dissolve into colour. For Cazerine Barry and Tao Weis et al ‘the magnet of curiosity’ reside in the kinetic arts of technology absorbing human materiality. In a majestic emerald rainforest where trees hover and glow, lines become zigzag and bodies climb into the picture. A harmonising of powers that reproduces another utopian, if more cosmic, vision.

I don’t know whether Grind is quite the word for the onslaught of raw adolescent energy generated by the Stompin Youth Dance Company in the concrete bowels of a decommissioned power station. This was the only performance one might seriously label ‘youth’ and for the two teenage girls accompanying me it was the ultimate expression of the desire to dance. Thirty blue and red corpuscles bump against walls and slink through bursting arteries of human movement. The non-stop gang rhythms of running, shaking, posing, moshing, flipping, looking-in or looking-out displayed only passion and commitment. Jerril Rechter, the Launceston choreographer/co-ordinator has achieved a remarkable feat of disciplining techno culture for a refreshingly ordinary group of kids—guys in glasses, girls of all shapes and sizes—into an aesthetic event whose terrifying sexuality you can’t help but latch on to, even if it does nearly land in your lap.

By way of contrast, Rub the Angel is an ethereal world of scrim and pale tarquette; suspended in a harness is Barbie, of blond hair and stiffened limbs. A bonanza of visual images melts into a wrap-around of clouds, waves and sunsets—nature still a favourite signifier of transcendence. The mannequin rocks back and forth until she drops close enough to the floor to begin crawling. The video shows a child’s nursery looking out from her cot, the arms reaching towards her, the handle of the closing door. The girl lets us know she wants to fly and fly she does, over the rooftops, over suburbia, into the playground where children throw tan bark at her, fleeing down an avenue of trees until nothing. Her hair is pulled off and she is flesh-coloured plastic all over. Human semblance gone, she jerks and slaps herself, fingers up her crotch, hand in mouth, legs pulled apart, doll’s arms bent at the elbows, fondling and pushing hands away. A mother’s skirt and hands appear reaching towards her and a blood-red light absorbs the image of her bed. Julia McDonald calls her dance-image-making ‘flight paths’ in which she wants to set her audience free with a metamorphosis. And whilst I travelled with this toy ‘angel’ into her bad dreams and fantasies—red velvet theatre seats, fairgrounds and knights in shining armour—something very strange happened when she decided there was nothing more to fear. From under the mat arrived a Man, who unwrapped her real hair, caressed her, climbed up ladders into the sky with her, fell into bed with her and then walked into the sunset with her. With Her, ‘growing up’ was a Hollywood romance and not the sordid terror of the girl-doll after all.

Black coat, cold night, black cat, night cat—we leave Next Wave and go for a drink where another dance event is happening. Some Deakin graduates have initiated their own season in a nightclub. Mafiosi inhabit the underworld of violence and late-night bars, drinking and fast footwork; watching the clock and greasing the palms. The five female gangsters enter—dropped shoulders, a curve in the lower spine, a shuffling walk—and move to the bar. There is the ritual of sitting down—slide the head to check out the room; brush off the stool, step to one side; bend back and land on the seat, lean on the counter, skol the drink, slide the head and scan the room again, laugh—it’s their world. We sip red wine in the low lights and keep our eyes on the spiders crossing the floor. Has all this dance really been dangerous?

RealTime issue #14 Aug-Sept 1996 pg. 7

© Rachel Fensham; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 August 1996