Dancing the road to excess

Jonathan Marshall: balletlab, Fiction; Frances d’Ath, extermination

Frances d'Ath, extermination

Frances d'Ath, extermination

In the 1970s and 80s, theorists such as Jean Baudrillard identified a “crisis of reality”: the death of real authorship, real individual subjectivity, real art, real criticism and real politics. One could no longer reach out and touch the world in a truly meaningful way. Some artists responded by attempting to rekindle reality and affect by searching for some-thing primal, timeless and hard, probing in detail physical sensations and sexual taboos. Others, in the vein of Andy Warhol, revelled in this deathly situation, renouncing “reality” altogether, proclaiming it to be a “fiction” consisting of recurrent motifs, codes and parodic references.

Phillip Adams’ choreography replays these cultural tensions. He has produced intense, cerebral-spiritual works such as Amplification (1999), in which bodies entwined, went splat, were undressed and revealed, before crawling over each other in a coolly extended meditation on the automobile’s terminal eroticism. He has also produced less conceptually deep yet more extravagant performative studies, forged from wondrously random, surreal associations, inspired by props, fabrics and design (Upholster, 2001; Endling, 2002).

Adams’ latest piece, Fiction, represents an attempt to blend these approaches, producing a curious coldness within an ostensibly lightweight parody of Orientalist filmic fantasies. The performers mouth phrases from a bad British comedy of manners before dropping to all fours and arching their backs, evoking a fraught passage across the hot sands of exotic Arabia. The movement itself seesaws between Adams’ typically sharp, bone-crunching and highly interweaving choreography, versus faux Hanya-Holme-esque jazz ballet inspired by Hollywood Orientalist musicals such as Kismet (1944, 1955).

This contrast between Adams’ characteristically visceral physical vocabulary and the cheerful superficiality of the parody is arresting, but Fiction ultimately lacks the crucial element of both Orientalist fiction and Warholesque parody—namely excess: the Technicolor glow of musicals, the extravagantly large casts of Spartacus (1960), Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and the cinema of Cecil B de Mille. To lose oneself in depthless superficiality and derivative art, one requires the orgasmic excess of Warhol’s favourite subject, Marilyn Monroe; an almost sickening profusion of external, sensorial qualities like flesh, colour, lips, pout and voluptuousness. With 6 dancers, no costume changes and subdued, largely front-on lighting, Fiction lacked this overripe gorgeousness.

Frances d’Ath’s extermination was characterised by a comparable stylistic duplicity, featuring violent, ritualistic posing inspired by Baudrillard’s Symbolism, Exchange and Death (1976), set amongst an indiscriminate bricolage of classy design elements and crass cultural references. The piece consisted of various distinct sequences or acts between which performers casually moved. The combination of increasingly extreme imagery with a nonchalant, stop/start execution produced a discomforting sense of both deep, primal violation and unconcerned superficiality. The sexed, fleshy, pulsating, whacking and finally decaying body served as the work’s focus, with these slight female forms being repeatedly adorned, stripped, attacked, defiled and discarded.

The show began with a cool version of a male wet dream—5 lithe, bikini-clad women jumping on the spot—before a phonograph needle was dropped, heavy metal music intruded, and an almost deliberately slapdash, frenetic daisy-chain of crashing torsos ensued. In the first of many such acts, the women undressed and carefully placed their underwear in neat piles at the front of the brightly wallpapered space. Bodies were adorned with 19th century aristocratic costume (including gloves and feathered headpieces) and placed within a rough, semi-improvised, melodramatic tableau of mutual murder. They killed one of their own, stripped her, and harshly probed and tugged at the elasticity of flesh, skin, buttock and mouth, covered her with dirt, and then excavated the scene to produce more forensic castoffs for the forestage (swabs, hair samples, nail clippings, heavy dresses, underwear, spotted bikinis and weapons). Iron spades pushed at teeth before the blood-dripping corpse reanimated itself, standing before the other performers. These murderers are naked from the waist up, wearing long, black dresses, with red stains running from their chins to their waists as testimony to a previous ritual at the ornately carved wooden table at the rear of the space, where bowls of blood were slowly upturned before the mouths of each.

Parallels for d’Ath’s dark, primeval religiosity lie in Hermann Nitsch’s ritualistic body art, while the garish, poppy juxtapositions of these motifs recalled Alejandro Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain (1973) or Melbourne’s Chapel of Change. Indeed, d’Ath’s invocation of Baudrillard’s now 28 year old manifesto on the need for a grotesque, taboo-breaking language allied to death as a strategy for the subversion of all taboos, hierarchies and domination, brought d’Ath’s dramaturgy close to Nitsch’s dated melange of psychoanalysis, Catholic practice and myths of an ancient Dionysian cult. D’Ath’s offhand evocation of these concepts, however, encased within Hamish Bartle’s gorgeous set, ensured that the choreographer’s aesthetic most resembled Jan Fabre’s recent I Am Blood (Melbourne Festival, 2003). Both d’Ath and Fabre alternate between obsessing over bodies and their qualities, and a mystifying inability to hold this concentration before moving on, and then returning to them again.

extermination‘s weakness lay not in referencing the history of performance art, but rather in d’Ath’s ignoring of the gender implications of a work created by a young man sadomasochistically manipulating 5 young, athletic and largely nude women. Rebecca Hilton’s Non-Fiction—which was presented with Adams’ Fiction—can therefore be seen as a riposte to both d’Ath and Adams. Hilton engaged with surfaces in the sense that Non-Fiction revolved around various common cultural tropes of gendered relations and living in close proximity to each other. Fractures of generic physical gestures and commonplace theatrical sequences were repeated, hinting at suburban life. There were sexualised, choreographed couplings, across-the-fence flirtations, and moments of isolated, physical self-withdrawal, both with and without a porn magazine as a prop. This effected a sense of complicated, hothouse melodrama and family romance. Yet by merely sketching these dramas using readily identifiable nuances (rather than by directly parodying them, as Adams did), Hilton created an uncertainty about whether Non-Fiction represented a Chekhovian world of deep, existential longings, or something closer to a montage of populist cinesonic soap operas such as Big Brother or American Beauty.

At one point, Hilton split the dancers on either side of an orange picket fence. On the left, Joanne White sequentially collapsed her body into the venue’s tangerine rear wall. Her robotic execution and the stretched underwear which flashed from beneath her dress recalled the damaged ‘girl-childs’ choreographed by Lucy Guerin, Gideon Obarzanek and Adams too. Carlee Mellow also performed this phraseology beside White, but Mellow’s more emotionally-present, intentional execution suggested that her character was engaged in a cynical game with others’ expectations of her, rather than being programmatically overwhelmed by her own, internalised sexual corruption. This pairing of dancers thus provided an implicit critique of Melbourne choreographic trends. Hilton’s Non-Fiction lacked d’Ath’s dense theoretical underpinnings, yet her deft measuring of banalities, space and movement effected a subtle political message.

balletlab, Fiction, choreographer Phillip Adams; Non-Fiction, choreographer Rebecca Hilton; Chunky Move Studios, Melbourne, Aug 19-29; extermination, choreographer Frances d’Ath; Dancehouse, Melbourne, Aug 5-15

RealTime issue #63 Oct-Nov 2004 pg. 40

© Jonathan Marshall; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 October 2004