Dynamic dance theatre: dancing binaries

Keith Gallasch wrestles with Tanja Liedtke’s Twelfth Floor

Paul White, Anton, Twelfth Floor

Paul White, Anton, Twelfth Floor

Paul White, Anton, Twelfth Floor

When Francesca Rendle-Short saw Tanja Liedtke’s Twelfth Floor in its first version, fresh from its creation in a residency at the Australian Choreographic Centre, her account for RealTime (“Words for escape”, RT 60, p44, 2004) caught the audience’s rapidly growing sense of involvement, immersion and complicity:
We’re stuck on the twelfth floor, somewhere, nobody knows. What’s going on? Does it matter? From the second the lights go down, as sound score and movement begin, we are caught, arrested, transfixed. Choreographer, Tanja Liedtke, doesn’t let us go until she decides to. Soft-footed, funny, athletic, delicate, violent in places, and violating, Liedtke knows how to pull us every which way: and it works, although we hold our breath, suck in air, so close does the performance come to very nearly imploding, with us, the audience, as co-conspirators.

What was engrossing above all, and just as breathtaking when I saw the work at Performance Space during its national Mobile States tour, was the assuredness of Liedtke’s vision, so thoroughly through-choreographed, so virtuosically danced and enacted, with a highly integrated design and soundtrack. Details were attended to meticulously (the words that a big man writes on the walls in chalk and on the object of his tender desire) and sustained; the one window to the outside world, high on the wall, glows with the normal flow of time and weather as opposed to the unstructured time of this room on the twelfth floor.

The setting for Liedtke’s dance theatre work is an eerily ambiguous space. Is it a state of mind, an institution for some damaged goods or just your standard, dangerous high-rise accomodation? Any of these, all of them? In an interview for RealTime (RT 72, p39), Liedtke told me that what emerged from the Canberra workshop was “‘a work about human interaction and confinement, small people in their own small worlds.’ …The result: a show about a group of people confined in an unidentified institution, withdrawing, dreaming, surviving.”

A big man, seemingly barely out of adolesence, writes carefully in chalk on the walls in words and long lines, closed in on himself. Two boys hoon about, at play in exquisite team work, dance with their heads in buckets, casually defy gravity. A stern woman, a mother or institutional authority figure with a prima ballerina presence, allows a girl into the room, but first takes away her shoes. The girl is playful, unconsciously sensual, a lyrical figure amidst the sharp-edged athleticism of the boys and the rigid tottering of the woman. She and the big man gradually and intimately bond. Meanwhile the boys’ attention is elsewhere, on their sexual fantasies, masturbating against a chalk drawing and soon, in a wrenching scene, transforming their hostility to authority into a violent assault on the assertive woman. The boys exit. The girl climbs the wall, and disappears. Is she free?

Liedtke feels that “a lot of Australian dance is very nice, but that’s not enough, I want to get to the underbelly, to see people as complex—affection and hostility are such great physical premises for dance.” Twelfth Floor gives us both and it is a credit to Liedtke that the binarisms that drive her scenario and steer her dangerously close to cliché are kept in check by the sheer power of the performance and the totality of its vision. However, once you step outside this twelfth floor room, the sense of complicity that Rendle-Short refers to takes hold. Yes, Twelfth Floor is ‘not nice’ but it is not complex. The older woman is power embodied in a uniform and the gestures of ballet pitted against the free modern dance spirit of the girl. Her rape is horribly realised in performance but is not nice in the worst sense, that she should be punished for the sins of power that doubtless lie elsewhere. The girl (although wonderfully danced by Kristina Chan to reveal sensuality, intimacy and a capacity for flight) is a cipher for freedom: we have no sense why she is in this place except as captive. The big man is rescued momentarily from his interior world by the girl and that entails a wonderful physical release from his weight—again a simple binary (if a more effective one). And the boys? Wonderfully vivid, funny, seductive and finally gross, but their exit is a blank in the scenario: they are tools of the plot, symbolic ciphers.

Given the sheer power of Liedtke’s theatricality and the choreographic and design intricacies of Twelfth Floor it might appear churlish to ascribe to it cliches and a crude thematic dynamic. You might think it PC of me. But the work derives not a little of its power from these very elements with which it propels its narrative and its expression of the extremes of affection and hostility. Liedtke’s capacity to express something more is doubtless in her reach as a rapidly maturing choreographer and director of dance theatre. A different kind of power in Twelfth Floor resides in the richness of its observations of play and intimacy, stillnesses and waiting, its evocation of interior states. Many a dance theatre director has avoided using narrative to structure their work (see the interview with Kate Champion, p31). It’s understandable, because narrative brings with it many obligations, many traps, and what can appear simple and effective as story is too often empty, or replete with exhausted values.

Thanks to Mobile States, Twelfth Floor has introduced a significant talent in Tanja Liedtke to audiences around Australia. The work was almost always breathtaking (even if the seductive viscerality of the experience was tempered by reflection) and inspired thoughts for a greater future for Australian dance.

Twelfth Floor, concept & direction Tanja Liedtke, choreography Liedtke with performers, creative consultant Solon Ulbrich, performers Anton, Kristina Chan, Julian Crotti, Amelia McQueen, Paul White, design Gaelle Mellis, lighting Gus Macdonald, sound artist DJ Trip, video Closer Productions; Mobile States; Performance Space, May 24-27

RealTime issue #74 Aug-Sept 2006 pg. 32

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 August 2006