dynamic duets

keith gallasch enthralled by de quincey & snow, khan & guillem

Akram Khan, Sylvie Guillem, Sacred Monsters

Akram Khan, Sylvie Guillem, Sacred Monsters

Akram Khan, Sylvie Guillem, Sacred Monsters

TIME STANDS STILL IN THE MOST INTERESTING WAYS IN EMBRACE: GUILT FRAME. BECAUSE THE PERFORMANCE BALANCES ON A PIVOT OF STILLNESS AND EXTREMELY SLOW MOVEMENT, THERE’S INEVITABLY A PICTURE-LIKE QUALITY TO THE WORK ENHANCED BY THE ACTION BEING RESTRICTED TO A SMALL GILT FRAME THAT LIMITS OUR VIEW TO THE HEADS AND UPPER TORSOS OF TESS DE QUINCEY AND PETER SNOW. IT’S THE TIME OF THE ART GALLERY, EXCEPT THAT YOU CAN’T MOVE ON AFTER A FEW MINUTES OF VIEWING. YOU STAY STILL; THE PICTURE KEEPS CHANGING FOR SOME 50 MINUTES.

What we see pictured remains peristently enigmatic, always suggestive, of individual emotional and physical states, possible relationships, the history of painting even—such is lighting designer Travis Hodgson’s subtle texturing and profiling, his shifts in depth of field, evoking Carravagio, Vermeer, Rembrandt and more.

De Quincey and Snow work their way through a set of states common to The Natyashastra (an ancient Indian text) and Body Weather (the contemporary Japanese movement discipline; see RealTime 83, page 45 for an interview with De Quincey) but never literalise them. A smile is a smile, a grimace a grimace beneath which might be ecstasy or anger. But it’s the slow unfolding of these states that compels one to look for complexities, tensions, shared pleasures, changes in mood. Humans enjoy peering at portraits, painted or photographed, as if endlessly rehearsing primordial encounters with strangers in our evolutionary development. Embrace: guilt frame allows us to read faces with a rare intensity, registering tiny details, forming impressions, re-evaluating, never resolving. It’s a peculiar pleasure made palpable by disciplined performers who ease themselves into a temporal state slower than our own and invite us in.

But there’s more to embrace: guilt frame than faces—radical if slow changes in perspective, supple tonal shifts and endless evocations. There are moments when the performers lean out of the frame towards us, or recede into its deep dark interior; a moment when de Quincey turns ever so slowly, low in the frame, only her head, its back to us, providing support—it looks simple but must require great strength. There are moments that appear Gothic—the prolonged shudder in the residue of a laugh, Snow’s shaded face appearing to fatten with anger. There’s the suggestion of a grim puppet show—de Quincey’s head lolling like a fallen Punch. There’s a rare moment of touch, electric when it happens, other moments of apparent adoration or deep suspicion that suggest a relationship dancing in and out of sync.

Composer Michael Toisuta’s score operates at another level, a reminder with its persistent pulse of time manufactured and multiplied. Inspired by Ligeti’s Symphonic Poem for 100 Metronomes (1962) this surround sound creation is enveloping and some of its more dramatic changes in pace sharply re-shape the mood of the performance. There’s no sense, however, that de Quincey and Snow perform to it; it’s simply there with them; its time is not theirs.

Embrace: guilt frame is a small, intense work by skilled performers in a tiny theatrical frame that enlarges both our sense of time and of how driven we are by our visual curiosity.

The Akram Khan-Sylvie Guillem duet, Sacred Monsters, is a very different experience, but it also has its roots in ancient Hindu culture and it too suspends our sense of time, if speed is more often its means than stillness. The work is very much framed by Khan’s story about himself as a young man wanting to play the god Krishna, but disappointed that he was too short and already losing his hair. He would find his way, he said, by finding the monster in himself, and that monster may well have been his meeting with modern western dance. By the end of Sacred Monsters he appears to have achieved the release and transcendance he has desired, but in a remarkable duet, not just his agonised solo—the god in many, not one.

There is therefore a very strong sense of release in this work. The initial image is of a still, chained Guillem, whom Khan soon frees. He then removes the long chains wrapped around his calves, hidden beneath his trousers, but heard jangling musically in the dance. Towards the work’s end, Guillem gently touches Khan’s bowed head as if investing him with godliness. Although Sacred Monsters largely comprises duets, each performer, while sitting, sipping water, wiping away sweat with a towel, intently watches the other’s solo. There’s a potent sense of mutual support and release.

There’s also a great sense of playfulness, of gentle mockery and brattishness in the dialogue. But the dancing expresses darker tensions between these divas (‘sacred monsters’ is the translation of the 19th century French term for ‘stars’) as they strike at each other, reeling from the impact before being actually hit, as if the work they had created together has been a battle. At separate points in Sacred Monsters, one falls prey to the other, flattened, left limp…ready to airily chat with us and move on. The informality is heightened by the musicians (providing another East-West dynamic) sitting on stage with the performers and the female singer moving around the dancers.

A critical point occurs when Khan sits upstage quietly uttering, “Is this right?”, “Just an experiment!”, as if querying and asserting his melding of ancient and modern traditions. Moving forward on his knees, torso low to the floor, almost abject, his delivery becomes more urgent. His right arm shoots out and withdraws. Suddenly he thrusts his body up, almost erect, suspended, before falling to the floor and moving even more urgently forward again reporting the action. It’s an astonishing and painful dance. And crucially it’s followed by the pivotal duet of Sacred Monsters where Guillem straddles Khan, hip to hip, face to face. She leans back and they become one, an eight-limbed god in a dance of astonishing strength, sensuality and passion, their hands flickering their own finely articulated dance. Krishna.

Khan and Guillem languidly mop the floor with their towels (it’s your sweat, she mocks), preparing for a final, very earthed celebratory dance. Sacred Monsters is a wonderful collaboration, a fine conjuction of styles, traditions and personalities. Guillem’s stories are less elemental than Khan’s, less revealing, but wry and witty, reinforcing the embracing casualness of the show’s chatty framework (audible, if not always, in a concert hall bedecked with extra curtaining to damp the resonance). Her dancing, however, is almost beyond description, long lined and fluent, capable of breathtaking moves, like the reverse flip where her feet seem to barely leave the ground one after the other, and the ease with which she meets the speed and weight of Khan’s lower-placed centre of gravity. Sacred Monsters is a work of reflection and cross-cultural kinship, movingly and bracingly performed with great passion and remarkable skill.

Sydney Theatre Company, Wharf2Loud, embrace: Guilt Frame, created and performed by Tess de Quincey and Peter Snow, original concept Tess de Quincey, set designers Russell Emerson, Steve Howarth, construction by erth, lighting designer Travis Hodgson, sound designer Michael Toisuta; Richard Wherrett Studio, Sydney Theatre, Feb 27-March 9

Sacred Monsters, artistic director, choreographer Akram Khan, dancers Akram Khan, additional chorography Lin Hwai Min for Guillem, Gauri Sharam Tripathi for Khan, composer Philip Shephard, lighting Mikki Kunttu, set design Shizuka Hariu, costumes Kei Ho; Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House

RealTime issue #84 April-May 2008 pg. 32

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

1 April 2008