Eye to eye with the animal

Nikki Heywood: Xavier le Roy, Temporary Title

Xavier Le Roy, Temporary Title Open Rehearsals. Commissioned by Kaldor Public Art Projects and Carriageworks

Xavier Le Roy, Temporary Title Open Rehearsals. Commissioned by Kaldor Public Art Projects and Carriageworks

We—me and the other clothed humans—are an outer circle of eyes and flickering attention. We are on safari, watching the behaviour of the human lion, where the being, playing, resting of some 20 bare-skinned creatures unfolds in a large light-filled studio as a play with no drama. So, what are we seeing here? And what else are we sensing?

We see the performers are present—on all fours or down on their haunches—watchful, ready, but without any sign of performance adrenalin. As time passes we feel the lions’ and our own imperceptible shifts of state and intention, a flux of movement that ripples across the imagined grassy savannah of the carpeted Track 8 in Carriageworks. We experience a long-range choreography with no discernible beginning or end, a plateau of existence with intimate high points of individual motion and group interaction. Bodies seeking comfort, or company. Formations evolve effortlessly from scattered topography to clumps of action and then the unexpected appearance of a line of human animal figures in a queue stretching diagonally across the plains of the floor. With nowhere to go, the queue proceeds, then dissipates.

Time stretches. The singular figure or the whole group make transitions on a continuum of transformation between states of alertness and relaxation, between action and passivity, between human and animal, between plant and machine. The group body spreads horizontally, a rhizome-like organism, and limbs entangle. I find my mind letting go, letting desire for spectacle subside, desire for meaning drop away. Not in any evident order but with tacit agreement, a small clump begins a group metamorphosis from animal to vegetable. The collective tone of their bodies changes as limbs begin to reach and sway in the language of plants, dancing in air.

Sitting in on an earlier studio rehearsal I hear French choreographer Xavier Le Roy and his collaborator, dancer Scarlet Yu, discussing the emergence of the performance language. For them this is not an exercise in imitation or representation; instead, by observing the behaviour of lions, they have evolved a ‘vocabulary’ of movement and attitude. The performers learn this vocabulary of the lion, and of plants (I’m not sure if it was a specific dialect of grass or bush or vegetable) and with practice are more able to be simple in their embodiment. Receiving and transmitting through skin the qualities of vegetal permeability, bare arms and legs adrift become a soft, mobile meadow. Falling/dropping to the ground through the hips with their full weight speaks the movement of big cats as they simply give up/give way to gravity.

Xavier Le Roy, Temporary Title Open Rehearsals. Commissioned by Kaldor Public Art Projects and Carriageworks

Xavier Le Roy, Temporary Title Open Rehearsals. Commissioned by Kaldor Public Art Projects and Carriageworks

Seeing humans do this offers an uncanny glimpse into animal behaviour and physiognomy. I become aware of the human lion’s occasionally flared nostrils and a quality of cat-like panting and notice the whole body engaged in a breathing pattern that has a different speed and depth from normal human breathing. When slowed it is more like a sleeping breath or the breathing of a baby. The human lion’s gaze is altered, more diffuse in a resting state and dropped back behind the eyes in a way that alerts me to my usual sharp frontal focus.

I am not the only one to become languid. In Track 8 the audience are stretching themselves, some lying on the floor. This is not a sign of boredom but of ease. In the circle of watchers, I’m not sure if this young lion is looking at me or straight through me or taking in the periphery. I feel the stirrings of empathy and unnameable identification as you might with a real non-human animal. Then, like a switch, the quality of their gaze snaps to attention. Being approached by a naked crawling person/creature could be confronting, but somehow my position, seated on the floor at the eye level of the animals and all the other spectators, equalises the dynamic. The lion’s approach precedes from a respectful distance with: ‘May I ask you a question?’ Then settling in —‘How is growth for you?’

I’m wondering what it takes to move between states: from immersion in the bodily/ animal breathing/ being weighted/ fleshy /succulent plant to the psychological sense-making of the human question? I sense no assertion of will but wish to simply choose a partner for dialogue. The odd naturalness of speaking, exchanging on profound questions of love or transformation with a naked person who is about to turn back into a lion or a plant, in a roomful of clothed and unclothed people, starts to feel entirely normal.

We are all animal, vegetable and mineral, are we not? It makes me ask, why don’t we come to this place more often?

Kaldor Art Projects in collaboration with Carriageworks: Project 13, Temporary Title 2015, Xavier le Roy, Scarlet Yu & Collaborators: Natalie Abbott, Christine Babinskas, Geraldine Balcazar, Georgia Bettens, Eugene Choi, Matthew Day, Lauren Eiko, Peter Fraser, Ryuichi Fujimura, Alice Heyward, Becky Hilton, David Huggins, Marcus McKenzie, Kathryn Puie, Amaara Raheem, Darcy Wallace, Adam Warburton, Ivey Wawn; Carriageworks, Sydney, 2-22 Nov, 2015

Kaldor Art Projects brought Xavier Le Roy and Scarlet Yu to Sydney in November 2015 to collaborate with 18 Australian performers on an open rehearsal work, Temporary Title 2015, which “experiments with the process of pattern recognition, exploring forms which are not quite distinguishable as human—yet not completely anything else—and the idea of movement as a continuous process of transformation. The performers transition between strange and familiar forms and formations, challenging our perceptions of the human body and its capacity for physical expression and representation” (Kaldor Public Art Projects).

RealTime issue #132 April-May 2016, web

© Nikki Heywood; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

20 April 2016