free and not so free

keith gallasch on dancetank at the studio

danceTANK, Freedom to Launch

danceTANK, Freedom to Launch

You enter Sydney Opera House's The Studio to be brusquely greeted by perspex-masked men who wave red neon wands over you, looking for sharp objects and other offensive items. You’re then directed down stairs and along the wall space of the performance area, demarcated with accident tape, where members of the 27-strong young danceTANK ensemble stage solo installations. Each of them is labelled and they include everything from someone sitting reading a romance novel, or performing a fan dance, or a puppet-like set of moves, to a paparazzi who takes a shot of you, and my favourite – a body face-down at the bottom of the stairs, outlined in tape on the floor and labelled “full of beans.”

What did these often droll images of containment, surveillance, escape, accident and crime add up to? Perhaps enlightenment would come later. Perhaps, in the age of terror, every activity (work, art, art as work) becomes a potential crime.

Youth theatre and youth dance works frequently express strong feelings about the right to individual freedom of expression, not least for the young themselves. Ironically the common en masse approach (a large cast with a lot of crowd and unison work and glimpses of individual expression) often gravitates against this ideal, and Freedom to Launch is no exception. What impresses however is the commitment of the performers (ranging from 14 to 28 years), the sheer precision of their work in large and small groups, and those rare moments of individual virtuosity — sometimes balletic, sometimes discombobulated hip hop or mere theatrical gall. Director and choreographer Anton has clearly worked his team hard and got results.

The first scene establishes the work’s dynamic. Four police figures mechanically wave their red neon wands-cum-cattle prods against a screen which silhouettes a large crowd. This mass emerges in a swathe of helicopter roar and spotlighting, forms taut lines and performs a shared abstract gesturing into which the bouncing of tennis balls is incorporated. For this display of group self-discipline (the balls suggestiive of the social control underlying sport) there is no compulsion from the police until one performer is singled out for a beating, the red wands dancing around the body, conjuring an image that is convincingly violent as the victim resists and then convulses.

A red bag falls to the floor accompanied by loud ticking. A team moves in to remove the anticipated bomb only to discover inside a large teddy bear. The gathered crowd cradle and cuddle it but soon turn to eye-gouging and beating the passive toy. This is no longer the put-upon crowd of recent moments, but one capable of its own absurd cruelties.

In another wave of mass movement, unison is gradually broken down as individuals are spotlit and create their own motifs, evoking the mass of a dance club. A ragged-dressed girl turns away with a strange sustained cry which turns into a cough. A boy does a balletic spin. The mass begins to dissolve, accompanied by a sombre ostinato over which guitar strings are delicately plucked in a haunting half melody which is soon further layered with higher notes. The world turns complex.

Three girls move like marionettes to music box accompaniment. Other performers blindfold their charges with accident site tape and leash them like dogs. A male performer holds a television monitor in front of his face. On it a girl talks about her difficult relationship with dance, searching for freedom within it, acknowledging that it will “reshape but not ruin” her, wanting to be listened to by her choreographer. Two male performers bounce around the stage in a comic mock battle. Another performer repeatedly barks “Bey!” at us, as if he’s lost the ‘o’ in 'Obey.' The mass reforms as the crowd mindlessly attempts to constrain some of its fellows with polysterene supports—the kind used in packaging electronic goods. This standardisation can’t be effected, and the shapes are stacked into what looks like a building which is kicked over by one of the male performers after executing a wild solo dance.

The melancholic musical theme is replaced by a driving beat and the images of oppression and individual release supplanted by mass movement as the performers race in waves across the stage, falling and sliding, disappearing into the wings and re-appearing elsewhere, again on the run. Suddenly the movements becomes dancerly—in the ADT manner—big leaps, falls to the floor, immediate recovery, rapid rolling. Sonar pings and vague Asian accents overlay the musical pulse. Brief pairings allow for sudden lifts before there's more running and then finally a mass rolling fills the performance space.

The energy of this finale, a release both loose and precise, seemed happily cathartic for its admiring young audience. Despite the earlier images of oppression, both literal and surreal, here was the promised “freedom to launch”, a burst of pure if disciplined collective energy. No scenario, no moralising. It's an oddly satisfying conclusion (or a relief perhaps) for what had started out so literally and had fragmented into a grab bag of performances and a bunch of ideas that rarely added up.

Like many a large scale youth performance before and many to come, Freedom to Launch's structural weaknesses are likely symptomatic of the mix of directorial vision and participant contributions that has become so standard—semi-self-devised. It's good training for young directors in marshalling large forces and a creative education for young performers, but the formula is tired, the outcome often unfocused. Adding a writer or a rigorous dramaturg can help, but it's no guarantee, as in the case of ATYP's This Territory: that work still appeared cobbled together from disparate elements. What Freedom to Launch had to its advantage, and this is Anton's achievement, was a coherent sense of a body of performers at work.

danceTANK, Freedom to Launch, director Anton, composer Adam Ventoura, lighting designer Luiz Pampolha; The Studio, Sydney Opera House, June 6-8

RealTime issue #80 Aug-Sept 2007 pg. web

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

1 August 2007