Huge beauty

Zsuzsanna Soboslay wonders at Nederlands Dans Theater at the Melbourne Festival

The curtain is up as we enter. Two figures hang in perspex cubes: specimens, a sacrifice; naked but preserved, elevated, ready for dissection. Below, dancers stretch, flex, finalise, in a casual yet definite rhythmic pattern. This backstage is already on show.

This is the pause before the dream; the curtain falls, slicing the space between watcher and dance. A colonnade opens, a male body revealed in yogic contortion, his outside turning in. His hand gestures like Dylan Thomas’ green fuse up through an impossible space between his limbs.

To his side, a woman dances within the curtain—embraced and writhing. They dance the edge between out and in, the membrane between past, present and dream. And as if the membrane, the question of the border, becomes another person, another single figure appears…

Jiri Kylian’s Bella Figura is a neo-Renaissance work with a Mannerist questioning of the givens in classical repertoire. If we associate Renaissance with man-centredness, stone colonnades, chiaroscuro lighting, and the ambivalent relationship between full skirts and the nakedness of Da Vinci’s anatomies, then Kylian’s work is not so much about partnering (that on which classical dance technically relies) as about the duality of performing and being. One partners, is partnered, and yet one is technically quite alone. Such dualism is achingly apparent in the music (Pergolesi, Torelli, Marcello, Foss—a pair of ears takes in a macrocosm of sound), in yoga (where postures and sensations consolidate and expand the body’s references), and in dance, where the dichotomies of gravity and defiance, muscle and lightness are taken further into a questioning of how contemporary bodies can dance old themes.

The choreography continually toys with these aspects: partners dance whilst the presence of a third questions from the side, in pyramids of light merging or emerging from a dark Roman corridor.

Even the most classically-oriented lifts are re-coloured mid-air by a crossing of knees, or thighs registering a contrapuntal trill. Body positions encompass classical, Renaissance court dance, occasionally something like flamenco, as well as animal, insect and dream.

Against the hilariously human (a dancer sliding cross-stage to land beneath his lover’s knees), a man “walks” a woman like a greyhound beside him; he, huge, falls to amble beside her like a Great Dane. Their passage cross-stage is a slipping-off of human covering. Costumes, too, play with this slippage: a woman’s upper torso is bare, below she is full-skirted with red. She is a rose: powerful, vulnerable, scented with knowledge beyond the billowing and seams.

This aspect of framing, clothing, and revealing becomes astonishing when six half-naked courtiers downstage cradle the long curtain, the sky itself ruched in their arms. Their skirts dance, embracing the collusion of the spheres; and then the sky itself begins to fall, the curtain bar falling into their velvet dreams.

Is this the beginning or the end? Two hug a curtain to each side; is this the start or finish of the dream?

* * *

A pair come in for curtain-call amidst a line of braziers aflame. Their bodies lean towards the heat. Their duet is almost classical; his lift (her legs paddling like a swan’s) ends with her lowering leg sliding over his ankle like a swan’s neck’s embrace.

He masks and stops her mouth as he supports her turn. It is their last illicit meeting: each soothes the other’s shoulder hitching with sadness. A silent, clandestine pas de deux, they exit, leaving the unspeakable behind.

* * *

Whilst Bella Figura (an Italian term meaning “don’t let on that anything is wrong”) shows trouble drumming beneath the skirt-swept courtyard face of an era, No More Play is a restless if brief dance of pressing contemporary alienation. The costumes and stage are dark and bare. Long black pants, short leotards, Webern’s atonal score giving no hook of comfort tunes. Pyramids of light pick out trio versus duo in a chequerboard of ambiguous relationship and uncertainty.

A woman is held aloft by the legs between two men, taking great strides across the sky. She is gargantuan, but totally reliant on her supporters.

There is an edge of trepidation: confounding borders, dancers roll and hang over the front edge of the stage. Dancers rock as if blindfolded, smack themselves; limbs form geometries which wrap into themselves, bodies twitch like speared deer.

Kylian, inspired by a Giacometti sculpture, says “one might feel as if one has been invited to a game, the rules of which are being kept secret, or have never been determined”. This short, disturbing piece about the semi-conscious is epilogued by a long, low rumble which leads directly into a surprising, white, corsetted dance where rapiers and partners swap roles.

Petite Morte is a dance of ritualised lust that is both fearful homage to and proud demonstration of the game of love. It expands the scene from Bella Figura where a duet play bow-and-arrow, stretching and arching at antelope in a delicate hunt of ordered passion.

Six women’s bare necks and arms are picked out by the opening light, their folded hands white diamonds/chastity belts against black velvet bellies. Before them, six men perform a dance with rapiers that swish and prod and fall; they drop them, also slap their own bodies; rehearse the missionary position and lower themselves over prone rapiers to the floor.

In the chiaroscuro light, their white boned corsets and women’s bodices contrast with the spilt-blood black of velvet abandoned in the colonnades. This is a petite mort of sex and teasing death, swapping rapiers for women then deftly passing the weapon through the women’s legs, an elaborate mating game.

They draw spears through their own bodies like floss through teeth; they enter tipping their skirts, slide cross-stage like soccer players in a toy parlour game.

The humour is timely and unsettling; in the final image, life dances back in black cloak: six empty skirts enter, spinning and rotating on their own, red on the inside like the blood that has left the dancers’ bodies and dared itself to dance alone.

Kylian’s choreography is a relief from the usual sexing of dancer’s bodies to either the crass, the pristine, or machismo. Men join a chorus of skirts, a woman partners a man as if she’s a boy; whilst women’s hips swerve and curve like sliding gazelles, men refrain from piercing leaps but hold the horizontal with the level swaying power of poppy blooms.

This is a huge beauty that doesn’t need to boast muscle or brawn but plays the edge of doubt, mask and intrigue that performance has long known but doesn’t always dare to show.

Bella Figura, No More Play, Petite Mort, choreographed by Jiri Kylian, Melbourne International Festival of the Arts, State Theatre, October 29. (The program also included Fantasia choreographed by Hans van Manen—not reviewed here.)

RealTime issue #16 Dec-Jan 1996 pg. 12

© Suzanne Spunner; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 December 1996