Inside the body, behind the mask

Jessica Sabatini: Stephanie Lake, Eleanor Bauer

Aorta, Chunky Move

Aorta, Chunky Move

Aorta, Chunky Move

To turn the body inside out and reveal its systems one by one is the purpose of the science of anatomy. AORTA, the final work of 2013 by choreographer Stephanie Lake, also seeks to show the world beneath our skin, but as kinetic poetry. It is an ambitious vision, deepening the truth that dance reflects to us a felt sense of the body, and integrating design elements to produce a multi-layered work of abstract grace.

In a string of changing atmospheres, AORTA sees dancers Josh Mu, James Pham and James Batchelor swell and ripple like blood in the veins, vibrate like nerves, mutter and quibble in a cerebral section, then leap and scream with a primal pulse, and sometimes unite their hands and fingers to produce a thatch of wriggling villi. Their ensemble work depicts complex relationships and often microscopic (here magnified) chain reactions: sometimes soft and cascading, sometimes mechanical and angular. This vocabulary seems drawn from both experience and scientific knowledge: the spasm of a muscle we recognise at a glance, but the firing of a neural pathway is quite another thing, far more elusive.

Lake’s intricate visual poetry is a strength and her dancers are in consummate form to deliver a steady and mesmerising stream of it (Phan in particular undulating without a sound, like quicksilver escaping). Enriching this is a soundscape from Robin Fox of mostly electronic but sometimes organic textures (with trickling water and slippery, ultrasonic moments). Integral, too, is projection design by Rhian Hinkley: on three backdrop screens laser-like images wax and wane—sizzling asterisks and streaming particles, fractals that spread themselves like bonded molecules, interiors opened out.

Conjuring that which is beyond our sight, and yet resides within our deepest biology, AORTA is a complex and beautiful work that, like all living things, amounts to more than the sum of its interconnected parts.

Eleanor Bauer, Big Girls do Big Things

Eleanor Bauer, Big Girls do Big Things

Eleanor Bauer, Big Girls do Big Things

From beneath the skin to behind the façade, Big Girls do Big Things is concerned with sub-surface complexities of another kind. This solo work toured by Belgian-based, US dancer/choreographer Eleanor Bauer, is a performance about the demands of performance, and the identity crisis that comes with chameleonic prowess. While this might suggest solipsism in less practised hands, Bauer has the sharp-edged presence and humour to make it both soulful and entertaining.

For a start, her props are perfect—an alluring scene set before she enters. An A-frame ladder towers in the corner and a gargantuan polar bear costume is splayed on the floor, all bathed in Arctic light as strains of Sibelius hint at sublime horizons. The polar bear is an icon—solitary, rare, remote, a figure we imagine vanishing into fields of ice. But it is also large. Larger than life. And much larger than Eleanor Bauer, as we discover when she climbs inside it and begins to dance. The costume gathers, collapses and comically contorts as she manipulates it from within, flashing its cavernous eyes and dragging its empty limbs. How to inhabit this prodigious persona?

A string of solutions is tried: the baggy bear becomes a rapper with a swagger and a menacing growl. Then the suit is shed and draped like a stole as Bauer strikes out in a high-heeled catwalk prance. But these efforts are frosted with comical dissatisfaction, and the problem remains one of scale. So she heads for the ladder to make more mischief with metaphor. As she ascends it, her rendition of Patsy Cline’s “Crazy” advances by ever-stretching octaves and corresponding ladder steps from a low contralto toward an agonised squeak at the pinnacle. “It’s lonely at the top,” she quips.

Teetering there, she delivers a vertiginous speech, a kaleidoscope of pop-cultural stereotypes spiralling in oversized satire and discarded one by one. It is all wildly entertaining; but more than that, what makes all this work, apart from its fun and elegant metaphors, is Bauer’s ability to exploit the tension of her own presence on stage. Through cracks in the dazzling surface we glimpse an existential plight, revealed in long, edgy pauses and genuine moments of risk.

And so, when Bauer inverts and discards the polar bear at last, what remains is one performer in black, exposed and with nowhere to hide. She takes refuge in her discipline then, performing a barefoot ballet to Sibelius with simple devotion and rigour, transcending the fuss of excess in the end. Then she retreats to the curtains behind her, to be swallowed up by their blackness once again.

Chunky Move, AORTA, choreographer Stephanie Lake, score, lighting Robin Fox, costumes Shio Otani, projection design Rhian Hinkley, Chunky Move Studios, Melbourne, 22-30 Nov; Big Girls do Big Things, Eleanor Bauer, Dancehouse, Melbourne, 29-30 Nov, 2013

RealTime issue #119 Feb-March 2014 pg. 27

© Jessica Sabatini; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

24 February 2014