keeping time

philipa rothfield: sandra parker’s document

Rebecca Jensen, Document

Rebecca Jensen, Document

Rebecca Jensen, Document

JACQUES DERRIDA FAMOUSLY CRITICISED THE IDEA THAT WRITING MERELY RECORDS THE SPOKEN WORD. WRITING, HE ARGUED, IS A FORCE UNTO ITSELF. IT DOES NOT PLAY SECOND FIDDLE TO ANOTHER MEDIUM SUCH AS SPEECH. WHAT CAN WE SAY ABOUT DANCE THEN? WHAT KIND OF TRACE DOES THE WORK OF DANCE LEAVE AND UPON WHAT KIND OF SURFACE?

While the body is the central medium of dance, there have over the years been many other modes of recording dance, including writing, painting, photography, film and video. And yet, US theorist Peggy Phelan argues that performance is ephemeral, that it cannot be saved, recorded or documented. These two tendencies, the preservation of the trace and the disappearance of performance are both negotiated in Sandra Parker’s latest work, Document, which investigates the capture of the trace.

In this instance, document is a verb—to document—an activity that aims to create rather than simply capture. Parker’s Document is a process, the pursuit of a question. The performance outcome of her three-month spell at Dancehouse as Housemate either presumes that performance is more than ephemeral (contra Phelan) or includes the audience within its question and leaves the answer open. I like to think it is the latter.

In any case, a performance occurs. Some would say this is proof that Phelan is right: old work can only generate new work, breeding a difference in kind, another animal. And yet, time isn’t quite so linear. The room is set up like a rehearsal space. Three women flank the space (Gwen Holmberg-Gilchrist, Rose Connors Dance, Sandra Parker). They manage the space, its lighting states and, more ambiguously (Parker on laptop), its conditions of emergence.

The experience (but not the story) begins with the usual studio sweep. Dancer Rebecca Jensen sketches a few vague moves then departs. The moment stills. Jensen re-enters the space. She evokes a cultivated elegance, shoulders slightly drawn in towards the back. The flip side is a sternum that speaks out, a demeanour that whispers of ballet gone by. A series of movement assays, stop-start, the dancer is sorting something out; for herself, for us, but also for Parker.

A lined page is projected onto a whiteboard. Instructions appear. The writing performs itself, quite beautiful. Jensen dances, her actions coupled to these instructions. We read her dancing as we read the image of the words. There is something distal in this dancing, as if it all began from the outside and is slowly permeating the core. The spine is secondary, the limbs primary.

Upon reflection, and in light of the process, I am not surprised. Rebecca Jensen is a young dancer who has not worked with Parker before. In the creation of Document, Parker drew in several dancers with extensive experience of her work: Carlee Mellow, Jo Lloyd, Deanne Butterworth and Annabelle Balharry. All came in to share body memories. Jensen’s task was to pick up these memories, mediated through language, and adapt them to her own body. Little wonder then that this external source seeps in from the edges. By the end of Document, this is less apparent, Jensen’s corporeal sense of authorship is more internally derived and less peripheral. She maintains concentration throughout.

The movements performed are a form of condensation or translation. They are excerpts, tops and tails perhaps, or temporal markers of particular moments. We see a dancer quite absorbed in these actions. Visually, the whiteboard pursues its own graphic logic, though it’s clear that these marks represent choreographic authority. Jensen repeats an action down a numbered list of suggested qualities and instructions such as ‘indecision’ and ‘turn away.’ Next, the board shows a rectangle with crosses and lines. Jensen performs truncated actions, at differing heights. Small falls bridge the gaps.

Time zones ultimately converge. The time code on the board brings the performance into the moment and to a close. What is this time code? Is it the time of performance, 40 odd minutes of work and image? Or does it include times past? Document draws in the corporeal past to create something new out of the old. It is a device, a mechanism of innovation. But it aims for more than that. The very reference to something other within this new iteration suggests a certain ambiguity around what it is that we are watching. The intensity of the three women on the sidelines, the variety of graphic logics, the palpable challenges facing Jensen, suggest a complexity beyond the skin of the present moment.

If time is more than a perspective taken, then it may well be possible to open it up to further exploration, to loop back and forth. Document plays between modes of appearance, graphic and kinaesthetic. As performance, it’s very cool jazz. The room is a laboratory but the outcome is aesthetic. This has bearing upon its evaluation, whether the work is an exploration, an artwork or a form of time travel. In any case, the result is a provocation to think, a perception of time beyond the linear.

Document, choreographer, director Sandra Parker, dancer Rebecca Jensen, projection design Rhian Hinkley, lighting Jenny Hector, sound: Steve Heather, James Wilkinson; Dancehouse, Melbourne, July 27-31

RealTime issue #105 Oct-Nov 2011 pg. 16

© Philipa Rothfield; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

11 October 2011