Life-sized dance

Kerrie Schaefer: Julie-Anne Long, Miss XL

Julie-Anne Long, MissXL

Julie-Anne Long, MissXL

Julie-Anne Long, MissXL

An orange light flashes in a corner of the Seymour Centre forecourt. A tinny recording of a familiar tune bounces off the walls. Suddenly a Mr Whippy ice-cream van emerges, appearing at first larger than it is. A bemused looking, genuine Mr Whippy drives. In the passenger seat is Julie Anne-Long in messy orange wig, her head moving left to right on a horizontal plane while her forearm, propped up on the window sill, moves up and down. Both gestures are precisely coordinated, surreally slow motion. As the van slides by, a grotesquely grinning Mrs Whippy is captured almost in freeze frame.

Mrs Whippy is one of 3 pieces in a dance-performance programme presented by One Extra Dance featuring MissXL, the performance persona adopted by Long whose body and spirit refuse to conform to balletic (or even postmodern dance) ideals. She is not the dutiful dancing daughter but a wayward woman conceptualising, choreographing and performing a contemporary and hybrid form of burlesque. In Mrs Whippy, MissXL “calls on her prestidigitatorial and pantomimic powers to expose a mother’s fears”; in Cleavage she “holds you to her bosom in a socio-erotic danse macabre”; and in Leisure Mistress she “discovers terpsichorean heights in a dancer’s demise” (program notes).

After introducing the audience to the delights of Giuseppe’s ice cream, Mrs Whippy transforms into stereotypically evil characters from children’s literature. With a long black beard she dances in front of the iron gates of the forecourt, hopping from one leg to another, one arm moving up as the other goes down, the rhythm awkward, hands balled into fists. Long skillfully manages the large open space as she moves through the audience on her way to each new performance place. At one point the audience is ushered into a triangular nook where we watch through a large window as she dances on a box wearing a long, crooked nose. Long’s final dance as Mrs Whippy is one of stillness. She stands on a box lit by the ice-cream van as moving images are projected onto her apron. Robert Helpman in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang entices 2 children into a playhouse on the back of a horse and cart. As the children move inside the house the exterior falls away to reveal the bars of a cage. At this point Long howls in pain, her body slumping forward as she clutches her apron in a fit of maternal anxiety.

Cleavage is performed in the Downstairs Theatre. The set is triangular with the base running across the front of the stage and the apex receding into a vanishing point at the far end. Stage left sits a reel to reel recorder. The recorded voice of a male paleontologist recites information on geological formations and rock cleavage. Long appears stage right, chatting informally with the audience while dressing in a brightly coloured bustier and performing dramatically exaggerated gestures of grooming. The reel to reel recorder plays throughout Cleavage incorporating a number of different voices—a young female change room attendant tells stories about fitting women with brassieres. Male voices discussing the look and feel of breasts are juxtaposed with those of women. Children’s voices delineate similarities between breasts and buttocks while a young boy asserts that he always draws pictures of women with cleavage! A dance theorist pontificates on the invisibility of breasts in dance. Babies suckle. Long skillfully interacts with these voices as the stories cue segments of her live performance. Cleavage is a consummate work. The recorded stories complement an intelligent and witty live text. Long’s versatile dance performance melds dramatic and performative elements. Cleavage replaces the brooding malevolence of Mrs Whippy, where the boundaries between good and evil merge, with an up front and often hilarious piece of dance-theatre about fleshy bits.

Long’s world-weary Leisure Mistress, modeled in part on Marlene Dietrich in her later performing life, is wheeled into the performance space by a faithful assistant (Victoria Spence). Dressed in blue chiffon with oversized faux diamond rings dripping off her fingers, the Leisure Mistress repeatedly tucks a wayward section of blonde bob behind her ear. Her first dance (she announces each numerically) is performed lying on her back. Only her hands and feet move in repetitive phrases in time with a perky musical track. The other dances are similarly compressed variations of the Diva’s once famous dance pieces now performed in absurdly reduced form. One dance is performed leaning against the side of the stage. As her legs continually collapse under her, the Leisure Mistress runs her hands down her thighs to re-straighten them. This correctional gesture becomes a key movement phrase in her dance of extremities. In the final dance (“the first she ever performed”) the Leisure Mistress undertakes a costume change which proves disastrous. In a hair net and an undersized dress which gapes at the zipper, she cavorts about the stage performing derivative contemporary dance movements in an attempt to remain relevant to her audience (having described herself as a “submerging artist” in the age of the emerging artist). Somehow this final image captures what Julie-Anne Long is so good at conjuring and performing in dance: the weird and wonderful world of the grotesque and the anxieties that form it.

Miss XL; concept, choreographer, performer, writer Julie-Anne Long; designer Rohan Wilson; music (for Mrs Whippy) Sarah de Jong; video Samuel James; dramaturg/co-writer Virginia Baxter; lighting Janine Peacock; One Extra Dance, Seymour Centre, April 3-13

RealTime issue #49 June-July 2002 pg. 38

© Kerrie Schaefer; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 June 2002