limina, or saying yes to no

jana perkovic: michaela pegum, limina; and the fondue set


While everyday motion is an exercise in energy conservation, dance, by definition, aims for the opposite. It is movement characterized by excessive expenditure of energy, of finding and utilizing the longest path between the two points of stillness. Limina not only seeks out the longest path, but stretches it ad infinitum, develops it sideways, unproductively, for its own sake, obstinate to the requirement of giving us culmination, climactic points of complete satisfaction. Pegum dances around instead, skipping highlights, turning our attention back to the hard labour of gradually building movement. Instead of stretching out striking poses, she lingers on moments of no activity, before launching into another neverending quest for phrase finish. In Pegum’s dance, the work is never finished, the end of a phrase never recognised and lit by its own glorifying light. Limina goes, thus, against the entire conventional narrative of self-realisation as movement-towards-result.

It is salutary to note that Pegum’s objectives may not be so different from those of The Fondue Set in No Success Like Failure, another Dance Massive performance. Although stylistically completely different (Fondue Set have worked with Wendy Houstoun, developing a Forced Entertainment-esque aesthetics of a failed small-town spectacle, with all the pop humour this implies, while Pegum creates minimalist, abstract understatement), both work towards stretching out the periods before and after what we normally anticipate as the salient moments in a performance. But, while The Fondue Set twirl and explain, stumble and apologise, Pegum merely dances, with great focus and enormous input of energy. There is more here than just a drive towards stillness, dancing down-time, symptomatic of so much contemporary dance as a putative rebellion against the ever-accelerating rhythms of hyper-modernity. Historically, dance has had a long and unresolved relationship with incidental pornography: all those flashing crotches, bare toned limbs, perfectly sculpted females showered with flowers, idolized. While it has taken half of a century to wrestle the artform away from the dubious company of pole dancing and fertility rituals, the dance stage is still one on which we expect young, toned women to be strikingly beautiful for us.

Both the Fondues and Pegum take the path diametrically opposite to what Germaine Greer has deemed exhibitionist female art, from Sam Taylor-Wood to Tracey Emin. Instead of giving maximum, ironic titillation with an accusatory question mark, they elude, they hide, they betray. Refusing to bring their actions to a closure, an expected, gratifying conclusion, they are stretching the moments of their own power, as stage performers, as women. The question asked may be one about purpose and futility. If the wow-moments are edited out, if only hard work remains, will we recognize it and applaud?

In Limina, the stage reveals first Pegum’s body prostrated on the floor, from which she slowly, jitteringly rises, and slowly falls again, struggling to complete the phrase. The focus is never more than soft: the soundscape of crumbling waves, singing birds or electronic murmur; the light that lags behind, precedes the body, or lights the wrong fragment of it; and movement that struggles towards completion it then evades. Pegum is more interested in the work than in the result. The power—understood as the predatory, sexual power of triumphant tick in all the expected boxes, and more—is always out of her reach, as she dances with maximum investment, giving up all the moments in spotlight to pursue yet another a propos-of-nothing.

The choreography, while unabashedly feminine—fluid curly shoulders, flexible joints—ends up in entangled, ongoing dead-ends that resemble the insectoid phrases in Chunky Move’s Mortal Engine. Legs and arms wrapped around joints, limbs radiating in otherworldly silhouettes. However, where Mortal Engine delivers one complete, victoriously disturbing image after another, Pegum’s liminal poses never resolve in anything other than another fluid change of direction. On two occasions, her long, nimble body slowly glides down the wall, in a spotlight that loses interest before she starts and before she finishes her painfully protracted collapse. Long filigree hand movements stop short. Failure to strike a satisfactory pose may reflect on her face, as she looks alarmed that her entire body is collapsing in clunky spasms into a heap around her. With doubt and uncertainty, entire phrases are repeated twice—and what is less conclusive than a mirrored diptych? At other times, composed slowness is replaced by a frenetic accumulation of small-grained movement, limbs flying around with a disconcerting lack of result. With her arms stretched forward, her leg raised, with her knee between her elbows, Pegum flaps like a mutilated butterfly, appearing confused and disturbed. There is great humour and even greater intelligence behind this subtle, elegantly understated choreography. Finally, in a deliciously appropriate conclusion, Pegum crawls back into her initial pose, yet eludes our expectation of a circular finish, rising on her wobbly feet. Before she completes the ascent, and raises her head towards us, the light wanders out and off.

Bataille links thanatos back to eros through this walk on the edge of excess: sex as expenditure of energy over and beyond what is required for purposes of reproduction. This excess, overflow, is what we register as intimacy, if not love, and is what Pegum creates on stage. The intensity of Limina comes from the raw eroticism of will, of agency, as Pegum never drops focus in this meander without conclusion, never lets herself rest in a pose. When she does rest, it is in moments of respite, precisely those normally edited out of a finished dance. From the body in total focus, she occasionally breaks into the unceremonious stop-points of heavy breathing, sweaty stillness. The flipside, according to Bataille, is self-destruction by exhaustion. By avoiding delivery, Pegum lingers in her own agency, avoids the moment where, having delivered a climax, her own body will become superfluous.

Shannon Bott & Simon Ellis, Inert, choreography, performance Shannon Bott, Simon Ellis, design Scott Mitchell, sound David Corbet, videography/editing Cormac Lally, lighting David Corbet, Simon Ellis, Gareth Hart, text Shannon Bott & Simon Ellis; Arts House, North Melbourne Town Hall, Mar 3-15; Dance Massive, Mar 3-15. 

8 March 2009