many abled bodies

zsuzsanna soboslay: ql2, select options, canberra

Quantum Leap

Quantum Leap

Quantum Leap


Dance and dance training brings along with it so many issues to do with ethics. For what are we responsible when we choreograph, or teach bodies to dance? Are we answerable to particular aesthetics or, ethically, to innate human potentials?

From the mid-20th century there have been many challenges to the primacy of ballet technique as the basis for training in Western dance. Especially since the advent of so-called postmodern dance (associated with the Judson Church in New York), processes derived from ordinary physiology, everyday movement (incorporating the notion of ‘least effort’) and sensory relationship have informed choreographic development. Along with the freedom that such new aesthetics have created, however, arises another problem. How do we know what we are looking at? What are its values, its strengths, its achievements? Is it any ‘good’ or not?

Such issues are heightened where dance is created with and for people with differently-abled bodies. London’s Candoco Dance [established in 1991], a company choreographing for mixed groups of professionals, with or without legs, produces stunning work. Similarly, Entelechy, a company based in south-east London, includes people of multiple and severe disabilities and also works with people with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. Their process creates a nexus between movement, music, and sensory-based experience: “She likes soft cakes, not biscuits, rice on hands, African spices, the sound of water pouring.” Their outcomes make apparent the moving beauty of thoughts and ideas at work beneath the skin. It makes you think how often our ideas of ‘dance’ come pre-fixed, limiting what we see, how we see it, and what we choose to show.

The genre of youth dance, too, can be straitjacketed by the limited perceptions of its own audience, as evidenced in criticism of Quantum Leap ensemble’s recent Canberra Playhouse season. Select Option—a vibrant, inventive, often stunning show—was berated for failing to display any “real” choreographic pizzazz, collaboration or participant autonomy: “It was evident that the young performers did their very best to keep the grown-ups happy…doing what they were told to do and saying what is expected of them to say” (artsHub, July 31).

The criticism is curious, as all Quantum Leap projects—and especially this one—incorporate a considerable degree of technical training, as well as collaboration in terms of research, subject matter and choreography. Participants have extensive input with guest choreographers in devising structure and narrative both as text and via movement. The results, of necessity, transform subject materials into somewhat more abstract configurations. The achievements are thus sometimes difficult to quantify, but at the very least there is always evidence of a complex relationship between the kinds of freedom and looseness one would expect from ‘youth’, and the sharpness and exactitude which comes from applying technique and bringing ideas into form.

John Berger points out that this tension between structure/training and freedom/intuition is endemic to every form of art and making. Note that he makes a case that this kind of awareness is necessary for the audience:

“Capitalism has brought with it a higher and wider degree of self-consciousness than ever existed before. Self-consciousness [ie structure, training. Ed] is an advance beyond a life of intuition. But the final creative aim of self-consciousness must be to consciously lose itself, to return to a reliance upon
intuition within certain consciously created limits. To live as the athlete runs or jumps or swims. Art also needs the same kind of controlled liberation of intuition—in both artist and spectator…” John Berger, A Painter of Our Time, 1958

I sometimes wonder at the level of narcissism in an audience. Does the performer ‘move me’, or ‘move for me’? And is that all we’re there for?

Select Option was composed of a sequence of episodes brought together by two distinct musical compositions in each of its performance halves. There are deliberate variations in style, from break dance to street funk, classical to contemporary, linked with music, projected film and text.

Skill levels varied, across different areas. A young dancer, hardly moving in a pool of light, explored her sensual stage magnetism; a line of boys expelled their braggadocio drives in a thrilling street dance. The simple device of one dancer after another climbing up a pyramid of bodies was a good metaphor for the aspiring, searching, and mentoring of this age group—an abstract visual counterpoint to the video vérité interviews around a teenager’s ‘choices’ projected upstage later in the show. Each exploration seemed appropriate to the age and respective maturity of the participants, their life experiences, the strength of their bodies in friction with their emotional uncertainties. Clearly, these young dancers are being ‘extended’ in different dimensions.

In the first half, London-based choreographer Liz Lea explored meanings of the colour red, from its associations with sexual liberty (the ‘scarlet woman’ in an evening dress) and flamboyance (clown/cabaret/burlesque) and themes to do with individuation versus conformity in a very moving ensemble segment—12 women in 12 squares of red light, arching and backbending, in line but each lit by their own grace. Nicholas Ng’s gorgeous musical ‘take’ on ‘finding yourself’ as reflected in the Indian tonalities of his composition found nice parallel with Lea’s aesthetic, influenced by her extensive training in Asian martial arts.

In the second half, Marko Panzic and Reed Luplau combined high athleticism and street funk in their respective choreographies, exploring attractions and rejections and the sheer thrill of high kicks, backflips and group dynamics, especially strong in the sequences for the boys. Fourteen-year-old Jack almost outdid them all, but so clearly expressing—and allowed to express—the condition of his young body with such poignancy. His shoulder shimmy was inescapably that of a young boy. Allowing that simple, physical fact to stand told me a million stories about who he is, how time is still ahead of him. No cover-up here: this is a rare, humbling and quite exquisite viewing experience.

It probably takes a lifetime to understand our own sense of agency and relative freedoms. I think we can make a better attempt to appreciate what is there, not just what we expect to see, and try and examine more deeply the cultural imprimaturs we unconsciously bring with us every time we enter the theatre.

QL2 Centre for Youth Dance, Select Option, 44 dancers aged 14-23, choreographers Ruth Osborne, Brian Lucas, Liz Lea, Marko Panzic, Reed Luplau, composers Nick Ng, Adam Ventoura, video Bearcage Productions; Canberra Playhouse, July 29-Aug 1

RealTime issue #93 Oct-Nov 2009 pg. 38

© Zsuzsanna Soboslay; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

8 October 2009