Next Wave Festival: Dance & humour vs misinformation

Alison Finn: [MIS]CONCEIVE

[MIS]CONCEIVE, Next Wave 2016

[MIS]CONCEIVE, Next Wave 2016

Emerging choreographer Thomas ES Kelly’s first full-length show, [MIS]CONCEIVE repurposes recognisable elements of a well-established, but still expanding, vocabulary of contemporary Indigenous dance. Charging some gestures with greater energy (a thrust, a whip-quick spin, a starkly pointing arm), others are subdued, made circumspect or soft (heads are bowed, hands gently wipe over faces). Ultimately the work deploys humour and political optimism to counterpoint sequences of stormy movement.

Four shadowy figures (Kelly and three female dancers) step out from the curtains with solemn purpose and are quickly skimming, sinking and folding. They steadily accumulate the physical motifs that will structure their repetitions—an out-struck leg puts the sole of the foot on display, an arm cuts a clean arc then hinges to tap the back of the neck. Kelly is a large-framed, striking-looking man. The other three performers fluctuate between developing their own distinctive characters to foil his inevitable prominence, and acting as a collective. Sitting in the front row I can see one of them make a deliberate short exhalation as she falls or contracts—their dancing has a feel of easeful effort rather than strain.

A familiar gesture can expose an unnerving nub of truth. When the dancers each wave their ‘pick-me!’ arms in the air, writhing in their chests with wanting to give an answer, only to be overlooked (again, we understand), you have to ask how dysfunctional our policies and institutions are that such a plaintive representation of discrimination still has urgency. In [MIS]CONCEIVE, the classroom is a predominant site of contest where language and history must be brought to account for their garbling and their omissions. The dancers speak out to find each other and themselves: “me, you? same? different? same but different.”

Interrupting the activity abruptly, Kelly strides to the front of the stage to give us a good-humoured history of the playground game known as ‘Chinese Whispers’ or, he tells us, ‘Arab Telephone’ or ‘Russian Scandal.’ In this section Kelly has capitalised on his easy charisma. When the audience is asked to play along, we all know how it’s meant to end—with baffling and preferably hilarious gobbledygook—but it doesn’t quite work this time, maybe we misunderstood the instructions?

That misinformation leads to mistaken beliefs continues as the work’s central preoccupation when the dance resumes, which from here is at its most theatrically gestural. The dancers invoke a litany of caricatures and grotesques that veer from complaints (“they’re lazy”) to fears (“they steal”) to mythical beasts (drop-bears and unicorns). The poses are cartoonish but the statement is clearly made—it doesn’t take an especially sharp pin to puncture assumptions that are full of hot air. It’s the more ambiguous shifts of character that intrigue—a dancer briefly transformed from hoodie-shrouded brute to sashaying doll. The hoodies worn by each of the dancers are employed throughout as tools of conjuring and concealment; they’re folded and rolled up, pulled over heads, used to make frantic writing on the floor.

In the final section of [MIS]CONCEIVE a recorded voice ranges over the issues already represented in the dance, making the work’s politics explicit. Again in the schoolroom, we’re rightly asked to read “from the first page, not starting in the middle” so that all contributors to history are acknowledged. The work presents evidence that damage and confusion result from accepting the smooth, potentially fictionalised surface of cultures, from wrong assumptions about appearances. But are we really all the same underneath, as this voice tells us? Is the audience let off lightly by this optimism? The threads that connect our watching bodies in the present to our complicated shadows in the past are tugged, but only gently. We’re left with a clear and measured, not furious, claim for identity.

Next Wave Festival: [MIS]CONCEIVE, choreographer Thomas ES Kelly, performers Thomas ES Kelly, Natalie Pelarek, Caleena Sansbury, Taree Sansbury, Northcote Town Hall, Melbourne, 17-22 May

Alison Finn works in criminal law in Melbourne, with particular interests in the law and the philosophy of human dignity, privacy, surveillance and ‘big data.’ She also writes creatively in various forms and continues a contemporary dance practice.

This review was written in the DanceWrite dance reviewing workshop. Read more reviews here.

DanceWrite was conducted by RealTime editors Keith Gallasch and Virginia Baxter with mentors Andrew Fuhrmann and Jana Perkovic. The workshop was an initiative of Hannah Matthews as part of her Australia Council-funded Sharing Space program and was presented in collaboration with Next Wave and RealTime.

RealTime issue #132 April-May 2016 pg.

© Alison Finn; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

25 May 2016
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