Next Wave Festival: The art of unlearning

Elyssia Bugg: [MIS]CONCEIVE

Thomas ES Kelly, [MIS]CONCEIVE

Thomas ES Kelly, [MIS]CONCEIVE

Thomas ES Kelly, [MIS]CONCEIVE

Through the wilderness of birdsong and a thumping, urban score, a school bell rings. Class is in session and, in Thomas ES Kelly’s MIS(CONCEIVE), the curriculum is one of unlearning.

Kelly is interested in constructing and then deconstructing, through sound, movement and speech the preconceptions of what it means to be an urban Aboriginal person in Australia. Early on he evokes a classroom, where each of the four dancers, in a uniform of grey tracksuits, hoodies tied neatly around their shoulders, take it in turns to raise their hand. They do so enthusiastically, desperately, as they wait to be called on. Though they have the answers, they’re made to stand in silence.

They take to folding and unfolding their jumpers, rolling them up to suggest pens that they use to complete assignments unseen. In light of recent events involving racial profiling, this image is potent: a supposed costume of thuggery used as a means of expression, albeit not the one many assign to it. As the dancers repeat the folding phrases, stereotypes and assumptions are carefully unpacked and repacked.

This sequence escalates as one of the four dancers tries harder, works longer and faster at completing each gestural repetition. Eventually the other three dancers isolate her, donning their hoods and performing violent pivoting movement punctuated by moments of rigid pausing as she clutches her jumper and loiters with uncertainty some distance away. The lone dancer is faced with the decision to either embrace exception or expectation. It’s a simple equation, one or the other, but the sequence ends before it’s resolved.

There is a mathematical thread woven through this work, illustrated most clearly as the dancers alternately take centre stage and try in vain to articulate verbally the simultaneity of their difference and similarity. Eventually, Kelly will deliver a monologue warning against assumptions drawn in black and white. And yet, there are no grey areas in the physical execution of his choreography. Instead there is an exactness, a sense of the well-rehearsed that implies the dancers have given this lesson many times before.

In a sequence in which a voiceover conveys the results of a survey comparing the fictions people associate with indigenous experience to the characteristics they attribute to mythical creatures, the dancers strike poses—vampires, mermaids and unicorns are mixed in with all manner of assumptions about welfare and substance abuse. The sequence is funny, until later, the outlines of the same poses are perceptible in what otherwise appears to be a phrase of pure movement—dragon fire, nicotine suck—among a pastiche of rhythmic circular stomping that is equally familiar in its distinct Aboriginality. The precision of each recognisable posture is striking as without the set-up, the repeated motifs would likely go unnoticed by the audience, taken for granted as just movement in a medium that dictates it.

Thomas ES Kelly is privileging his audience by revealing to them the kind of preconceptions that might otherwise slip by unnoticed in the movement of the everyday. Yet he is also illustrating how these notions can shift, how given time they can become warped, or disappear entirely, for better or worse. He is at play with this concept, encouraging the audience to be implicated in the process as he instigates a game of Chinese Whispers where, though the original phrase is inevitably lost, the intention of the piece as a whole takes on new clarity.

This sense of play and imagined realities takes the audience back to the place or time where notions of race and class are first conceived. It’s here, in the fictitious schoolyard, that the audience must partake in doing the math. Kelly declares in his closing monologue that “we are all the same,” a claim that he seemingly has been trying to dismantle over the course of the previous 45 minutes. From nobody, to many bodies, different bodies, to one experience. Is it possible to arrive at one utopian whole? It’s here that I wish to raise my hand, raise the question, as to whether I’ve drawn the right conclusions. Instead, I go back to the start and begin again.

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

Elyssia Bugg is a Melbourne-based writer, filmmaker and dance teacher. Her writing has appeared in Voiceworks, Lip Magazine and the RMIT Creative Writing Anthology. She is currently working on a short film about aliens and oblivion.

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.

© Elyssia Bugg; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

25 May 2016