of love and purgatory

matthew clayfield: daniel micich, shiver

Gerard Van Dyck, Jacqui Claus, Shiver

Gerard Van Dyck, Jacqui Claus, Shiver

Gerard Van Dyck, Jacqui Claus, Shiver

“IF NINE SPOKEN-WORD PIECES OUT OF 10 WILL BE IMPROVED BY THE ADDITION OF MOVEMENT SKILLS,” MELBOURNE DANCE CRITIC CHRIS BOYD WROTE AT THE CONCLUSION OF THE 2008 MELBOURNE INTERNATIONAL ARTS FESTIVAL, THEN “NINE MOVEMENT PIECES OUT OF 10 WILL BE TURNED TO STONE BY THE INCLUSION OF THE SPOKEN WORD.”

Boyd’s Law, as I came to think of it, served as the opening salvo in his critique of the festival’s patchy dance theatre line-up, which that year included below average work by Chunky Move, Lucy Guerin Inc and KAGE. Wendy Houstoun’s Happy Hour and Desert Island Dances were the most accomplished shows in the increasingly ubiquitous category, but even they wound up proving the first and second clauses respectively of the critic’s dictum.

The thrill that one gets from finding the one-in-10 exception to the latter of those clauses is directly proportionate to how often one does so. It almost goes without saying that the thrill is very great indeed.

Danielle Micich’s Shiver doesn’t quite provide it. The independent choreographer’s latest work, which spent much of its five-year development biting its tongue, hasn’t exactly been turned to stone now that it has learned to speak. But it is nevertheless less nimble on its feet than it might previously have been, more fragmentary and choppy, with a lengthy monologue towards the end, in particular, damming the natural flow of the piece. Worse, both the monologue and earlier instances of speech, such as that in which the dancers enter and start filling out personal questionnaires, reading the pop-psychological questions aloud and laughing at one another’s answers, render the themes of the piece too explicit. The problem with speech acts of this kind is not that they lessen the amount of movement in a piece, but that they reduce the potential meanings that movement might take on. The dancers’ bodies are denied their contradictions, their nuances and their possibilities, and the audience is denied the right to interpret any of the above.

Admittedly, much of the movement in the piece is explicit, too, tending rather more towards figuration than abstraction. And it wouldn’t be a stretch to describe the movement as a kind of physical narration. Performers Gerard Van Dyck, Leanne Mason, Jacqui Claus and Lewis Kilpatrick enter one at a time via conveyor belt. Naked but for their underwear and standing upright, they remind one of the awkward looking family of four replicated ad infinitum in the animated opening credit sequence of Monty Python’s Meaning of Life: “Or are we just simply spiralling coils of self-replicating DNA-A-A-A?” The performers proceed to dress in the clothes provided and to fill out the questionnaires, which ask them about the times they were most happy, sad, scared and so on. Their memories now jogging, they begin to move too. Indeed, Shiver is more than anything a kind of memory play: even when the choreography is more joyous than tortured, as when Van Dyck and Mason engage in a slow, highly emotional pas de deux, the sense one gets is less of watching a bridal waltz than of the echo of one. Only during Claus and Kilpatrick’s lusty duet towards the beginning of the work is there any sense of immediacy or of watching something unfold in the present.

As that last sentence suggests, the relationships between the characters do occasionally shift and change, but in general the age and gender breakdown of the performers evokes a nuclear family, and the aforementioned monologue ensures that this reading remains dominant. Delivered with great restraint by Mason, her role as mother confirmed beyond doubt, the monologue in question tells the story of a day at the beach, during which a child is accidentally killed. Emotionally moving and thematically relevant, it is also overkill. Kilpatrick’s character dies more or less concurrently and the ritual by which the performers prepare his prostrate body in death is more mysterious and affecting than the words preceding it.

The performers return Kilpatrick to the conveyor belt: the end of the factory line now becomes the mouth of the crematorium furnace. Moments later, Kilpatrick returns, standing upright again. At first I was not so sure about this denouement, feeling that the theme of loss would be better served by the performer’s palpable absence. The more I’ve thought about it, however, the more his understated return feels appropriate. As with Van Dyck and Mason’s memory of romance, Kilpatrick’s passing, like the monologue, is a recollection: he’s already dead.

The others may well be dead too, in which case this belt-fed room is a purgatory in which memories reconstitute themselves for a moment: courtship, companionship, family, loss. These memories all have one thing in common: they are born exclusively of love. Indeed, if Shiver could have done without the spoken word, then this review could have done with fewer written ones. It could and probably should have consisted solely of Philip Larkin’s assertion: “Our almost-instinct almost true: What will survive of us is love.”

Shiver, director Danielle Micich, performers Jacki Claus, Lewis Fitzpatrick, Leanne Mason, Gerard van Dyck, sound Kingsley Reeve, lighting Joseph Mercurio, producer Performing Lines WA, Dolphin Theatre, University of Western Australia, Perth, Nov 17-19, 2011

RealTime issue #107 Feb-March 2012 pg. 32

© Matthew Clayfield; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

21 February 2012