Phillip Adams: seriously playful

Jonathan Marshall: Balletlab, Endling ‘Self-Encasing’ Trilogy: Part #1

Phillip Adams’ Amplification (1999) was an intensely focused study of damaged physicality and desire. His new work, Endling, however is stylistically closer to Adams’ Upholster (2001), employing a jump-cut, mixmaster approach to develop something akin to an absurdist opera. Musical references identify which aesthetic tropes are evoked and assaulted in each of Adams’ scenarios: bucolic neo-classicism for ballet, Modernist dissonance for empty angst, Ligeti for 2001-style fantasies of rebirth.

Adams treats culture and art history as a bazaar, plundering them for ironic details and unlikely, kitsch amalgams. While Upholster is ultimately little more than a choreographically-complicated, funny and sexy divertissement, leaping from the Karma sutra to furniture upholstery, the grab-bag historicism of Endling charts a more coherent and thought-provoking path through the detritus of high and low culture.

Thematically, Endling deals with issues of animality, with the dancers both applying anthropomorphisms to the biological elements they engage with (a fox stole looks back, quizzically, at Stephanie Lake after a brief, sexualised encounter) as well as becoming animal themselves. The early section has an almost hysterical energy, flinging bodies rushing from one scenario to another with a pathological illogicality reminiscent of Lake’s own Love is the Cause (2001). This explosion of themes and movement soon stabilises into a more measured approach however, with Adams increasingly framing and posing his events into lightly moving tableaux.

The comic bizarreness of Endling had me thinking of Grand Union dance theatre or ‘the World’s First Ever Pose-Band’ from the 1970s. Adams has remained close to a maniacally Pop-art sensibility. The Pop reference is also significant in that the humour he develops, while strong, comes from a sense of irony more akin to Warhol’s flat persona than the Chunky Move productions he and several of his dancers have worked on. This is intensely serious play, the characters attempting new rituals for a world where animality-whatever it may signify-is at best attenuated and difficult to encounter. The performers stretch out a massive cowhide between them like a trampoline and rearrange glass-eyed fur wraps upon it, as though testing a form of neo-paganism-but like everything else in Endling (as opposed toAmplification) no desire, satisfaction or ‘primal force’ is evoked. These are rituals which fail to produce a religion. Like Adams’ own approach to culture, the characters of his drama burrow through material without settling anywhere.

Endling can therefore be read as a critique of Martha Graham’s primitivist works such as Into the Labyrinth. Unlike Graham (or even Stephen Page in reappropriating Graham devices), Adams is not suggesting that references such as bullfighting allow us access to a primitive, pre-civilised state. Animality is finally seen as nothing more than a mirror held up to humanity, a projection of human concerns, and not “Nature untamed.” For Adams’ characters, to be animal metaphoricises social marginality, sexuality, or (in a lingering duet between Byron Perry and Toby Mills) homoeroticism. Ultimately the stuffed animals the dancers play with, or the projected footage of the last Tasmanian tiger, preserve a distance from both performer and audience, remaining objects which play in our (human) imagination.

Balletlab, Endling ‘Self-Encasing’ Trilogy: Part #1, choreographer Phillip Adams, primary design Sally Smart, lighting Paul Jackson; performers Michelle Heaven, Stephanie Lake, Toby Mills, Byron Perry, Brook Stamp, Joanne White. Dancehouse: Balletlab, company-in-residence, Melbourne, June 12-16.

RealTime issue #51 Oct-Nov 2002 pg. web

© Jonathan Marshall; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 October 2002