Physical diffusions

Zsuzsanna Soboslay Moore reviews Twelve Seas and talks to choreographer Gary Rowe

Alan Widdowson and Andrew Fifield in Twelve Seas

Alan Widdowson and Andrew Fifield in Twelve Seas

In London, I saw John Tavener at a performance of one of his cello works. Very tall and resplendent in dark suit, shock of white hair matched with equal shock of white leather slippers and a profile like Franz Liszt, his presence matched the soaring quality of the strings. There is yearning in the pull of his cello pieces, yearning and a human growl that has been subsumed in a battle of soul and animal with the ethereal realm. Appropriate, too, for Gary Rowe to have chosen Tavener’s Chant and Eternal Memory for solo cello/cello with strings for units of his Twelve Seas, interspersing long silences between the pull of strings. This is an elegant, meditative piece that seems awash with the blues of melancholy, waves, memory; of the loneliness of being marked by a ghost who is you/not you, a mirror not quite of the same substance. Four dancers slide and pivot across and into the space, meeting only in the general hum of time, but never in the specifics of a handshake, birthing, wartime. The movements are flags marking moments of longing; moments caught leaning against a ship’s rail. Even an eyeblink is long—what you see between the sheets of skin with which we view, sense, absorb the world.

The arc of an ocean marks the opening, a projection with voice-over. The projections are held to this vista: only the sun moving across to mark a progression in time. Fundamentally, we stay on a long sea journey throughout the piece. There is no landing (although there is, perhaps, the desire to land); Poseidon’s element, perhaps the song of corpses thrown in.

Ruth Gibson enters, sliding backwards, her arms stretch ahead, behind, a gesture from the heart into the world. She is vulnerable, with her backward slide, but also engaging, strong. This is the gift one makes in entering: an egg’s offering. This is the risk one takes: to extend and meet, perhaps, no more than a curved line.

Two men enter, backwards. Mirrored by the two women; fisher-people pulling nets along the square. So quiet, this crossing the grid of the world. The men flick their feet like a horse its tail. Heads lift, dreaming of balloons. I watch their limbs: Gibson’s arches as they slide, Fifield and Widdowson’s foot-edges flickering turns, Sky’s arms going for a dive.

I’m not impressed with publicity touting a “fusion of movement, design, music, and text”. A piece this sure doesn’t deserve to have its elements stated like starting blocks each at a different race. Image and music are subtle and discrete, text spare; success or failure rests on the quality of embodiment and the diffusion of physical force, in relation to an almost personified sense of time. There is a moment where Gibson’s elbows bend, then knees, arms reaching up (foot stretched ahead) as if lifting a block of turf into the sky. This is a lovely moment, where muscle meets cosmos, time enters the blood. Less successful is when Fifield and Sky, for instance, become too translucent, as if force, leaking at the elbows, no longer fuses out to the world.

Ships horns sound: departures, long journeys, salt air. Couples re-enter, carrying one another. Is memory carried, or the carrier? One spirit with four legs—two that walk, two that fail to touch the ground. Another with four arms: a pair that hold, a pair stretched like the mast of a ship, ready for sail. Motion propelled not by volition but another force. Each action has its shadows.

Hellen Sky as Gibson’s double shadows Gibson’s opening solo movements like the wind prodding and provoking her turns. The volition to move is the push of something else’s hand. This is the force of another, an outside, who yet fails to copy, to mirror exactly, because not quite of the same blood. This is appropriate and quietly taunting, leaving a great sadness when Gibson next enters the space alone. “I have chosen you before, in other lifetimes, other centuries”, says the voice-over. The Double is a lonely accompaniment. Two can be stranger than one.

There are other moments of syncopation between the men, I suspect unintended, because these fractured moments are not quite exact enough and the synchronicity for the most part is so good. And yet I like the idea of them, these fissures, breaks in coordination: they fit the bill, intellectually, psychologically. They seem caused, mostly, by a subtler elasticity in one body, a different catch of breath in the ribs. Widdowson in particular seems to me to dance with a rubato which could be quite exquisite if given rein.

In the end, “the sea takes its colour back”. What is given is returned, goes back home. I must admit I dreaded the idea of a piece about this subject, fearing it exhausted before the dance began by a decade of theory and projects and plays; but Rowe has created an elegant, subtle and quietly disquieted piece that hovers in the place that expands and cools like ocean water, rising, falling in a day. This, too, is the who, the we, the I, the self that dives and dissolves and reforms as it swims. The subtle interplay of grasping, mirroring, and release, the residue of salt lining our human rims.

Dialogue with Gary Rowe

GR I worked from the text The Coral Sea by Patti Smith to create the movement/choreography—the ‘poetic’ images from that writing became the source/resource which defined/redefined the process of improvisation/composition. I also listened to We shall see Him as He is by John Tavener which too became a score (albeit a loose one) during the composition of the material.

ZSM What do you look for when you work with your dancers? What is the dialogue?

GR I work with people that I know personally as friends and colleagues and I try to work also with the same set of people—that really allows a ‘shorthand’ approach to work when time is limited (we both know what we are getting!). All the performers are practising artists in their own right and work from widely differing backgrounds of study and training—they are all involved in their own artistic research and development. I implicitly place my trust in them, in their ability to create and perform. All material created comes from an improvisational process which then is directed by myself into some form. I ask of them to enter fully into a process of creative development that hopefully allows their own personalities to come through. The dialogue is one of creator/performer and director, which evolves through time. I think that we all know each other well enough, and the demands of the work, to be able to be ourselves in the roles that we lay out. I am totally reliant [on] these people as they ‘become’ the work. I ask them to enter my ‘image’ world and to inhabit it with their own connections and to be there developing a language in movement.

ZSM The students in your workshop made much of how you trained them in sensing relationship, enabling improvisations with four, six, eight or nine students together on stage. How is your training of this skill different from that of other dance teachers/choreographers?

GR The difference is difficult to highlight. My teaching method has evolved from being ‘taught’. I don’t think I have one way of training a skill in perception. I would not want to claim such a standpoint. What I do pursue, challenge and encourage students to do is to work from a place where visual/choreographic strategies are as one. Training in how one ‘sees’ the world (both an external and internal process—a moment, a fragment of time, the larger picture) is central to how one sees language. Movement is located for me in that matrix—what we choose to see or to be seen. The choices inherent in this process are central to my teaching methodology.

ZSM Another description was about how you encouraged them to “open the body”. What is it you think you “open” bodies to?

GR I hope that I ‘open’ bodies to the multiple complex of possibilities that arise from working and the taking of responsibility and action for one’s imagination/creation and to make that manifest in some way.

ZSM The text for Twelve Seas was sometimes exquisite. Still separable, though, into moving and spoken parts. Although I work differently myself, I didn’t mind it in this piece, due to its meditative nature. Sometimes the words functioned like music, like rhythms interspersed with the strains of Tavener’s piece. This is perhaps effective because the cello itself has such a human voice.

I’m wondering, though, whether you ever have speech more linked with movement? Do you ever get your dancers to speak as they dance?

GR I have as yet to make a piece where the dancers speak. This I feel requires a special skill and creates a different kind of work to what I am interested in. The text when used in the work is read by actors, sometimes live. The next work is being made in collaboration with [Melbourne dancer/academic] Philipa Rothfield and will be a series of five solos each with a philosophy paper attached. Themes of lying, death, love, place and acceptance/resistance will be explored. The text will be read by a female actor, delivered as a paper, whilst the dance proceeds.

Gary Rowe returns to Australia for more workshops next year.

Twelve Seas, Exploring themes of the double. Gary Rowe Company (UK). Conceived and directed by Gary Rowe. Created and performed by Andrew Fifield, Ruth Gibson, Alan Widdowson, Hellen Sky. Photography by Jim Roseveare. Sound: Michael Burdett. Dancehouse, Carlton, February 5.

RealTime issue #24 April-May 1998 pg. 39

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

1 April 1998