Pretty ugly

Keith Gallasch

Age of Unbeauty, ADT

Age of Unbeauty, ADT

Age of Unbeauty, ADT

The Age of Unbeauty has a sombre beauty. Musically, from its minimalist beginnings, through glides and subterranean bubblings, through its sad piano reversed against heaving organ chords, its insistently ominous rumblings, it breathes not dissonance or dissent but a fluent angst, resignation even, and is in the end usurped (presumably it had nowhere else to go) by some sentimental Bjork hymning, happiness-to-go. The design is vertiginous. At the back of a deep space a huge wall, like a parquet floor viewed from above, stands as if about to fall. Performers standing on their hands dance against it, the world upside down. Hidden doors open. One reveals a naked man and woman forced painfully against a perspex barrier, looking like a Renaissance painting of Adam and Eve banished from Eden, but with nowhere to go, only this purgatory. To be purged of what? Until near the end of the work, the beauties of the place are austere, danced duets and trios that speak not of union and sensuality but of bodies locked in furious combat or exercising en masse as if to exorcise…what? It’s a world where the mass divides and turns on itself with a finely articulated cruelty—those who are now the other are naked or masked and manipulated like puppets, beautifully, with apparent compassion but a dangerous grip. This is a world where the blind lead the blind, their suit trousers down around their ankles as they traipse again along the wall. One man (Dean Walsh), a kind of Everyman, or rather no man, because he doesn’t fit, totters awkwardly through this nightmare unable to break through to connect, occasionally complicit, only once eloquent and beautiful as he dances the wall, as if to scale it, and, at the end of the performance staggers to the forestage and collapses, presumably finished. Around him are couples whose entwinings no longer seem knotted, but supple and responsive, but…too late? The performance has ended but the wall, as it was at the beginning of the performance, becomes a huge screen filled with faces of diverse ages and cultures and Bjork bjorks on and on. Poor old Bjork to be put to such use. It might have seemed a radical gesture a decade ago, but here it irks with more sentimentality than irony, as if, like Luke Smile’s score for the performance, Stewart simply couldn’t conjure optimism, only in this addendum. Conceived partly after September 11, The Age of Unbeauty has some sense of topicality—a single strand of barbed wire hangs high across the stage, beneath it, as the performance begins, figures stand or sit in groups, or alone, watching, waiting, perhaps like refugees. They regroup. Time passes. They shift. It’s a potent image. Soon, however, the nightmare speedily engulfs them and is only ever distantly evocative of the specific unbeauties of our age. The Age of Unbeauty is a powerful work, even if it short circuits itself from time to time, and even if it feels less coherent than it should. Its dark vision might have seemed less loaded and the dynamics of its finale more complex had it foregone its cinematic ending. As ever, the dancers are superb, meeting Stewarts’ theatrical and choreographic demands with verve, bringing beauty to torment, one of art’s strange but necessary conditions.

Australian Dance Theatre, The Age of Unbeauty, devised & directed by Garry Stewart, choreographed with the company, dramaturgy David Bonney, design Stewart, Gaelle Mellis, Geoff Cobham, costume Gaelle Mellis, sound design Luke Smiles, lighting Damien Cooper, video artist David Evans. The Action Pack Season, Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, June 26 – July 6.

RealTime issue #50 Aug-Sept 2002 pg. 34

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 August 2002