Right attitude, right latitude

Erin Brannigan: Brisbane Powerhouse, l’attitude 27.5 degrees

Cazerine Barry, Sprung

Cazerine Barry, Sprung

According to my dictionary, an ‘audient’ is a listener, and this particular aspect of my experience at l’attitude 27.5? probably began with my walk between the rose beds at New Farm Park past noisy crowds of hefty looking crows. Is it just me or is Brisbane teeming with those big black birds? The auditory offensive hit a peak with the 2 live shows I managed to catch and the La Bouche installation. (The sprawling program which covers nearly 4 weeks means that interstate visitors have to be content with a slice of the festival.) Lisa O’Neill and Caroline Dunphy’s Rodin’s Kiss and Cazerine Barry’s Sprung are both challenging auditory experiences with scores by Brett Collery and Barry & Adrian Hauser respectively. And the La Bouche installation, a computer program including tracks and videoclips from the group, has their particular brand of early 80s electronic pop spilling into the cavernous interior of the Powerhouse. Of the 2 workshops I had a peek at, Brian Lucas was toying with spoken text combined with gestural movement, while Vinildas Gurukkal’s masterclass (part of the Igneous company residency) was the exception, being an exercise in silent mimicry.

As for ‘bodies’ and ‘technology’, they were both present in abundance. The emphasis is on ‘live arts’ as well as ‘contemporary dance’ in the program copy from curator Zane Trow (who shared this job with Powerhouse Program Manager Gail Hewton). The part of the festival I saw works through, but also around, the idea of independent contemporary dance practice. The bodies here do much more than the requisite mind-body exploration that often defines ‘cutting edge’ dance. Collaborations with actors, pop musicians, martial arts experts and untrained dancers, and technologies such as projection, lighting, web-casting, music video and storytelling place the dancer/choreographer within a broader context of cultural innovation. The larger vision of the organisers in producing such a program can perhaps be traced to the refreshing ease with which they use the much tortured term ‘independent.’ Clearly defining this as “individual dancers and choreographers who work outside of the established ‘dance company’ structure”, l’attitudes 27.5? can get on with the more important job of servicing the wide variety of practitioners who fall within the independent field. With Hewton sharing the curator’s role with Brian Lucas next year, and a strong shift of emphasis towards workshops, the annual l’attitudes 27.5? could make interstate travel very worthwhile for independents looking to share ideas and make connections.

Creating from the Body 1

First stop was Brisbane-based dance-choreographer Brian Lucas’ 2 single-day workshops, “Creating from the Body” 1 & 2. Open to untrained dancers, it attracted an interesting cross-section of participants, some from circus and non-dance backgrounds. Entering the Stores Studio, I thought for a moment that I had stumbled on a John Cleese Funny Walks workshop, with the participants strutting, waddling, scurrying and loping across the room while muttering to themselves. It was soon revealed that fairytales had provided the starting point for this exercise, familiar stories which were then combined with random actions. The participants’ odd trajectories across the space then made perfect sense; physically moving from one scenario to another or to mark the passage of time, and the activity of storytelling, are natural partners.

Lucas later told me he was attempting to disrupt the relation between the performer and their personal stories, in the creation of solo work through the various means I had witnessed; beginning with traditional stories, adding incongruent gestures or new instructions regarding speed and order, interrupting the spoken text with other words or giving so many instructions that interesting things come out of the resulting ‘mistakes.’ He finds that these processes provide a “non-threatening” way into telling one’s story. At one point Lucas defined what was ‘interesting’ as “the bits that you want to follow, or see again.” So the individual story emerges from the editing of the material, and the movements that survive the process are perhaps those that resist immediate perception. Providing a means for distancing the performer from the performance is a central aim, and Lucas stressed that it was the effort or attempt to achieve this which was central to the workshop process.

Lucas, like so many independents, works alone, but has found—or rather has had a role in creating—supportive communities such as the Cherry Herring which preceded the Powerhouse development in Brisbane. Now an artist in residence as part of the Incubator creative development program at the Powerhouse, Lucas is in an ideal position to develop his own practice and share something of his experience with the larger community through projects such as these workshops. And these 2 activities feed each other, as Lucas points out. The residency also offers a certain credibility given what he describes as the “nebulous nature of the freelancer”, and places him in contact with the array of artists who pass through the venue. The custom-made facilities at the Powerhouse have had another less quantifiable effect on artists such as Lucas; as he puts it, “if you know the space values you then you value the space.”

Rodin’s Kiss

Later that night Robyn Backen’s installation The Building That Speaks, built into the walls of the venue, guided me back to the Powerhouse with its flashing morse code messages for Rodin’s Kiss. In this work by 2 solo artists, actress/director Caroline Dunphy and dancer/choreographer Lisa O’Neill, the bold staging places the 2 figures against the powerful vertical thrust of what looks like a huge sheet of ice. Dramatic lighting strikes from the sides, sometimes fractured to throw cracks of light across the stage. The extreme changes in lighting and music (designed by Matt Scott and Brett Collery respectively) cut across the action just as often as they accentuate it, so that between these interjections, and the way the drastic set and lighting effects transect the physical space, the theme of unnatural interference or an improper interruption to an established order emerges.

This is in keeping with the narrative on which the work is based; a woman seduced by an ice sculpture of Rodin’s The Kiss. The protagonist’s desire transgresses the parameters of romantic love. This character, played by O’Neill, spends most of the work in a kind of stupor, swooning at the sculpture with her back to us, knees turned in, wandering from side to side with her arms raised, or showing us the face of stealthy desperation as she crouches low to the ground. Her embodiment of the character is complete and consistent; she repeats this swooning walk often and the moments of desolate inaction have the same deflated posture. But it was the more agile choreographic sequences that I began to anticipate. Having never seen O’Neill perform before, her eclectic phrases, grounded physicality and theatrical delivery brought on one of those revelatory moments when movement as a way of articulating does seem endless in its possibilities. She begins the show with a series of falls to the floor (falling for him?) that happen so instantaneously, the actual movement can hardly be seen, just the before and after. This quality continues through a phrase against the ice wall, O’Neill’s jagged shapes succeeding each other with almost indiscernible transitions. Flashdance literally flashes through my mind, but the resonance in O’Neill’s movement with a popular, punchy style of dance, lingers. There’s definitely something sexy and radically hip about these more rigorous choreographic sequences. This impression may be enhanced by her costume (by Sandra Andersen) of a short dress, bustier-style top and knee pads.

Dunphy played 1 female and 2 male characters who all work around the central female protagonist. She, in turn, seems in some ways to conjure them into being. The idea of characterisation is never straightforward in this work, but costume, actions and voice are utilised to distinguish 4 separate ‘players.’ Dunphy also spoke but it wasn’t simply a case of spoken text and various characterisations filling in the information suggested by the mute, but physically articulate, O’Neill. The dialogue was obtuse and delivered with a forced theatricality that deflected any straightforward reading, and little of the text stayed with me perhaps for that reason. One character walked casually into the action, hands in pockets, speaking in a relaxed drawl. The other male character entered with a glittering and dramatic flourish, dressed in a dark suit and hat in Michael Jackson’s Smooth Criminal mode, throwing off a couple of Jackson’s moves and poses. The second female character appeared only briefly, perhaps as the displaced woman in the sculpture, asking for her lover’s return.

The gaze plays an important role throughout with the performers looking directly out at the audience or at the ice wall, at one point singling out spectators and consequently drawing them into the drama. This redirection of the gaze, away from each other on stage and through what is beyond their physical presence, is so essential to the work that the final moment when 2 of the characters lock eyes is shattering. The themes of seduction, desire, romance and ‘first love’ emerged for me mainly through this refraction of the gaze, loosening these overworked ideas from any specific identity and bouncing them between the stage and audience, but also through the figure of O’Neill, physically drenched in a sort of love-sick and desperate inertia.

Vinildas Gurrukal Masterclass

Vinildas Gurrukal’s masterclasses in Kalaripayatt, the traditional martial art of Kerala in southern India, are part of the 6-week Igneous residency at Brisbane Powerhouse. Igneous’ co-artistic directors, James Cunningham and Suzon Fuks, say their work with Gurrukal grew out of time spent in India where they were impressed by the quantity and variety of physical skills. The nature of Gurrukal’s body practices and his willingness to share resources provided them with not only an artistic collaborator, but a training methodology. Kalaripayatt involves exercising the mind as well as body and has an intensely spiritual dimension. The class begins and ends with salutations directed at a Hindu icon, placed in the corner of the room, and proceeds with a meditative focus and mood.

As in Lucas’ workshop, the members of the class come from varied backgrounds, some with dance training, some circus and martial arts disciplines. The choreographic quality of Kalaripayatt, with its emphasis on agility rather than strength and on defensive moves rather than offensive, is demonstrated when Gurrukal partner’s each participant one-on-one. The student repeats Gurrukal’s movements so there’s a mirroring of his actions, a to and fro rhythm that has a swinging follow-through as opposed to an aggressive attack. Gurrukal can obviously do these movements in his sleep, watching each group of activity in the room and giving instructions while sparring. The eye choreography exercises are particularly intriguing, obviously designed to fix challengers in their sights, but looking very flirtatious.

Igneous Playshops

Gurrukal’s work with Igneous has also inspired the Lismore-based company to incorporate an Indian approach into their performance context. This new direction involves drawing from the geography and culture of the environment in which they are working, as well as being informed by the contingent status of the performative moment in Indian culture; the slippery shifts between warm-up and spectacle, audience attention and absence, performer and character. Hence the sight of Playshops’ participants climbing all over the interior of the Powerhouse in the Visy Foyer prior to Cazerine Barry’s Sprung.

Igneous are also continuing their investigation of video as a performance component. They utilise video in 5 ways: shooting to plan, projecting ‘live’ during the work so that the on and off screen performances correspond, utilising archival material in performance, using projection as ‘set’ and projecting onto bodies in the performance space. These approaches can overlap in any specific case and Cunningham describes it as a doubling of the performance space or “involution”.


What’s the difference between a computer program and an installation, or a video and an installation? I’m not sure, but I did enjoy the slice of 80s electronic music offered by the La Bouche program and the quick update on the transmute collective offered by the 2 videos on a loop, both in the Visy Foyer in the belly of the Powerhouse.

La Bouche was created by musician Andy Arthurs, one of the original members of the UK-based La Bouche collective, along with musician Philip Chambon and choreographer Lloyd Newson. Arthurs is now Head of Music at QUT and 2 of the dancers who worked with the group, Fiona Cullen and Shaaron Boughen, also work at QUT, hence the Brisbane interest. Newson, currently director of DV8 Dance Theatre, is of course Australian and another choreographer who worked on La Bouche’s first show, Graeme Watson, was artistic director of One Extra in Sydney for some time.

The most interesting aspects of the installation are the video clips for Reaching for Blue and La Bouche, as they give an idea of the cross-disciplinary collaborations that the group was involved in. The addition of filmmaker Peter Lydon and composer/performer Alan Belk rounded out the group’s performative range, with Belk’s “extended vocal technique” providing the signature element. The driving concept of the group was “the de-physicalisation of electronic music and its dislocation from the body”, and the use of the human voice as the basis for sampling created a distinctive sound that ranged from Manhattan Transfer on drugs to sublime choral sounds and many things in-between. Live appearances at major UK festivals and on television, video clips and recordings make up their body of work, but unfortunately there is no footage of the festival appearances.

The La Bouche video was choreographed by Newson and shares aesthetics with Phillipe Decoufle videos being made in simultaneously in France and the US, utilising rhythmic, almost graphic choreography, radical costumes and in-your-face special effects. The difference between this work and other music videos of the time (many of which were aesthetically progressive, such as the videos that accompanied the New Romantic wave in the UK) is the focus on dancers rather than singers and the originality of the choreography and some of the visual concepts. Squarish black sunglasses are de rigeur, smeared lipstick, spiky short hair and boxy red clothing, and the choreography for the 3 dancers sitting on chairs is all cool posturing with some nifty rhythmic footwork. The Reaching for Blue clip is more contemporary dance and less music video, shot in B&W with the same dancers caught in several locations. Shots of TVs and Barbie Dolls, and a jazz sensibility in the choreography, keeps things connected to the pop-culture world. La Bouche represents an enduring example of that ‘something else’ that was going on at the interface between the arts and popular music at that time.

The transmute installation has a more direct relevance to the l’attitude 27.5? program and speeds us ahead 2 decades to another interdisciplinary, multimedia collaboration. It consists of 2 looped videos; one on the making of a 1999 installation, transit_lounge (The Fantastic Adventures of Ling Change), and the other on a performance from earlier this year, Liquid Gold (The All New Adventures of Ling Change). The latter was the first outcome of the transmute collective’s residency at the Brisbane Powerhouse which will continue into 2002.

The artistic director of the collective is new media artist Keith Armstrong and Lisa O’Neill is the performer/choreographer who plays several roles in each of the works. They are joined by Gavin Sade, a multimedia interface designer, and sound designer Guy Webster. The samplers and video special effects of the 80s are replaced with digital technology, computer animation, web casting and custom built chat servers. What remains the same is a desire to find the humanity through the technology, and to that end the transmute collective are assisted by Dr Liz Baker, who brings the element of ‘philosophical ecology’ to the process, which manifests in both the form and content of the work. It informs the design of these interactive creations and produces visual elements such as the animated flowers that grow or die in response to the spectator’s interaction with the installation environment (transit_lounge).

There is obviously a strength in this collaboration that exceeds its parts, a point that is reiterated in the videos. The future for transmute is a new work, Transact, which will “produce a new ‘Net-work’ of interdependent installations connected by the Internet.” The collective’s overall aim is “putting some of the ‘liveness’ back into the work that is lost through the lo-fi images and sounds that the web currently allows.” It is hard to glean what kind of experience these real and virtual environments present to an audience. But descriptions and images of writers responding instantaneously to online performances, audience members feeling out their impact on a sensor driven installation and the cartoon-like characters dreamt up and costumed by O’Neill, all point to a warmer, fuzzier technological experience. While the overall style of the work is thoroughly contemporary, there was also a kind of comfort in the Alice in Wonderland feel of the Ling Change character and the images of O’Neill marking out her movements against a blue screen…just like Gene Kelly filming his scene with Jerry the mouse in Anchors Away.


Cazerine Barry’s double-bill, Sprung and Lampscape, was the perfect end to my Brisbane experience. As a solo performer Barry, like O’Neill, has embraced technology, specifically digital video design, which she projects onto a scrim in front of her live solo performance. Unlike O’Neill, Barry is almost a one-woman show, liberated by the ability to pre-program. For Sprung she is credited as choreographer, devisor, digital designer and sound mixer. She is assisted in this work by associate director Rachael Spiers.

Barry appears as a 60s girl/woman both on screen and behind, dressed in a demure house frock, knee-high black socks and flat black shoes. The plan of a house is super-imposed over the action and has a Patrick Caulfield-esque look, especially later depictions of room set-ups consisting of 2D black outlines. In one such room the real Barry blows through an air vent, fluttering the virtual Barry’s skirt, then the action is reversed. Humour runs through the piece and the kitschy 60s music operates through the same wild and abandoned editing process as the visuals. Constant transformation is the outstanding element of the work and I was surprised at the end to find myself back where I started with the house floor plan and the 2 Barrys. The visual, aural and cultural sidetrips on this journey take full advantage of the mutability of virtual environments, while directly reflecting the central theme of the work; “a dislocated sense of home and place” and the Australian dream of home ownership.

In a frenzy of capitalistic excess, Barry drives a coin like a steering wheel and poses in one of her many neat ‘frames’ beside prime-ministers’ portraits, subtly mocking their posturing. A male character appears who shrinks and grows all over the place. A monkey head and a skeleton frame Barry on either side as she sings and dances to a cute 30s tune, Busy Line. Then the image of a foetus appears with a corresponding voiceover and Barry is cocking her leg in a disturbing manner, crotch to the audience like a dog. The misty effect of the scrim clouds our vision of her at times and the roughness of some of the video images colludes with this effect to point to the presence of the technology. Barry has fun with these new tools and utilises them in a personable and relevant way.

With the choreography, I again have a sense of limitless possibilities. Barry appears to do whatever is right for this character in the various situations she finds herself in. Tap dancing, Charleston, go-go, stylised everyday gestures…She keeps pulling things out of her choreographic box of tricks as rapidly as the virtual world she has created leads us through its trippy labyrinth. Popular and social dance somehow makes perfect sense in this environment.

In Lampscape Barry is joined by sound designer Adrian Hauser and costume designer Anna Tregloan. This piece has a similar format to Sprung but a much darker tone, beginning with Barry rolling across the base of the scrim. The shadowing effect is more eerie than amusing now, the colonial figure changing size and multiplying like a ghost dredged up from the past and appearing on the screen by mistake. Rocking chairs, outback landscapes, stuffed kangaroos and a heavy ornamental proscenium frame (sometimes featuring old-fashioned doilies) conjure a colonial culture across generations. This piece features more extended dance sequences, both in terms of their length and the breadth of movement, with the ghosting effect forcing the audience to draw the figure out of the darkness.

l’attitde 27.5º: Creating from the Body 1, physical performance workshop with Brian Lucas, Stores Studio, Sept 23; Rodin’s Kiss, Lisa O’Neill & Caroline Dunphy, Sept 19-23; Masterclass with Vinildas Gurrukal, Stores Studio, Sept 8-Oct 13; La Bouche: A Retrospective, Visy Foyer, Sept 19-Oct 14; Transmute, Visy Foyer, Sept 19-Oct 14; Igneous Playshops, Turbine Rehearsal Room, Sept 5-Oct 13; Sprung, Cazerine Barry, Visy Theatre, Sept 26-30; Brisbane Powerhouse.

RealTime issue #46 Dec-Jan 2001 pg. 24-

© Erin Brannigan; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 December 2001