Selves imprisoned and released

Philipa Rothfield: Bagryana Popov, Subclass26A; Paul Romano, The Smallest Score and more

Subclass26A

Subclass26A

We are deprived of strength when we feel pity. The loss of strength which suffering as such inflicts on life is still further increased and multiplied by pity. Pity makes suffering contagious.

Bagryana Popov’s Subclass26A leaves little doubt about the liberal aspirations of Australian society: when it comes to our refugee policy, don’t bother looking for any. Find instead countless petty cruelties dressed up in diaphanous civility. Subclass26A is a mixture of motion, text, speech and sound. As a work involving dancers and movement, it dramatises human relationships through abstraction. As a textual character piece, it mixes dialogue with naturalism. It also addresses the way in which the nation state imagines and practises its right to exclude.

Grey bodies interact in the grey space of detention. Some of them are prisoners, hapless immigrants, others their guards. A few guards are nice, others are less so. Whatever the case, the language is the same. It is designed to destroy people. Bodies jostle over a single musical chair, each sitting and speaking only for a moment. Who are you? Can you tell us in no time at all? Simon Ellis repeats a mesmerising set of gestures. He is at the head of a queue, articulating his self. Inmates wait for their interview, not knowing when it will occur. A man’s face is delicately mauled. One body is able to shirtfront another, to assert an invasion of the other’s personal space. How is it that one person can do these things to another with the sanction of the state?

Is passivity the response? No, there is aggression, frustration, despair, rejection, friendship, withdrawal. Each inmate has an identity. One is from Iraq. He has a story–not that it’s believed. But we believe him. He searches our faces, speaking a language we do not know. His energy pierces the gap between us. Majid Shokor, the man playing an Iraqi is an Iraqi. The real underpins the imaginary. His grace–not dancerly grace, something else–is arresting. In fact, each of the performers is skilled, well chosen.

Despite my sympathies, despite my politics, I find all my perversities come to the surface prior to experiencing Subclass26A. Perhaps I have been reading too much Nietzsche of late. Subclass26A is about our stupid and cruel treatment of refugees, a source of national shame. So why resile from an artwork which addresses such matters? Perhaps it is because I imagine that this work will manipulate its spectator towards some end, that I am to dance when my strings are pulled. However, a work like this operates at many levels. Its differences of style and form are quilted together. The use of percussion throughout the work gives it a Brechtian character in that the drums announce the drama. Yet we identify with the people depicted. Many of the texts used are drawn from Federal Government documents–form 866C, Application for a Protection Visa; a DIMIA draft letter to Iranian detainees; lists of boat arrivals, nationalities–nothing could be more ‘real.’ Yet there are sections which are silent and stylised. Some scenes pin you up against the wall, others let you circle them from afar. The audience strides off knowing that others shuffle towards an unknown destination.
Paul Romano, The Smallest Score and more

Paul Romano, The Smallest Score and more

Paul Romano’s The Smallest Score and more consists of 2 pieces: Rapid, performed by Elissa Lee and Paul Romano, and The Smallest Score, a solo work for Romano. Rapid is in sections. The dancers move separately: Lee occupies Dancehouse’s little proscenium stage towards the back, while Romano roams the space of the floor close to the audience. Eggshells crackle as Lee emerges, snaking across the stage: embryonic throbbing. Her looking is phylogenetic, an organism beginning to see the world.

In contrast, Romano simply offers his back to the spectator, crouched low on his haunches: skull-hips-heels. Time passes, he stays. Lee reappears standing, articulating her arms with a percussive, jointed motion, circling her head. She is against the wall, rather than sharing weight with it, beginning to move, arching, turning. She indicates the expanse of her stomach with her hands, a flat square, then twists away, her spine at an occult angle. She is quite beautiful, a see-saw dipping. Light infuses the movement with a quiet quality, sepia-black, contemplative, fluid. Romano performs an incredibly fast series of movements very close to the audience. His limbs, his head, flung in a flurry away from his centre. Repeat, repeat, his speed and proximity a gust of wind that tails off into a chant of panting as he catches his breath. Finally, Elissa Lee is upside down against the wall. We look as if from above, the wall is her floor because, this time, she pours weight into it.

Both Rapid and the ensuing solo proceed as if constructing movement from the limbs, their joints providing the mobility which arises from the gap between bones. The Smallest Score offers Paul as a person, not merely the subject of movement. Here, as before, his sense of flow arises in the joints as he establishes a lexicon of movement possibilities. Although these actions would seem to create machine-like motion, he turns this into fluid movement. Small moments of spinal continuity punctuate an angular succession of gestures. For the spine is intensely mobile, offering a veritable wealth of vertebrae. How is it that the whole of movement is greater than the sum of its parts?

In The Smallest Score Romano reveals his self, allowing us to watch him, engaging us directly with his look. Gobbledygook softens the atmosphere of this serious endeavour, for The Smallest Score and more represents sustained labour on Romano’s part. He asks questions of his work, finding a kinaesthetic through investigation, opening out that process through performance.

Subclass26A, director Bagryana Popov; performers Natalie Cursio, Simon Ellis, Nadja Kostich, Majid Shokor, Rodney Afif, Ru Atma; Fourtyfivedownstairs, Melbourne; Feb 15-25

The Smallest Score and more, choreographer Paul Romano; performers Elissa Lee, Paul Romano; Dancehouse, Melbourne; Feb 23-25

RealTime issue #66 April-May 2005 pg. 16

© Philipa Rothfield; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 April 2005