Two dance theatre works at this year’s OzAsia Festival attested to the form’s remarkable elasticity and varied, if not always lucid, methods of making meaning from the everyday.

The Record

Properly speaking, the first, 600 Highwaymen’s The Record, ought not to have been in the festival at all. Its creator-directors are Americans Abigail Browde and Michael Silverstone, and the work doesn’t otherwise explicitly engage with Asian culture or themes.

I was, nevertheless, grateful that OzAsia Artistic Director Joseph Mitchell’s enthusiasm for The Record overrode any parochialism that might otherwise have kept it out. It’s a deeply humane and affecting work, one that subtly bonds its non-professional performers and audience as it seeks to codify the complex rituals of human interactions between strangers by means of a stripped back, gestural aesthetic. In the process, our position as viewers is inverted as the performers—dressed much as we are in ordinary chinos, shirts, trainers and the like—stare expressionlessly out at us.

In The Empty Space, Peter Brook famously noted that all that is needed for an act of theatre to take place is for someone to walk across an empty space while being watched by another. So begins The Record. A single performer—in this case, a schoolgirl in uniform—walks to the centre of Chris Morris and Eric Southern’s austere set: a rectangular strip of unvarnished wood overhung with a long, white piece of cloth behind which a soft light rises and falls in intensity throughout the work’s 60 minutes. After what seems an interminable stretch of stillness and quiet, the girl strikes a series of classical poses—for example, back leg dipped, front leg powerfully jutting, one fist raised in the air—of a kind that will be repeated and extended by the rest of the performers.

The poses have the effect of heroicising the everyday, just as the work more broadly foregrounds the ordinary, throwing its performative aspects into sharp relief. As the poses are struck before dissolving into tableaux, cellist Emil Abramyan, placed to one side of the wingless stage, picks out pizzicato chords, later performing elements of Italian composer Carlo Alfredo Piatti’s Caprice No 2, his bow playing introducing a warming melodiousness. Brandon Wolcott’s electronic score, played live via a laptop and combining drones, crackles and machine- and speech-like disturbances, provides additional layers of ambient sound.

The performers who join the schoolgirl—gradually at first, singly and in pairs, then in long, dizzying files towards the finale—comprise a stunningly diverse group (perhaps this alone is justification enough for The Record’s inclusion in a cross-cultural arts festival) made up of 45 people selected from the community. Together, they form a sort of living document of the vastly differing ages, nationalities and body types represented here, at this time. There’s an Adelaide Airport worker in hi-vis shirt and dark pants; a young, heavily pierced woman in pale makeup and gothic dress; a slim Chinese-Australian in her 20s; and children of both sexes in casualwear or long, animal-patterned pyjamas. We often hear, and it’s true, that our stages fail to reflect the ethnic and cultural diversity with which our city streets teem; The Record spectacularly corrects this imbalance, and in a way that feels quietly revelatory.

The performers, each of whom rehearsed individually and had not met each other prior to the first performance (the one I attended), frequently watch us in a gently probing exchange that calls attention to our own heterogeneity and status as strangers to one another who are, nevertheless, intimately linked by time and place. Those close-quarters, sometimes long-held gazes, as well as the moments of physical connection between the performers—pugilistic fists compassionately drawn back, hands and falling bodies briefly held, as in a trust exercise—accrue a tremendous emotional force, especially as they counterpoint the increasing mass of bodies and activity on stage. (At various points, multiple performers jog around the perimeter of the space, a reminder perhaps of the frenetic pace of life outside the theatre.)

Eventually, most of the performers disperse, leaving a small group upstage that includes, at the last, the two musicians, a low wash of sound playing out as Wolcott leaves his computer. Finally, just one woman remains. She moves downstage in her plain clothes as far as the seating bank will allow, looking, somehow, less lonely than the schoolgirl had, at peace with herself and the world. I want to hug her, or for her to reach out and touch me. Only this final, longed-for gesture is withheld in a work that is exceptionally and movingly generous.

As If To Nothing

Not to be confused with Craig Armstrong’s 2002 ambient electronic album with the same title, City Contemporary Dance Company’s As If To Nothing proved an altogether more mixed experience. Founded in 1979 by longtime Artistic Director Willy Tsao, the company has toured extensively internationally, its more than 200 productions to date reflecting trends in Chinese contemporary dance as well as, latterly, the vibrancy of post-Handover Hong Kong, where the company is based. As If To Nothing has been around since 2009, and it’s tempting to suggest the production’s age accounts, at least in part, for its slight tiredness (Brook again: “about five years is the most a particular staging can live”).

Sang Jijia’s set is a vertiginous white box. Its floor is faux-marble, polished and smooth. Within it resides both a smaller, narrower box on wheels, like a caravan or food vending truck but reminiscent of a scaled-down modern apartment in its sharp, white minimalism, and a section of wall into which, at one end, a full-size table on casters has been embedded. Cut into the box and wall segment are doorways and glassless windows through which the 14 performers—both male and female, each physically powerful and drably attired in loose, grey slacks, dresses and t-shirts—variously protrude faces and limbs.

The choreography, again by Jijia, lightly reflects the influence of mentor William Forsythe (Jijia spent four years with Forsythe’s Dresden-based company, returning to China in 2006) in its—not always cohesive¬—melding of the abstract and representational and its incorporation of technology and the spoken word. As If To Nothing’s structure further recalls Forsythe’s work in that it’s broken into eight segments—delineated, sometimes untidily, by blackouts—which both repeat and subtly evolve the obsessively enacted, tic-like gestures of each previous vignette.

The constantly shifting set and relentless kineticism of the dancers, all framed by the projection onto the walls and box of Adrian Yeung’s live video capture—sometimes delayed to disorientating effect, often freakishly distorted or punctured by gaps—is intended to invoke the slippery unreliability of memory. But it was, for me, the work itself that remained fundamentally muddled. Without subtitles, little sense can be made of the dancers’ exhortations, and I was left puzzled by the frequent manipulation of a small section of the box, repeatedly slid out and back like a desk drawer.

For all its technological saturation, too, some of the vignettes, such as a duet between a male and female dancer, feel oddly conventional, even trite. The video projections, though competently handled by Yeung, are unimpressive in themselves and further suffer from the work’s dysfunctional logic, which reduces them to empty spectacle. Only Dickson Dee’s insistently percussive live score, featuring industrial noise, arpeggiated piano and nightmarishly altered everyday sounds like clock ticks and alarms, was able to sustain my curiosity.

2016 OzAsia Festival: 600 Highwaymen, The Record, creators, directors Abigail Browde, Michael Silverstone, music Emil Abramyan, Brandon Wolcott; Space Theatre, 21-24 Sept; City Contemporary Dance Company, As If To Nothing, set design, choreography Sang Jijia, video design Adrian Yeung, music Dickson Dee; Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide Festival Centre, 22-24 Sept

Top image credit: The Record: Adelaide, 600 Highwaymen, OzAsia 2016, photo Claudio Raschella