The dance of words

Helen Omand: Restless Dance Company and Australian Dance Theatre, InSpace

Dana Nance, Andrew Pandos, Unspoken Outloud

Dana Nance, Andrew Pandos, Unspoken Outloud

A combination of dance company aims, cultures and choreographic processes cross fertilized with mixed casts, makes for a thought-provoking double bill from Restless Dance Company and the Australian Dance Theatre in the Adelaide Festival Centre’s innovative InSpace program.The 2 companies merged and broke into 2 groups, one working with Garry Stewart, the other with Kat Worth. Taking the use of words as a starting point, each choreographer explores the way in which words furnish identity and signify or cloud meaning. The juxtaposition of the 2 works draws attention to their distinctive lexicons and different approaches to dance making.

Kat Worth explores how abstract the experience of communication can be in a play with the dualistic presence and absence of words. Garry Stewart’s work resides in the conceptual, linguistic interplay between the signs and symbols of the written word and movement, toying with words as carriers of our cultural values. Both works are richly complemented by music composed by Darrin Verhagen and the perceptive designs of Gaelle Mellis and Geoff Cobham.

Present Tense furthers Stewart’s investigation of written language placed side by side with dance, first posed in Birdbrain. Unlike the witty fashion accessory T-shirts in that work, the words here are inanimate, 3-dimensional props, sculpturally filling the space within which the dancers pose figuratively and are humorously book-ended, filling in the blanks to suggest meaning. This is a wordplay game where strangely the actions of the dancers bring character and life to the words. The ever changing juxtapositions between dancers and words form various meanings, relationships, or act as descriptors for previous actions. Short vignettes play out the word script through literal representation or physical and theatrical interpretations.

Birdbrain was high voltage, Present Tense is stripped back, reduced and austere. The costuming and neutral staging provide a blank page upon which letters, words, phrases and individual personalities are writ, sometimes small, sometimes large in the open, white wingless space.

Primarily an existential endeavour, the poignant solo moments of aloneness danced by Gemma Coley (‘lovely’, ‘love’, ‘evolve’), and the reflexivity of being an outsider danced by James Bull (‘us’, ‘them’, ‘other’), brought an emotive quality to this cerebral gameplay.

The second half of the work picks up pace as the descriptors fail: human relationships appear to transcend the need for meaning, rapid-fire moments of pure dance inserted between the graveyard of words, intricate manipulating trios and entwined duets. The placing of words onto sleeping bodies concludes the work, suggesting both are media; conveyors of meaning through signals and signs.

In this work Stewart shares French choreographer Jerome Bel’s attraction to semantic gameplay between objects and bodies, and identity construction via acculturation. Stewart’s richly conceptual and humorous work departs from the purely minimalist propositions of Bel through the inclusion of pure unadulterated dancing and expressive theatrical moments, emphasizing dance over performance art.

Unspoken Outloud focuses on the act of communication itself, suggesting that language, spoken or written, is a complex social construct that will inevitably fail us some of the time. Misunderstandings create multiple meanings. Kat Worth’s work therefore offers resistance to literal narrative, to the prosaic and the abstract, rather inviting the audience to engage with a visceral, physical vocabulary of presence in which meaning is ambiguous.

The work opens with dancers entering one by one, picking their way tentatively over 3,000 books covering the floor, to sit in silent repose and contemplation. Each dancer is slowly revealed through individual actions and short duets. Flowing, intricate phrases unfold over time as each dancer is coupled in turn. Silent empathetic falling, catching and guiding to the floor are ongoing motifs, actions speaking louder than words. Unspoken Outloud focuses on a vocabulary of human relationships beneath words, providing alternative ways to communicate when words get in the way of what we really mean. The work suggests that the meaning of some experiences is wordless but heard, felt, real and understood nonetheless.

The experience of Unspoken Outloud is like watching a painting being revealed gradually, a landscape of human relationships slowly bleeding into view—part animated still life, part visceral obstacle path—as the dancers navigate the sea of books that are swept aside by bodies, momentarily read, stolen and stacked. The evenly paced temporality of this work creates a sense of the ennui that can come with words, although greater variation in dynamic range might have been more suggestive. But the primary strength of Unspoken… comes from a creative process which has allowed each performer to have their own voice. When homogeneity and hierarchy are resisted, labels of difference lose their power. Each dancer possesses their own unique vocabulary and expressive style complementing and synthesizing into a fluid ensemble.

To view this double bill from the single indicator of comparison between the very different abilities of these companies would miss the point. The works encourage us to extend our own vocabularies, to test their dualisms.

InSpace, Restless Dance Company and Australian Dance Theatre, Vocabulary: Present Tense, choreographer Garry Stewart, Unspoken Outloud, choreographer Kat Worth; composer Darrin Verhagen, designer Gaelle Mellis, lighting Geoff Cobham; Space Theatre, Adelaide Festival Centre, July 28-Aug 6; inspace.com.au

RealTime issue #69 Oct-Nov 2005 pg. 16

© Helen Omand; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 October 2005