The history of our dancing bodies is becoming hot

Eleanor Brickhill on what recent dance in Sydney says about independents

Narelle Benjamin in Garry Stewart’s Fugly

Narelle Benjamin in Garry Stewart’s Fugly

Let’s talk ‘big art’ for a moment. If you subscribe to the marginal idea that good dance, like good movies, or philosophy, or science, can actually reveal something about being human that wasn’t visible before, and may consist of more than advertising industry fodder, then let’s muse on this idea of ‘big dance’, and the relationship between its corporate, team-based, single-focus kind of legacy, and some recent Sydney dance events.

If dancers call themselves ‘independent’ as many of the Bodies and Intersteps artists do, then (as Sally Gardner has recently noted) it begs the question: independent of what? Independence implies relationship, a process of having grown away from something—a certain way of doing things, a context—and a process of negotiating that separation. For instance, dancers who’ve inherited the Sydney Dance Company seal of approval—like many of the artists from the Bodies programs and Stephen Page, Brett Daffy, Garry Stewart, to mention several—might find this process of separation problematic, because of the kind of effort needed both in its recognition and explication.

And credits for the first Bodies program at Newtown Theatre suggest this venture is a safe haven for ex-Sydney Dance Company and Ballet School trained artists. This tradition might provide a sense of security for dancers working on their own, but their ‘independence’ is rarely expressed in the work they make, despite the label. Maybe it’s the ‘black box’ variety where the workings of that relational process are never acknowledged as relevant or important, and never available for investigation.

Nevertheless, the idea of ‘inheritance’ has been central to much recent work, in the seeing, the doing and the making of dances; the continuous negotiation between personal understanding, the kind of physical belief systems that make personal sense, and the attractive respectability of well-trodden cultural heritage. Everything you’ve learned about people and places, different ways of being and thinking, all the small details which accumulate like threads in a carpet, become superimposed, grow together, fuse. Yet one view of something may not obliterate others. They remain together, side by side, all viable, negotiating for recognition within one body. You can, if you want to, commit yourself to one or the other exclusively, or you might choose to investigate their relationship. At present, it’s this investigation which seems crucial. The history of our dancing bodies is becoming hot.

So it might seem a good time for Indigenous artists whose work overtly straddles cultures. Stephen Page’s Fish (Bangarra) has certainly achieved popular acclaim. But if traditions waltz with each other in the bodies of the dancers, it must be off-stage, and not when they have their public dancing faces on. On-stage the negotiations seem formal, distant.

But the traditional material, both dance and music, is totally compelling and the effect is quite unlike watching the predictable paces of the western trained dancers in the group. Fish features Djakapurra Munyarryun, a performer whose physical language gives purpose and weight to the work. His gestures are mercurial and his meanings seem rich and clear, sharpened perhaps by unfamiliarity, hiding no cliches. And David Page’s traditional sounds seeped into my bones, leaving traces of melody and mood long after the theatre closed.

Meanwhile, is there something in the air at the moment, absent a few years back, which sees audiences unwilling to make any effort towards participating in an idea? Or is it that the complex Steps #3 Intersteps, Video Steps and Studio Steps programs at the Performance Space, curated by Leisa Shelton, came at the back end of a long spate of dance programs, and it was just too big an ask that audiences show much enthusiasm for turning up several nights a week, sitting on tiny stools and being constantly shunted around the theatre in the dark with all your belongings falling off your lap. Okay, if it’s distracting now, why wasn’t it three years ago? Is the good will really gone?

How is it possible, for instance, that Sydney audiences didn’t flock to Trevor Patrick’s concise and moving Continental Drift (see RealTime 20) with the same enthusiasm as Melbourne audiences? And Clare Hague’s dead trees arteries lent itself to many viewings, as her finely wrought images of insinuating root, capillary, and great gnarled branches began to speak through her frame, wired as it was with such torsion that every pulse beat seemed charged and visible.

While Leisa Shelton’s ideas about using all the space, requiring the audience to move from one vantage point to another might have provided nightmarish technical problems, it also allowed for an extremely varied program. But the text-based works all suffered similarly from muffled acoustics, making it difficult to follow Beth Kayes, for instance, in her bits of ‘Her’, or Brian Carbee’s caught between Heaven and Earth, a kind of burlesque dance-play, or Trevor Patrick’s Continental Drift.

Memory and history operated strongly in Sue-ellen Kohler’s Premonition. (TPS, October). Mahalya Middlemist’s Falling film which opens the work has a grainy familiar texture, suggesting some past era of dance-making. But as she enters, Kohler’s live body seems personable, vulnerable, with a poignant, childlike stance, hands open and toes turned-in, in a costume suggesting a playsuit, pantaloons, whale bone corsetry, a calf-length tulle tutu. Later balletic images appear, but oddly cut up, considered and intense. In her single drawn-out phrase reiterated live and over three screens, there are grand gestures and smaller inflection, but almost scrubbed of meaning.

But the phrases soften, some alchemical process working within the layers, and gradually it’s revealed. Within her own body’s assimilation of experience, her movements change, begin to flow together, closer to her centre, smaller, more from the present. There’s a sense that she’s creating her own self as we watch, without pretence or foreknowledge.

Comments regarding Sue-ellen Kohler’s ‘failed dancer’ status in some reviews of the work, are pure grist to the critical mill, because the idea of critical judgment is integral to the work. Opinions reflect certain choices about what a dancer can or should do next, why one step follows another in just the way it does. If you think of different kinds of physical training as kinds of belief systems, what kind of physical beliefs count as important, what are the conditions that are brought to bear on our choices about what is appropriate, or possible?

While the spirit of the dance speaks of unlimited possibility and its multiple containments, the multi-screened films seem also to reflect a different story, one about the body’s naturally conservative nature. Choices are enmeshed in that cultural matrix that’s called life as we know it. You don’t just leave that behind, or else you flounder, fail, get lost in a very real sense, without language. But Premonition is not just about success or social survival, but that process of understanding how one’s own personal history becomes currency for the present, what happens from moment to moment within you, over time, between flesh and social imperative.

Similarly balletic shadows fell over the works in One Extra’s joint program, Two, featuring Lucy Guerin’s Remote and Garry Stewart’s Fugly. Balletic lines, stylised, extreme, disjointed and on the edge, featured strongly, but the choreographers’ two directions were very different.

In Remote as if in the white on-and-off half light of a video screen, the dancers, sometimes with a hunched-up awkwardness, carved out their ungainly but definite ways with sharp-lined precision. The lighting, the stop-start, forward and back quality suggest they were in search mode. Becky Hilton, in her literally off-the-wall solo, clung closely to the wings, leaned out, curved her body like a bow, taut and twangy, and several arms-length duets lent a strange, coy, mechanical distance to these peculiar partnerships. At one point, in a laneway down centre stage, the dancers lay spayed out, with light falling on them like truck lights on a road accident. In a tight staccato cannon they knelt, stood, and lay down again, as if in a frame-by-frame, video replay.

Garry Stewart’s Fugly opens on four dancers in a diagonal line, doll-like, frontal, slightly grim and paranoid looking, and wearing what have become infamous red tracksuits. It’s claimed that we saw this initial image first in the work of another group, Frumpus. But in Fugly, the dancers’ doll-like stance has an air of highly cultivated fashion pitch. With their big eyes and pig-tails, the dancers assume sultry suspicion, an I-don’t-know-where-I-am-or-what-I’m-doing look, tough, naive and defensive, which pervades the work. Frumpus’ doll-like images have a very different import—their pig-tails and lipstick are not at all cute or sexy, and their approach quite purposefully drags its teeth through excesses of that kind of still-rampant sexual commodification which underpins Fugly’s presentation. If the external trappings of that first image were lifted from Frumpus’s work, its crucial commentary was unfortunately forgotten.

But Narelle Benjamin’s solos dances in Fugly are extraordinary: extreme, interior, exhausting, possessed. Her last solo is tired, struggling and pushed to such limits that it seems to transcend the idea of escape from those internal demons. The intensity and doomedness of her efforts reaches the height of pathos, and the struggle is transmogrified into art.

Festival of the Dreaming: Fish, Bangarra Dance Theatre, Drama Theatre, September 17

Steps Three—Intersteps. The Performance Space 28 October 1997. Curated by Leisa Shelton. Brett Daffy, Claire Hague, Beth Kayes, Meredith Kitchen, Brian Carbee, Trevor Patrick, Tuula Roppola. You can read more on the Steps 3 video program in RT#23

One Extra, Two: Double Edged Dance: Remote, (watch closely for the re-runs) by Lucy Guerin, and Fugly (There’s a shonky low-tech accident about to happen) by Garry Stewart. Seymour Centre, October 31

Premonition: A Strange Feeling For What is to Come, Sue-ellen Kohler, The Performance Space, October 9

Bodies, Artistic directors: Normal Hall, Susan Barling, Patrick Harding-Irma. First program choreographers: Susan Barling, Kathy Driscoll, James Taylor, Francoise Philipbert, Rosetta Cook, Deborah Mills, Kenny Feather, Newtown Theatre, October 22

RealTime issue #22 Dec-Jan 1997 pg. 33

© Eleanor Brickhill; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 December 1997