The limits of limits

Philipa Rothfield, Streb, Trompe l’Oeil, Nederlands Dans Theater III, Romeo et Juliette, Ballet Preljocaj, Fleshmeet, Chunky Move, Trial by Video, Company in Space

Romeo et Juliette

Romeo et Juliette

Why is it that so many dance works in this year’s Melbourne Festival concerned themselves with limits? Streb played with the limits of a body in space, Nederlands Dans Theater III stretched the age limit of the dancing body, Ballet Preljocaj represented the limits of the totalitarian state, Chunky Move toyed with the limits of a physical body, and Company in Space explored the limits of the flesh/video interface. There is no intrinsic merit to be found in exploring a limit for its own sake. Try bashing your head against a brick wall (QED). No, the exploration of limits must offer something more, some insights regarding its approach.

I think that Streb’s performance aspires to greater limits than it goes anywhere near achieving. In a circus-like stream of acrobatic body slams, wall flings, and mattress thumps, 10 or so lycra-wrapped bodies yelled commands, syncopated near-misses, hurled themselves against surfaces and, in the ultimate drama, dived through a sheet of plate glass. In her company manifesto, Elizabeth Streb writes that “Streb isolates the basic principles of time, space and human movement potential” (program notes). Yet the works themselves very quickly coalesced around self-imposed limitations. The speed of the movement was homogeneous, the tension consistent, beginnings and endings arbitrary. Even though we were “introduced” to each dancer by name, age and weight (racetrack data), it was very hard to differentiate their movement qualities. Little challenge was meted out to our conventional sense of a body in space and time. Two pieces call for recognition: Little Ease (1985) consisted of a coffin sized box, requiring the dancer to occupy its numerous denominations (this was Elizabeth Streb’s signature solo). It reminded me of Nietzsche’s remark about our dancing in chains, the point being that strict limitations can be productive. The other piece, Up (1995), really did live up to the artistic hopes of its creator. Working on a trampoline, members of the company bounced and caught themselves on high ceiling bars, launched themselves from side platforms and returned to the platforms horizontally, bounced onto the ubiquitous floor mats, and ducked and wove through each other. The timing was magnificent and the sense of up definitely and delightfully achieved.

The appeal of Nederlands Dans Theater III was the age factor: all dancers over 40 and, in one case, 62. Their wit, sense of time and precise interactions gave great pleasure. What was less pleasurable was the superficiality of the works. The brilliance of the vignettes in Trompe l’Oeil was tantalising but I refuse to believe that the plethora of sketches was a virtue and not a vice. Compass had a metal ball orbit the stage in a circular motion. Sadly, the movement of the ball was more interesting than the dancing within its circuit. A Way A Lone rescued the night somewhat. A video screen occupied half the stage, re-presenting the live movement but staggered in time and distorted in terms of speed. This work was dedicated “to somebody no longer here.” The question of death inevitably dogs a company of aging dancers. I’m not sure whether the attraction of Nederlands Dans Theater III is that they seem to defy mortality or approach it with grace.

Ballet Preljocaj’s Romeo et Juliette offered much more straightforward limits, the transgression of which threatened disaster, and ultimately produced the famed tragedy of bungled messages and crushed love. Yet however straightforward totalitarian rule may be, its evocation cannot avoid eliciting fear and discomfort. Although not everyone experienced this work as menacing, I found the set, a Dystopian vision from Dune, the not-so secret police, and the concentration camp perimeter with matching German Shepherd, scary. We don’t have to go all that far—to East Timor in fact—to reach a comparable regime of intimidation. Angelin Preljocaj’s imaginary premise was that the social order excised “the freedom to love”, thereby creating a very 20th century setting for this fable of forbidden love and caste war. Not surprisingly, this work has provoked recollections of Nazism, the Balkans, and recently, a remembrance of Pinochet’s terror. Oddly enough, and I don’t really know why, love did not seem too out of place here.

Chunky Move is renowned for its choreographic vigour and full-on dancing. Its typical audience has many more body piercings per square metre than most other social spaces. How appropriate then that Paul Norton’s The Rogue Tool used long metal props to support and limit the boundaries of a body. Gideon Obarzanek’s C.O.R.R.U.P.T.E.D. 2 also availed itself of the limit in terms of a stunning, revolving metal shape rather like a satellite dish gone wrong. I was rather disappointed that more wasn’t made of the spatial impact of its rotation. The dancers mainly ducked under it when it approached, merely to continue their dazzling kinetic play as if nothing had happened. However, I did very much like the short piece, Special Combination, performed repeatedly in a little box-like space in a room not much bigger. A naked body, inscribed by moving projections described lines in space with the surface and volume of her body.

Perhaps Company in Space least merits a discussion in terms of limits. If there is a limit to their work, it is the shifting sands of contemporary video, music and computer technologies. Nor does the company fetishise technology, a project rejected by video artist Bill Viola as doomed to bore. A Trial by Video purported to put on trial a number of axes of domination (racism, sexism, political power). Where better to stage such an evaluation than that Gothic meeting place, the former Melbourne Magistrate’s Court. Not that questions of domination have ever been of concern to our legal system. Most of the members of the court—Speech, Dissent, Case, Diplomacy and Trial—appeared in person. Incommunicado appeared from outside the court, from London in fact, juxtaposed against live-video images of the local dancers. An odd interaction, yet one more touching than the stiffly orchestrated series of corporate handshakes (Diplomacy) we witnessed in the flesh. But this is a work which interrogates and challenges such assumptions concerning the dominance of flesh over film, of presence over absence.

Must a work of artistic significance always extend or transgress limits? Traditional conceptions of the avant-garde might suggest that great art requires the breakdown of barriers. Yet whether one is inside or outside a limit matters less than the substance of the work and its potential to inform.

Streb, October 15 – 19; Trompe l’Oeil, Nederlands Dans Theater III, October 23 – 25; Romeo et Juliette, Ballet Preljocaj, October 19 – November 1, all at State Theatre; Fleshmeet, Chunky Move, Malthouse, October 21 – 31;Trial by Video, Company in Space, former Melbourne Magistrates Court, October 22 – 31

RealTime issue #28 Dec-Jan 1998 pg. 5-6

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

1 December 1998
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