the limits of the extraordinary

nilsson-polias: force majeure, not in a million years, dance massive

Sarah Jayne Howard, Not in a Million Years, Force Majeure

Sarah Jayne Howard, Not in a Million Years, Force Majeure

Sarah Jayne Howard, Not in a Million Years, Force Majeure

AS A LEGAL TERM, FORCE MAJEURE IS ALL ABOUT FREEING THE PARTIES TO A CONTRACT FROM LIABILITY SHOULD EXTRAORDINARY CIRCUMSTANCES INTERVENE. AS A COMPANY, FORCE MAJEURE HAS EXPLORED THE EFFECTS OF SUCH EXTRAORDINARY CIRCUMSTANCES BEFORE IN ALREADY ELSEWHERE AND NOW AGAIN IN NOT IN A MILLION YEARS. THEIR FASCINATION WITH THE EXTRAORDINARY IS HARDLY SURPRISING, BUT A TROUBLING QUESTION EMERGES: DOES THE EXTRAORDINARY SUBJECT MATTER FREE THE PARTIES OF THIS CONTRACT (CREATORS AND AUDIENCE) FROM THEIR LIABILITIES? DOES ORDINARY WORK EMERGE FROM EXTRAORDINARY SUBJECTS?

Geoff Cobham’s set for Not In A Million Years is a polystyrene playpen. One part Antarctica, one part Motoi Yamamoto salt sculpture, one part FedEx, the flakes of polystyrene give body to the impossible infinity of the world’s events. Somewhere in that spongy mess is the flake that will win the lottery, break the record for long jump or simply bungee. It is the bungee jumping flake that we meet first. A man rises from the front of the audience and begins reciting a story of how he prepared to deny every survival instinct in order to freefall for those few seconds before the elastic kicked in. The style of address is forced, even a little declamatory, as though we need to be convinced of the drama when it should be able to speak for itself.

However, for the rest of the show, the situation reverses and the fact of the events speaking for themselves is precisely the hurdle that Not In A Million Years struggles with most. Projected text tells us of one extraordinary event after another: a flight attendant who falls thousands of metres and lands unscathed in soft snow; miners who survive for weeks trapped a kilometre underground; a Lotto jackpot winner who becomes a fat, single recluse; a tightrope walker who hangs out between the tops of the WTC towers for the best part of an hour; a man who remains in a coma for a decade, then wakes, then dies shortly afterwards. In the face of all this extraordinariness, why embellish with dance?

Elizabeth Ryan and Vincent Crowley, Not in a Million Years, Force Majeure

Elizabeth Ryan and Vincent Crowley, Not in a Million Years, Force Majeure

Elizabeth Ryan and Vincent Crowley, Not in a Million Years, Force Majeure

The answer in Not In A Million Years is to not dance (much). Instead, the piece becomes a presentational turnstile of theatrical vignettes. We are given the facts and then taken into imaginary recreations of the events and their protagonists—the internal monologues of the coma patient and his wife, the banter between the miners, the exertion of the athlete training for a jump. Rightly, the feats of survival and the misfortune of the fortunate do not need embellishment, but is this way to learn of them?

Director Kate Champion and her collaborators have not unearthed these stories from detailed investigation, nor made verbatim transcripts. They found most of them online and the provenance is telling in two ways. Googling the stories can be more fascinating than the show itself because, as one watches the actual event on YouTube, reads the background, listens to recounts, understands the fallout, senses the ripples it sent into society, one can disappear into ever-broadening branches of research. Second, the treatment given to the stories presented in the show is so cursory and unembodied that it fails to connect to the audience on an emotional or empathic level.

Much of this failure is due to the paucity of theatrical rigour. The writing, the dramaturgy, the use of space and the acting are all below par. The text and voices are unable to find either the believability of naturalism or the transformative power of the epic. The monologues are occasionally shunted into a corner and given a wash of emotion, or they remain underdeveloped suggestions of a character. The rhythm of the piece as a whole remains steadfastly ponderous. Sometimes even the choreography fails to enliven the stories with anything more than cliché—the interminable waiting of the coma sufferer’s wife is shown by her pacing, longing shown in her hugging herself.

The vast array of films that tap into stories like these make it clear that they are not inherently above or below excellent representation—think of Herzog’s Wings of Hope, or the unabashed joy of James Marsh’s Man on Wire, or the tortured purity of Steve McQueen’s Hunger. Unfortunately, Not In A Million Years seems to have been seduced by the extraordinary to its own very ordinary detriment.

See also Keith Gallasch, “The unbearable lightness of unconsciousness,” RT101

Dance Massive: Force Majeure, Not in a Million Years, director Kate Champion, performers Vincent Crowley, Sarah Jayne Howard, Elizabeth Ryan, Joshua Tyler, assistant director Roz Hervey, designer Geoff Cobham, composer, sound designer Max Lyandvert, Arts House, North Melbourne Town Hall, March 26, 27; www.dancemassive.com.au

29 March 2011