The raw and the complex

Eleanor Brickhill surveys dance at the Adelaide Festival

Batsheva Company, Mabul

Batsheva Company, Mabul

In Adfest-foyer-euphoria mode, one struggles with such educated commentary as “God, did you actually like that? I had real problems there”. In the matter of likes and dislikes, it’s unclear whether pleasure is derived from art or society, but buffeted by the social undertow, it occurred to me that it’s the act of satisfying this urgent need to express an opinion which first shapes our perception and the consequent credibility of a work. All of which says a lot about the importance of foyer culture, and the meaning of lots of artists meeting to see who holds sway. It was delightful to find a confusing and properly post-modern diversity of responses in many theatre foyers.

There were evident themes: prying into the cracks of existence, dragging open old wounds, exposing humanity’s sometimes fragile and secret interiors. We get to see hideous, possessed, sad, ugly, violent, obsessive things. If sometimes the violence and obsession is merely cultivated and glamorised, expressing an evolving international aesthetic empty of anything except a formal identification with itself, there are also moments of rich substance.

In Batsheva Dance Company’s Mabul, I was grateful for its wide aesthetic spaces. There was no requirement to submit to the ubiquitous glamour of black frocks and Docs encapsulating the entire aesthetic basis of the work. These apparently negative virtues invited a different awareness; a kind of grainy textured relationship between the performers surfaced. The silence of the dancers’ boots on the floor and the first murmurings of a solo voice engendered a kind of breathless waiting. Vocal material seemed chosen for its particular sexless intensity, the purity, restraint and passion of a single counter-tenor line. But the work was also full of contrasts and counterpoint: a motif of courtly containment and restraint out of which erupted the shrieking protests of women; the dancers’ slightly stilted, overly-placed, hyper-extended gestures together with a different dissolute movement energy; a feeling of calm contrasted with vocal and corporeal dishevelment. It had a raw, complex and articulate flavour.

I can’t forget the famous hamster duet, where the rolling topography of the dancer’s body provides dangerously shifting surfaces for a tiny clinging animal; a densely woven trio, the dancers barely break contact; the counter-tenor who continues to dance while we feel his distorted song, a harsh fight of diaphragm and throat for air, close to uncontrollable sobbing; the moving Nisi Dominus where dancers form a plaintive cantus firmus for the soloist’s exhaustingly percussive rhythmic body slapping.

Good ideas occasionally fall short of being persuasive. One such is Hilton 1109 by Catalan dancer Angels Margarit, who invited a very select audience of ten at a time into her hotel room to watch what I interpreted as the confined ennui of a dancer on tour. A familiar flotsam collects on the floor: postcards, aspirin, maps, empty glasses, biros, the eternal debris rising to the surface of the lives of itinerant performers, confined, waiting and preparing, a condition as much mental as it is physical. Her movement was too contained in place and in time, going over and over itself, drawn out of, but also recreating, that very experience. I wondered how a dancer could ignore the messages in the loaded and codified vocabulary. Even in that intimate setting she became a character rather than herself, as if the language she used protected her from the intimate scrutiny she had invited.

The Slovenian ensemble Betontanc’s second program, Every Word a Gold Coin’s Worth seemed anachronistic, made me ask questions about Slovenia to find out just what psychic space this stuff comes from. The work capitalises heavily, if unintentionally, on its subtext: six dancers ingenuously young, healthy, athletic and alluringly decked out in short red frocks, boots, and jeans for the boys, revealing a narrow identification and exploration of physicality. If the work springs from heartfelt awareness of violent social and political upheaval, an Australian vantage sees only story-board brutality in the several rape scenes, people treated as commodities, the struggle to survive in encroaching confinement, an overly dramatised woman-as-victim interpretation of childbirth. Meanwhile, the set, a high metal wall, is clung to, clambered over, leaned against, pounded on, played around, and used with ingenuity as a backdrop to all the action. Scene changes dissolved one into another with hardly a blink. But moving ‘as if’, the dancers did not seem concerned with developing richer meaning in their work, but with reducing human complexity to a level adequately served by soap opera.

Meg Stuart (via New Orleans, New York and continental Europe), with Damaged Goods’ produced a meticulously developed study of internal emotional conflict with No One is Watching, touching on the allure of what is concealed in the depths of people, their relationships, and their secret lives. An old fat woman sits immobile on a chair as the audience enters. We see her back and the slack hanging folds of flesh. The audience chats over the top of this, and indeed, no-one watched except in brief exploratory glances waiting for another more palatable story to begin. A couple entered. Rather than having a sense of duet, it was like seeing one flailing organism, sustaining hideous internal rifts and injuries in an intense fight with itself. People started watching then.

Ingenuousness, loss of self, brutality and a fight for recognition were played out with an emotional texture of dense, immutable obsession. It is this texture which became the focus, as if human interaction consisted of chaotic undirected eruptions of desire, and taking the line of least resistance, no holds barred, we bind with a suffocating struggle to the nearest human object.

With Enter Archilles Lloyd Newson and DV8 were engaged in just as concentrated a line of investigation, here the not-so-secret filth in the souls of men, and ‘men’ in this case were a culturally fashioned gender, assuaging their fear of ‘female’ characteristics like affection, loyalty, love and softness appearing in themselves and others, with violent abuse. The work spoke (yet again, but with pathos) of the need to become human first, ‘men’ second. While the theme might be overstated with such a non-negotiable view of contemporary male consciousness, there was serious entertainment value in watching the performers construct their gross stereotypes with immaculate humour, profound skill, attention to detail and riveting style. Everyone knew these blokes although, genuinely, I had to make an effort to remember the last time I’d met one.

But the complex construction of Enter Archilles sustained attention with the physical eloquence of the dancers’ actions and interactions, the grand familiarity of the set as bar-room/dance floor/playground/proving-ground, and the strategic appearance of child-like fantasy images. In the night-club of our minds, a pop star hero sings To Dream the Impossible Dream and a man struggles to reach a mountain-top. It has a Dennis Potter-like surreal humour. Its absurdity is surprisingly touching.

The venue for Meryl Tankard’s Rasa created its own strange ambience. The Bullring seemed windy and deserted at first, an isolated collection of earth-floored, dilapidated sheds. But the air under cover gradually thickened with the heavy perfume of smoking incense placed around the stage’s perimeter and later the dust kicked up from the floor by the dancers deposited itself in a gritty film over the entire audience.

Tankard’s treatment of the Indian Rasas risked accusations of facile dabbling in exotica, for this western interpretation may well have remained superficial without the guiding artistry of guest performer, Padma Menon. If Tankard’s dancers showed great affinity for the physical renderings of the Kama Sutra, more subtle emotional expression remained lost to them. Only in the last few minutes, almost as an afterthought, we glimpsed an authentic moment in the dancers’ philosophical encounter with this strange tradition. They all sat facing Padma, their teacher, imitating—as children in class might—her subtle gestures, finely graded shifts of aspect and attitude, and the small flickers of lips, eyelids and fingers.

Batsheva Dance Company, Mabul; Angels Margarit, Hilton 1109; Betontac, Every Word a Gold Coin’s Worth; Meg Stuart and Damaged Goods, No One is Watching; DV8, Enter Achilles; Meryl Tankard’s Australian Dance Theatre, Rasa.

RealTime issue #12 April-May 1996 pg. 12

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

1 April 1996