The space between

Zsuzsanna Soboslay reflects on Adelaide Festival dance and performance

At edges such as death (illness, vulnerability, humiliation), one can cross a state from life as we know it to what we don’t know. The crossing itself can feel like dying…

Adelaide Festival, 1996. Enter Meg Stuart, who knows about dying: her dance pieces are a long dangling that won’t break. Held within a grid, tailed, snuffled, prodded, faltering, focussed on restriction… Hamstrung, bald, she dances pockets of need, building nothing.

Enter The Burley Griffins, who suffer for their dream of Canberra as they try to construct a city by channelling into the overworld.

Enter Jenny Kemp’s black-sequinned woman who slips in a cocktail bar and di(v)es into her underworld.

And then, Enter Achilles: a spectacular DV8 dance piece by Lloyd Newson about the “labyrinth of male rituals”, set in the ideal location for head (butting), ear (holding), shoulder (shoving), chest (puffing), bellies (sleeking), thighs (crunching, mocking, smooching), knees (jiving), ankles (flicking), soles (crushing). A pub, of course: the terrority of collusion in industry, of post down-the-mine camaraderie. But where’s the heel?

The Greek Achilles could eat a haired horse without indigestion—invulnerable, apart from his heel, where his mother, dipping him in the great river Styx for protection, had to hold him. This is a story of loyalty and betrayal, of a man coming to the revenge of his mate—yet it is still a story of war and action within war. The violable point, which connects him with his mother, is the warrior’s undoing but is also the very sign of his humanity and ungodliness.

Enter Achilles is a sculpted work of incredible and ferocious physical skill. It also exemplifies every reason you might have ever stayed away from the pub. Vomit, brawn, competitiveness, the demeaning of women, hyperbolic Superman fantasies—and just plain showing off. These guys are heroes with great asses, as much as objects of repulsion. We have to watch from the sides of the football field, and cheer on.

The dancers execute everything so well, from punch-ups to push-ups, from piss-ups and pissing in pints to a red-hot rope act and fucking an orgasm-painted plastic doll until the doll is slaughtered and the men shed crocodile tears.

Where is the dealing with failure, the going through failure to find the unknown on the other side?

For all its extraordinary physical skill and truthful observation of certain male rituals, this piece and its world of men remains safe. The audience loves it. “Just like real life,” they say, when the finale is over and they begin their personal replays.

Have they turned, or only mirrored the heel? Nothing is displaced in the realm. Superman’s moments are affectionately satirised but nonetheless survive as a means of protecting male culture from being pierced. Split-stage episodes [yobs on a building-site rig highstage whilst a man fucks a rubber dolly lowstage; pub brawlies soccerrooing lowstage synchronised with Superman spinning a jig highstage] are theatrically effective, but the split does not go deep enough: the staging exemplifies how far men will go to cope and protect each other from being pierced, and changing something of what shows itself to the world.

So many pieces in this Festival reflect a masculine and/or mechanical re-production of cultures that thrive on a given order and don’t want to change. Facade Firm, by Molecular Theatre, is a bizarre and relentless piece about Japanese cultural conformism, with men in suits and women pretending to be men in suits re-arranging view-frames, by order of The Firm. In a Kafkaesque way, The Firm is both an incorporation, and a prescription for behaviour, of what above all costs must be maintained.

The Maly Theatre of St Petersburg demonstrates in Claustrophobia how closely bound are autocracy/oligarchy, conformity and mysogyny across Russian history. It is a madhouse of meals becoming a murder, music leaping through windows. Tubas examine a dead body which begins to sing. Does it matter to be alive? Does it matter that I ever had a soul? I hear your heartbeat march through the curl of a marching band. Keep marching…

This is brutal entrapment. Ruched curtains ascend and descend on something that has always been. Men magically sliding up walls with desire; a rake grows from watering, but love itself does not grow. There is only either Pavlova, Pushkin, or vodka [fights over, after, or between all three].

Maly’s physical work is excellent: all the great skills of Russian method and madness (athleticism, stylistic power that captures the music and undertows of language) are here. This is music-theatre, dance-theatre, theatre-theatre where boundaries and borders, truth and lies become the same dance. But where are the attempts to show how things might be otherwise? Maly is a young company, Russia’s avant-garde: it is bleak of them not to explore the hope for another possible world.

Whilst Claustrophobia shows a pointed understanding of entrapment, Hildegarde of Melbourne (not Bingen) replicates it unwittingly . In Inje, a gaggle of village girls splash and lust and practice hysteria whilst a single male figure holds their attentions to ransom with knife cuts, slashes, whips and bribes. Though inviting us to partake of a sensory world of water, mud, blood, of clogged feet dancing, arguing where they are going, who do they belong to? The piece’s relentless tempo and shrill pickings of language are drowned by overactivity and uncertain focus, leaving the “hero” a thug and his women so ground into their cultural roles that their habits, actions, responses remain pre-ordained.

The difference with Jenny Kemp’s work for example is that the work is crafted with a respect for stillness and the curl and pungency of words, and, whilst remaining within a heterosexually preclusive definition of female-as-object of the gaze, The Black Sequin Dress yet struggles with this and attempts to give voice to the falterings of doubt amidst the quotidian struggle to continue. The ways men miss the point here are poignant, sympathetic, but very clear.

A different eye is exercised in The Ethereal Eye, a multi-levelled collaboration which aims at dancing and sounding an aetheric vision whilst giving strange cues on the physical plane. The Burley Griffins’ struggle is itself remote and removed (as unfortunately are the musical instruments!), and the dancers’ bodies aloof. This is intentional; yet, whilst looking for aether’s “moving and rising, forming, changing”, one also sees a certain uniform erectness of neck and pointing of arms which perhaps impedes the energy flow. I enjoy moments when Byron Perry’s body interrogates the dance, instinctively bringing a sudden muscle into a turn, a whipping fraction of speed through arm or knee. There is also a crucial central segment where one by one the dancers, each describe a circle until another dancer joins, as if shared inspiration multiplies and divides and releases another and another shape that cuts and queries the first. Here lie the possibilities of meeting, of construction (architecture is, after all, not just an idea) both within the performance itself and in relation to its subject.

The idea—as stated in the program—of a focus on spatial rather than political or biographical plane worries me. As Meg Stuart realises, space is political—although certainly it would not appear to be so to Batsheva Dance Company’s artistic director Ohad Nahin, whose glib forum statement—immediately dismissed by himself as a joke, a fabrication—about saving his autistic brother by dancing for him as a child, shows words well-oiled, like his dance, but dubious. Within a few days, the structure, shape and timbre of his Mabul are lost to me beyond the starring hamster and a few smooth turns.

Time and space are marked in different ways by all these works: punctured and lamented in, bogged and bugled in, slipped into and pondered in, oiled and glossed through, spun over and around.

So many maps of so many routes…the body’s presence often missing. Theatre and dance’s bodies ask difficult questions of the relationships between past and contemporary, cultural and emotional histories which are difficult to leave aside in the complex acts of watching. What enters? What exits? What has been the space between?

DV8, Enter Achilles (U.K.); Jenny Kemp, The Black Sequin Dress (Australia); The Maly Theatre of St. Petersburg, Claustrophobia (Russia); Molecular Theatre, Facade Firm (Japan); Ethereal Eye (Australia); Batsheva Dance Company’s Mabul (Israel); Company Hildegarde, Inje (Australia/Bulgaria); Meg Stuart/Damaged Goods, No-One Is Watching (U.S.).

RealTime issue #12 April-May 1996 pg. 6

© Zsuzsanna Soboslay; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 April 1996