the unbinding of desire

philipa rothfield on balletlab’s brindabella

 Brindabella, Balletlab

Brindabella, Balletlab

Brindabella, Balletlab

BALLET LAB’S WORKS ARE NOTHING IF NOT IMAGINATIVE. CHOREOGRAPHER PHILLIP ADAMS HAS, OVER THE YEARS, CREATED MANY SCENARIOS DRAWING ON MYRIAD SOURCES, LITERARY, MUSICAL, FILMIC AND MYTHICAL. BRINDABELLA IS NO EXCEPTION. PART AUSTRALIAN FOLKLORE, PART SOFT-PORN, THE WORK CANVASSES SEVERAL IMAGINARY MOTIFS. THERE IS A SUGGESTIVE GRANDEUR ABOUT THE OPENING. RUCHED, CRIMSON CURTAINS BEDECK THE MALTHOUSE’S MERLIN THEATRE, CREATING A PROSCENIUM FRAME. THE RICHNESS OF THE FOLDS OF RED MATERIAL BROACHES A SENSUOUS DIMENSION REDOLENT OF THE 19TH CENTURY OPERA HOUSE. BELOW DECKS, A SUBMERGED MUSICAL GROUP AMPLIFIES OPENING NIGHT ANTICIPATION.

The music begins, distorted shadows of the musicians evoking a dark palette. A courtly quintet emerges through the curtains. A woman, Brooke Stamp, in a sumptuous Louis Quinze gown, preens herself in a small mirror. Her courtiers circle, fawning fauns. Their furry outfits suggest a less than historical take since these Rococo mannerisms are promptly discarded as the curtain reveals an archetypical forest setting, complete with obligatory wolf howls.

Forgive the detour, but we could be at St Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theatre, watching an adaptation of Roman Polanski’s Fearless Vampire Killers. As in that 1960s satire, mittel European fairytale joins folksy ballet to create an ironic twist on horror. Predictably, the woman is at the core of the tale, a symbol of sexual difference encircled by male activity, their fur suggesting beastly intentions. Although Brindabella purportedly draws on Australian folklore, the male dancers reappear strapped to pine trees, not eucalypts. As the heavy foliage lists across the stage, the men stumble to keep up. I worry for their health and safety. Happily the trees are discarded and somehow the costumes melt away.

The five performers are now running in unison, tracing a large circle over the entire floor. They each discard their clothes as they run, over and undertaking to keep up with the group. This was a very special moment in the development of the work, an eye in the storm of parody and pastiche. The simplicity of the running, the lack of costume and the unison of ordinary movement forged an aesthetic break which could have been taken in any number of directions. I’m not entirely sure where things went at this point. Movements blur in sweaty encounters and departures. Two men grapple in a roughly honed male-to-male duet.

Eventually the group reforms and takes to the front of the stage wielding chrome and leather—the disassembled wheels could be used for circus, unicycles, a bit of juggling perhaps? But no, slowly a motorcycle in bicycle form is pieced together. The performers suggestively straddle the leather seats, leading us into the cum-soaked world of Pumped, Rimmed and Loaded. Vintage Adams duets, triplets and groupings occur, performing perfunctory folds, bends and twists to create a series of tableaux. Ultimately couples team up to consummate all manner of intercourse. Where sexual innuendo may have permeated the rough and tumble of Adams’ previous works, here suggestion well and truly comes out of the closet, reflecting the iconography of Brindabella’s publicity shots. Heads loll in synch as bodies are straddled, while jeans are whipped off to castigate the reticent. Someone’s bum protrudes as his jeans are pulled down. The whole scene could have been enacted in suds, mud or lubricant. Although the borders of porn were not transgressed by this theatrical play, the audience’s ‘premature’ clapping at the end of this section suggests a certain discomfort—or was it appreciation? In any case, the story doesn’t finish here. Cast and audience are transported to a darkened stage sundered in the distance by a blinding central light. Naked and holding ostrich feathers, the performers approach the pearly gates of Burlesque afterlife.

This was another moment in the flow of Brindabella where a certain conceptual space was opened up. I wonder whether this and the earlier running sequence was the work of Adams’ choreographic collaborator, New York’s Miguel Gutierrez? Both sections summoned an existential vortex. This was in part the consequence of marked contrasts—while the sexual play was quite stylistically rendered, the running and the final section were stripped back, lacking artifice. Similarly, the mannerisms of the opening courtly scene were markedly absent in the “boy stripped bare” section at the work’s end. This difference resembles that between western art’s classical nude and Lucien Freud’s naked bodies. Narrative drops away here in favour of something else. Personally, I would have liked to see more power on the part of this something else, to have seen it ‘queer’ (displace the centrality of) the rest of the material, its parody, irony, and recognisable iconography.

It’s not for me to say where this work might go, but 20th century artists such as Bataille and Klossowski played with the boundaries of art, pornography and philosophy. In another (after)life, Brindabella might likewise challenge its own boundaries, setting up a relation between its multiple differences of genre in such a way as to inform its divergent movement aesthetics. It is a story of desire, of desire unbound, with the potential to flow beyond the boundaries of convention. This relates to the sexual, sensual but also kinaesthetic conventions which pertain to the queer sexuality underlying the work. To challenge such boundaries is to challenge the morality inherent in heterosexuality, something Brindabella was, I think, attempting to achieve.

Balletlab, Brindabella, choreography Phillip Adams, Miguel Gutierrez, performers Derrick Amanatidis, Tim Harvey, Luke George, Brooke Stamp, composer: David Chisholm, set & lighting Bluebottle, musicians Lachlan Dent, Peter Dumpsday, Timothy Phillips, Nic Cynot; Malthouse Theatre, Melbourne, Dec 5-8

RealTime issue #83 Feb-March 2008 pg. 43

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

1 February 2008