Trust nothing to dance

Virginia Baxter, Sydney dance

It’s been slim pickings in Sydney contemporary dance over the past year. The latest round of funding from the Australia Council redresses some of the imbalance for Sydney’s contemporary dance artists with project grants to Rosalind Crisp’s stella b. and the One Extra Company. During the drought, One Extra has provided the audience with some vital nourishment in the form of Stretching It Wider, a co-production with the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras and Twosome, a short and self-supporting season mounted in collaboration with the Centre for Performance Studies at Sydney University.

For want of a better hook, Brian Carbee and Dean Walsh decided on “isolation and intimacy” to corral the 3 works that make up Stretching It Wider. “They’re about standing in front of an audience which is isolating and intimate by its very nature”, says Carbee. First in Madame, they play with alternations of power. Carbee in pinnie, fishnets and heels is endlessly choreographically inventive in his attempts to control Walsh in drab—sinuous, sensual, cheeks sucked in, knees scissoring shut. In part 2, a welcome reprise of Glory Holy! seen at last year’s Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras Festival, Carbee raps on glory using the vocal style and physical mannerisms of a holy roller. Intermittently he turns his back on us and while getting off in a glory hole cubicle, takes calls from his Mom to confirm his memory for her bizarre life lessons. To a funky score by Drew Crawford, personae conjoin in the body of the dancer who’s eventually pulled through the glory hole by the invisible Walsh, this time his anonymous partner. In part 3, Stretching It Wider, they perform a duet with pennies taped to their eyes. Their blindness is real but they have no trouble finding each other. Lookalikes, their movements are seamlessly playful, invasive, rough-house, familiar and strange. Pennies removed, they mess with camp, running at and breaking fourth walls. Carbee and Walsh are skilful dance artists and accomplished writers. Both have created notable solo works but this is their first work together and like any great team, each brings out something new in the other’s performance. In his program note, Brian Carbee says “these pieces are just as much about working with Dean and Drew. They are also about having an opportunity to create, about making a living, such as it is, and about love.” This work was put together on a shoestring and at lightning speed. The intimacy between the dancers is infectious. While you’re watching, you’re already thinking about telling your friends.

In Rara Avis (part 1 of the Twosome program), Kay Armstrong in cocktail dress bluntly cut off at the knees, red runners and a bad Suzie Quatro wig makes her way along a wall. A strange bird. A little boy in the front row is in hysterics. We see the dancer’s face for the first time as she makes her way onto a stage strewn with beer cans and car parts. She’s not fussed but not that thrilled to be here either. She gives all her concentration to a meaningless display of beer can balances, squeezes the words “showsyertits” between her teeth, then hitches the sentence to a moving car. She spits out Coral Hull’s sad litany of suburban ugliness. Dancing detachedly to ‘Nutbush City Limits’ she tells us that 10 years ago she went with One Extra to Indonesia. By way of introduction, the Indonesians and the 2 Aboriginal members of One Extra danced some traditional stuff. The white dancer didn’t have anything to show. “We should have showed them this,” she says. Who doesn’t remember dancing to this?” and then she deadpans “Just because we remember something doesn’t make it good.”

This is a clever and odd performance which occasionally loiters in too literal zones. Contrasting staccato kicks, tight fisted tough girl poses with enigmatic movements such as a limp arm and wrist shaking at the ground or bending backwards to gaze at the ceiling, the disaffected dancer dwells on some of the grim banalities of Australian life. At one stage, she throws herself into a “meaningful” dance sequence then shakes it off like a spider web. Armstrong is an engaging performer who combines her choreography of physical tics with virtuosic vocal manoeuvres: dancing in the headlights to her boyfriend’s order to “get back in the car now!” she turns the “now” into a cats midnight growl. The little boy nearly falls off his chair.

Julie-Anne Long’s stage is empty. An ample woman in a pleated skirt and cardigan buttoned up and sensible shoes, she lies on the floor and, depending on your perspective, dances a horizontal dance or performs a series of elegantly restrained gestures to the music of Schubert. Holding a small TV receiver tuned to ER, her sad eyes blink to Mendelssohn. Distractedly, she lolls along a wall, retrieving toffees from her bosom and masticating them in time to Beethoven. In this work our attention is called to every aspect of the body on stage. Watching A Still Life is like looking at a painting that fascinates, each atom of the air between us and the object of our gaze is charged.

Each of these works is performed by dancers but trusts nothing to dance alone. Nevertheless they still inhabit the landscape of dance, that realm of inexplicable sensations, ephemeral spaces and elusive states of being. All are in some way about dancing. The place of virtuosic movement varies in the pieces. Carbee and Walsh move from virtuosic dance to everyday, non-dancerly movement, from plain to heightened speech, from improvisation to dramatic depiction. Brian Carbee describes the works as being about “having chairs that don’t match and movement that doesn’t quite fit and a groin pull.” Behind the shifting personae of Julie-Anne Long’s creation is “a former dancer whose work fell out of favour in a time of extreme physicality.” She creates an idiosyncratic choreography using her dancer’s grace to draw attention to the smallest or most indolent of movements. Kay Armstrong treads a line between forms using dancerly movement as well as extended vocalisations and a mixture of subtle and tacky theatrics. An extreme case scenario is suggested in the 3 works intersecting Armstrong and Long’s. In Girls, Girls, Girls Erin Brannigan and Lisa Ffrench play 2 dizzy showgirls. Here, dance is merely suggested in a flurry of lights and music offstage. What happens (and not nearly enough does) takes place in cute dialogues as the 2 cross the stage in tap shoes. Response to these works always splits the dance community, critics and audiences. Interestingly, over the 2 night season, the Twosome works evoked starkly different responses—hysterical laughter one night, contemplation the next.

Each of these works is dramatic, speaks to its audience emotionally and directly but not solely of bodies moving. This is the dance you have when the vocabulary at hand can’t quite account for the particular experience of dancing with someone on your wavelength. Or the sense of grim banality evoked by a place and time. Or wanting to dance about not wanting to dance. All are created by mature artists and deserve further development and more than the brief exposure offered by short seasons.

Now the heavens have opened, we look forward to Rosalind Crisp’s performances celebrating 5 years of developing work at Omeo Dance Studio. Though former Australia Council Fellowship winner Tess de Quincey has once again been left off the grants list, she will present new work at Performance Space in May. Meanwhile, One Extra’s forthcoming program features the choreography of Michael Whaites, a dancer educated at Adelaide’s CPA who went on to work with Leigh Warren, Twyla Tharp and, most recently, Pina Bausch. Michael returns to Australia to re-present Achtung Honey! and to create the site specific Oysterland with Kay Armstrong and Julie-Anne Long at the Seymour Centre in May/June.

Stretching It Wider, choreographed and performed by Brian Carbee and Dean Walsh, composer Drew Crawford; 2001 Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Festival, Seymour Centre, February 24; Twosome: Rara Avis text and choreography, performance by Kay Armstrong; A Still Life, performed and devised by Julie-Anne Long; Girls Girls Girls, created and performed by Erin Brannigan and Lisa Ffrench.

RealTime issue #42 April-May 2001 pg. 30

© Virginia Baxter; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 April 2001