Various gravities

Keith Gallasch looks at the physical in new work from Meryl Tankard’s ADT, Gravity Feed and Legs on the Wall

Meryl Tankard’s Australian Dance Theatre, Possessed

Meryl Tankard’s Australian Dance Theatre, Possessed

Meryl Tankard’s Australian Dance Theatre, Possessed

Prelude: The industry

While watching Performing Arts Market performances I was struck by the presence of performance stalwart Katia Molino, seeing her one day performing with Stalker, on another with NYID, both shows requiring considerable physical fitness and dexterity. It was a reminder that there is a broad body of work loosely defined as physical theatre within which various subsidiary forms exist and across which a number of performers participate. Thor Blomfield, one time performer with and now Marketing and Project Coordinator for Legs on the Wall, commented that given “there’s an increasing crossover between companies, for example Legs people working with Stalker”, just how valuable last year’s Body Contact Conference, convened by Rock’n’Roll Circus in Brisbane, was for an area of performance he describes as “encompassing a range of contemporary circus, physical theatre and street theatre groups.”

Blomfield said of participants Circus Oz, Rock’n’Roll Circus, Bizirkus, Club Swing and The Party Line, artists from Darwin, Legs on the Wall, Desoxy, Stalker, some overseas artists and others that “it was an interesting combination that had never come together before. The sense of community in physical theatre has been growing but this conference was the first time we’ve come together formally. It’s timely now to discuss where we all want to go and what we need to do in regard to training, funding and touring. The base for our work was in circus, in the foundation of Circus Oz 25 years ago and that was uniquely Australian though with the influence of Chinese training. Now physical theatre has moved into taking on more European influences and other Asian physical performance traditions.”

Asked why is it important for these groups to talk about the future, Blomfield explains that there are industrial issues to discuss, training proposals (a national circus school), the exchange of information (being informed about overseas work, the rare opportunities to see each other’s work), understanding how companies operate artistically (Desoxy, Stalker, Mike Finch—ex-Circus Monoxide, now director of Circus Oz—spoke about this on a Body Contact panel) and issues like the role of the director, which can be critical for ongoing ensembles working with guest directors. He indicated that there was some preliminary debate about what the proposed training school should do, whether it should provide conventional circus skills or also include, for example, courses in Butoh and various training regimes.

A committee was formed at Body Contact to hold a conference in October 1998 so that these issues could be pursued in more depth, perhaps even to consider whether or not to form an association of companies to promote the standing of physical theatre, which Blomfield describes as being sometimes treated by the broader theatre profession as “the little kid they really don’t know about”. Belvoir Street’s inclusion of Legs on the Wall’s Under the Influence in their 1998 subscription season could be the start of something. Other areas Blomfield would like to see explored include marketing (making the most of marked US interest), physical theatre’s relationship with dance (choreographer Kate Champion has directed Leg’s Under the Influence; one of the Legs’ team was advising Meryl Tankard’s ADT on the use of hand loops for their Adelaide Festival production Possessed) and speech in performance. Physical theatre has proved itself an elastic form, one rich in hybridity and political range as well as being eminently marketable: doubtless for the artists and companies in this area to confer regularly, to see each other’s work, to debate training and artistic issues, to think collectively on industrial and marketing issues, can only enrich their work.


Physical theatre dances

Legs on the Wall, Under the Influence
Adelaide Fringe Festival, February 25

I didn’t know what was cooking, the sausages sizzling at the entrance to the ‘performing area’ situated on the seventh floor of the carpark, or the audience beneath the tin roof in 40 degree heat plus lighting, say 45. Either way it wasn’t a good smell. And yet, Legs were cooking, giving a virtuosic physical performance despite being awash with sweat. They pretty much held their audience though it wasn’t clear how Legs were managing to hold each other. This is a company blessed with a kind of performance ease, physical feats are achieved without ‘drum rolls’ and the acting is laid back and lucid. To ease into this, a prelude of apparently casual exchanges and acrobatic events (and their ‘accidents’) unfolds as the audience enters asking has the show begun—well yes and no (except to say that this particular postmodern gag is a bit overripe and is somewhat scuttled when lights etc finally do mark a start. A pity.)

Physical theatre has always lent itself to the choreographic impulse (doubtless inherited from the lyricism of the circus trapeze artiste), and is certainly evident in Desoxy and The Party Line, but here, under the direction of choreographer Kate Champion, it goes further, not into dance per se, but into a dextrous patterning of moves and holds that provides a magical fluidity for the work, everything from small gestural motifs and work with domestic objects and clothing to large scale sweeps of movement and a coherent dance-theatre totality. It was fascinating to watch the thoroughness and the inventiveness of the movement and I found myself surprised at how much the performers must have had to absorb choreographically when already faced with considerable physical challenges. Legs are not to be underrated. As for the show as theatre, this early version was too discursive, key images (as the broad narrative works itself out) seemed to repeat themselves as long in duration as their original incarnations, one-off numbers looked more than suspiciously like unintegrated individual performer favorites, some scenes wandered too far from the dangerous intimacies central to the work, too many lines fell short of funny and into whimsy, personalities were just a little too abstracted, and the overall shape plateaued early, a not unfamiliar problem for physical theatre with its constant battle to escape the string of tricks. But for all of this it’s very good and by the time Under the Influence reaches its Sydney season hopefully everything that already works—the physical skills, the choreography, the ease of playing, the sensual energy and cheery fatalism—will be sustained by tighter scripting and shaping.


Dance does physical theatre

Meryl Tankard Australian Dance Theatre
Ridley Theatre, Adelaide Festival, March 14

Possessed is the next stage of Meryl Tankard’s adventure with dance that leaves the ground, seen first in Furioso but also evident in another way in her choreography for the Australian Opera’s Orfeo. I have a vivid memory clip of her dancers as Furies flinging themselves relentlessly at a giant revolving wall. It looked dangerous. There is some harness work (first explored in Furioso) in Possessed’s central scenes, but the impressive new material that frames the show in the first and last scenes suspends the dancer by wrist, or by both wrist and ankle, using loops. While doubtless placing enormous strain on joints and muscles, there are advantages for fluidity and freedom of movement for the dancer in the air. Of course, it’s not a trapeze and they’re starting from the floor, so there’s not a lot they can do by themselves without help from the ground, the push that leads to swing as their earthed partner determines the direction of the swing and acts as catcher and cradler (and assistant). That said, once airborne, the dancer can amplify their swing and create delicious physical shapes and defiant arcs out over the audience. It looks dangerous as the arcs extend and the dancers swing fast and low over the fence around the big stage. It’s exhilarating because it looks so free, so unencumbered. And these dancers look so at home taking the grace they defeat gravity with on the floor into the air. The opening scene featured male pairs, generating a surprising intimacy, the aerial device allowing them ease at lifting the fellow male body, leaps into space being taken off the body of the ground dancer, returns from space greeted with great care. That aside, the women dancers provided some of the most spectacular and unnerving flights. If Possessed has any meaning, it tells of an obsession with flight and the defeat of gravity. Psychoanalyst Michael Balint called these possessed “philobats”, lovers of flight, and suggested that we all have some of that obsession in us, though we’re mostly happy to let others do it for us, at the circus for example. Not surprisingly then, the audience for Possessed clapped and cheered at every stage of these flights.

Another possessed body appears in the second scene—an obsessive sporting body, its centre of gravity low to the earth, absorbing everything in its almost militaristic path (shades of NYIDs’ monopolistic one-dimensional fit body at the Performing Arts Market), first possessing individuals in separate gender groups and then obliterating even that difference, taking with it every expression of pain and anxiety and the strange shapes that pitifully express them—a clawing fall to the floor or a wipe to the eye. A later comic scene has a group of men parading like women in a beauty contest—high heels and parodic stances (but around me the audience broke into shrill cheers exclaiming, “the Chippendales, the Chippendales!”). A line of women in red dresses challenge the men to do it right and all but one fail and exit, the victor taking his place centre line, locked in the same smile he began with, totally absorbed.

Much else in the evening seemed incidental, making it a show of bits and ultimately a bit of a show, despite the consistently powerful contribution of the Balanescu Quartet. The first, second and the final scenes of Possessed could be assembled into a powerful work instead of the sprawling entertainment it unashamedly is. Some in physical theatre might see Tankard as appropriating their aerial space, and there are times when the showbiz of it all seems to say so, but physical theatre is not all circuses these days and Legs on the Wall have a choreographer-director who’s worked with DV 8. Stalker have come down off their stilts and are working the air in other ways. It’s an intriguing physical moment.


Gravity Feed, The Gravity of the Situation

Gravity Feed, The Gravity of the Situation

Gravity Feed, The Gravity of the Situation

Embracing the unbearable

Gravity Feed, The Gravity of the Situation
Bond Store tunnel, The Rocks, Sydney
March 19 – 22

Gravity is upon us, from above and from beneath. It is weighty, it sucks, it pulls, it compels and commands from all sides. We act because we must, bound to this archaic form the cube which contains nothing yet everything. This is the tabernacle of damned creatures, and in its lightness is the source of their constant anxiety. Program note

Part of me wants to read this show literally. I resist. This is performance. We all inch our way in past signs that intimate danger. We are in a high ceilinged tunnel not in a theatre. Men in tired suits, some unshaven, hair straggling or shaved creep and dart about, oblivious to us, gathering lit candles in paper bags, placing them on a high ledge above a tall ladder, or in a cluster on the ground further down the tunnel. Me, I think I’m witness to some tramp ritual, a subterranean fire-worship culture, such is their care for their charge, fire that disintegrates that which is heavy into flame and ash as light as air. A soundtrack rumbles the resonant tunnel into a hymn of unremitting threat and mystery. It doesn’t let go of us. One of the men tugs at a huge metal cube walled with what looks like triple-ply cardboard (light but remarkably tough) and lets it roll down the slope of the tunnel, barely impeding its speed with all of his bodyweight. This is the first of the journeys of the cube, a miraculous device, Prometheus’ boulder to be rolled endlessly up the slope, a self-generating Platonic ideal that grows new walls as soon as old ones fall away (great design and construction), a perfect material to ignite (it takes and then refuses, glowing like a Red Milky Way), a tabernacle for unwilling worshippers whom it sucks to its centre from time to time and then once and for all. I can read The Gravity of the Situation literally, not as a tramp fire cult, of course (but what about those swinging buckets of flame?); it’s what it says it is, its heavy heart upon its sleeve. But lightness is as feared as much as gravity in this inverted Manicheanism. In a delicate and suspenseful moment the men hold the cardboard walls they’ve liberated from the cube vertically above their heads and criss-cross the space fearfully, juggling the surface area of the walls against the air in the tunnel.

The Gravity of the Situation is something more than the beginnings of the great work we’ve all been expecting from Gravity Feed after The House of Skin. What it needs now, now that the scenario is there, the shape is there, the marvellous cube is there, is for all the attention possible to be lavished on the choreography of bodies and space, a distillation of the opening, the establishment of a surer relationship between performers and Rik Rue’s awesome sound composition, and even perhaps opening space in the soundtrack so we, the congregation, can hear the performer bodies groan against the weight of the light and the heavy. In the past, Gravity Feed works have evaporated. Isn’t it time to embrace the unbearable lightness of being?

RealTime issue #24 April-May 1998 pg. 33

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 April 1998