Keith Gallasch: WE ARE HERE’s Radical Transparency: resurrecting dance

In March, WE ARE HERE Company, co-founded by Parramatta-based FORM Dance Projects and choreographer Emma Saunders, staged Radical Transparency, a vivid depiction of the anxieties and survival tactics, recovery and restitution of a young dance team returning to performance after suffering the individual and communal depredations of the Covid epidemic. It’s a show of bits — team dancing, solos, monologues, dance on screen, singing, projected text — but adds up to much more than a bit of a show. I saw Radical Transparency streamed in March and, thanks to FORM, subsequently but have only been able to write about it after a slew of inescapable interruptions of my own.

The stage is bare save for a high mound of colourful items of clothing to one side, the seeming source of a riotous mix and not-match colourful DIY costuming, and a large screen upstage on which is projected with existential force the word “Why” (production design David Capra). In a pre-recorded voice-over, director-choreographer Emma Saunders workshops with her 11 dancers, each responding individually to her directions: “Dancing… dancing… Stay with that!…Take it to the extreme!” She then solos to her own instructions. Led by example, the dancers join her in fluid unison. After she leaves, they voice and respond to their own instructions, seemingly affirming process and self-sustaining unity. However, all is not well.

WE ARE HERE, Radical Transparency, rear left Gabriela Green Olea, Emily Yali, front Fiorella Bamba, Claire Rodrigues; photo Dom O’Donnell

Four dancers pair off: in each, one dancer gently embraces the other. But there’s no reciprocity — the other is first limp and then a dead-weight. Roles are reversed and another pair arrives, but with the same outcome. What at first looked affectionate is now tortuous. Achieving intimacy after prolonged isolation is not going to be easy, and so commences a series of events in which individuals are at times wildly at odds with the collective.

WE ARE HERE, Radical Transparency, Sarah Kalule, Josh O’Connor; photo Dom O’Donnell

But first there is a moment of unanimity, an ensemble dance onscreen and onstage realised with precision, lyrical finesse and a shared sense of verve. It ends in collapse, darkness and a dreamlike series of projected Tik Tok self-portraits conjuring memories of COVID lockdowns in which individuals attempt to cut through isolation with wild dancing, simple illusions and comic stunts. In a Zoom workshop individual dancers appear in loungerooms, bedrooms, backyards, responding to Saunders’ instructions, building to a climactic “Big start. Open out … Fall apart!”

Above the sleeping dancers, text by writer Felicity Castagna unfolds on the screen line by line: “… we’ve been carried across into a new reality where the cities have been emptied and our bodies too — we’ve got touch starvation, skin hunger, because… loneliness. Because this too will pass, but don’t forget. Because how do we remember to show up for each other?”

As if revived by this sentiment, the dancers wake and move purposefully, but soon fall, rolling across the floor into a low-stacked row of inert bodies, save for Sabrina Muszynski who, in a comedic attempt to overcome inertia, cries “Come on, come on!” as she slides and bounces on her bottom, legs akimbo, arms circling, until she too collapses. Onscreen, a sparklingly illuminated Liam Berg confronts the unwelcome return of a lover with an acerbic poem; personal dramas had continued to play out regardless of Covid.

WE ARE HERE, Radical Transparency, Fiorella Bamba; photo Dom O’Donnell

Castagna’s words onscreen ponder the impact of the epidemic on time: “I’m not sure it exists anymore/ …I think maybe it’s all just layers and loops these days/ …Are we going to know each other again?” The dancers rise up. Fiorella Bamba vigorously takes the stage and is soon joined by the rest of the ensemble, limbs extended, bodies twirling and executing sudden floor drops until interrupted by a cry, “Again!” And the dancing starts up, again. It seems the company has now progressed from workshop to rehearsal. However Gabriela Green Olea defiantly breaks rank, dancing and collapsing irregularly to her impulses and her own dance logic while her peers dance unanimously on, until the next “Again!”

Restless, arms and hands twitching with small impotent gestures, the ensemble clusters upstage as Claire Rodrigues steps forward, speaking breathlessly to us of the surreal experience of holding down multiple part-time jobs, of a strange world outside of dance: “… a job, the other job, both of the jobs I have … they, they’re very different, the thing is not at this place and this place …. I can’t do the things at the job … I think by that point, that’s their job!”

Stranger still, Rachelle Silsby rigorously executes and exhaustingly repeats a mysterious dance entwining balletic turns, leaps and splits with a rapid set of gestures, arm and fist ‘striking’ the chest. Josh O’Connor plays choreographer, calling authoritatively: “Again!” and “You’ve got it!”, but in no way in sync with the actual dance. Meanwhile a seemingly innocently intrigued Sarah Kalule inches closer and closer to Silsby, clapping rhythmically and so close she has to regularly duck the dancer’s wild arm swings. This fascinating ‘duet’ is essentially another piece of individual expression that leaves the ensemble still unformed, but provides some almost sustained dance.

WE ARE HERE, Radical Transparency, Emily Yali, Rory Warne; photo Dom O’Donnell

Emily Yali, in another individual turn, dances to Paul Simon’s “Slip Slidin’ Away” beneath a projection of a gigantic Rory Warne shot from an extremely low angle striding to the song. Against Warne’s steady pace, Yali fluently multiplies the number of steps, with arms and legs in swaying interplay. There are no interruptions, interlopers, no “Again!” A dance has at last been allowed to complete itself.

Naomi Reichardt steps forward to speak calmly and lucidly about plants, ecology and, by implicit analogy — in the sharing of energy and information for survival — dance as an ecosystem. The ensemble gathers and logic suggests it’s time for a dance of communal togetherness. Instead, with fellow dancers standing still behind her, Fiorella Bamba sings acapella part of Empire State of Mind” (Jay-Z, Alicia Keys et al) including the lines: “If I can make it here, I can make it anywhere, that’s what they say/ Seeing my face in lights or my name in marquees found down on Broadway.” If the original is a celebration of achievement, here it’s a spaciously phrased, achingly aspirational dream, conjuring up the earlier New Yorks of Scorsese and of the 1930s’ “let’s put on a show” movies. It felt culturally distant, if emotionally present. The surrounding dancers reach forward, extended arms swaying gently right to left to right, hands with palms turned up. Bamba joins them. It’s the beginning of a silent, gentle, concluding dance of slowly gestured serenity and supplication, the onscreen text asking, “is this the end, is this a wrap?” and “where is the respite in dance, in life? What about just … the simplicity of dance and being, radical and transparent?” At last, after a deliriously anxious interplay between group and individual, a tranquil communality is achieved.

WE ARE HERE, Radical Transparency: Claire Rodrigues, Gabriela Green Olea, Josh O’Connor, photo Dom O’Donnell

Because I’m seeing Radical Transparency on video, I miss onscreen text not caught by the camera. But the final words glimpsed take me back to earlier ones from Felicity Castagna: “To be rooted, to relinquish, to connect, to sit, knowing, to sit with my body, to be uncomfortable, to be passive… my body moves, and it’s made of milk and oil and, you know, sometimes that’s not enough…” The something else has to be other dancers and the ecosystem that is dance.

Radical Transparency conveys a strong sense of the anxieties induced by the Covid pandemic, the consequent lockdowns and the difficulties of reconnecting, but doesn’t play the angst, opting instead for humour (as you would expect of director Emma Saunders, one of the much-missed The Fondue Set trio) of varying degrees of bewilderment, darkness and estrangement, confidently played and danced by the 11 performers, all in their 20s. There are bursts of energy followed by torpor, sudden ensemble dancing and individual disruption, finely crafted text that fleetingly demands deeper reflection, and interpolated little talks that invoke everyday demands or put dance in a bigger picture. It’s a neatly constructed creation if leaning on individual performances more than extending the capacity of the ensemble as ensemble — that will doubtless come now that epidemic circumstances have eased and Radical Transparency has answered the “Why?” of dance. Radical Transparency is a delight, a bright expression of hope for dance in dark times.

WE ARE HERE Company, FORM Dance Projects, Riverside Theatres: Dance Bites 2022 March Dance: Radical Transparency, director, choreographer Emma Saunders, writer Felicity Castagna, collaborating dancers Live: Fiorella Bamba, Gabriela Green Olea, Sarah Goroch, Sarah Kalule, Sabrina Muszynski, Naomi Reichardt, Josh O’Connor, Claire Rodrigues, Rachelle Silsby, Emily Yali; Onscreen: Vishnu Arunasalam, Liam Berg, Cynthia Florek, Warren Foster, Romain Hassanin, Bedelia Lowrencek, Katrina Sneath, Chris Wade, Rory Warne, videographer Dom O’Donnell, designer David Capra, outside eye Jane McKernan; Riverside Theatres, Parramatta 18, 19 March

Top image credit: WE ARE HERE, Radical Transparency, Rachelle Silsby, photo Dom O’Donnell

6 September 2022