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Re-Viewing Expectations

Natalie Cursio

What I had hoped to do here was to write a ‘response’, to write something that extended out from the works I saw. To write something that was more than just what I thought of the show. And darn it, I didn’t. Instead I wrote some kind of review – something that I feel completely unqualified to do, in a style that makes me feel kind of dated and irrelevant. I am making judgements about other artists’ work. I knew writing on dance was going to be difficult, but it’s been harder than I thought. Partly because there isn’t much precedence for dance artists in our relatively small community writing on one another’s work, least of all writing that discusses perceived flaws. Yesterday I had a conversation with wise, young Fiona Bryant who reminded me that everyone watches work with their own frame of reference and I have tried to indicate my frame to some degree within my writing… So, sheepishly, I present this without any desire whatsoever to inflate the importance of my opinion. I’m just a person thinking through writing. I may think differently tomorrow.

………

After seeing Meeting I woke in the night with an incessant rhythm in my head.

Antony Hamilton and Alisdair Macindoe are incredible. No doubt about it. The concentration, dedication and virtuosity in this work are formidable. They worked hard. We were privileged to see not only the work that had gone into creating but also to see the hard work still going on as it unfolded as performance – sustained and utterly engaging.

Like orchestral conductors both ‘in charge of’ and ‘under orders from’ their robot companions (a circle of neat little identical boxes, each wielding rhythmically animated grey-lead pencils), Hamilton and Macindoe gave us an experience not unlike getting on a ride. I found myself trying to de-code their patterns but the lightning speed and fluid re-routing of counting systems and physical counterpoint wouldn’t allow it. The agreeance and syncopation of bodies, objects and sound was choreographed and delivered with such insistence and clarity as to make the tiny moments of rest/relief palpable to us all.

Meeting illustrates a particular kind of virtuosity – the kind that, despite its modest and studious delivery (and I mean modest in comparison to something like a conventional spectacle), could actually become a YouTube sensation. Macindoe and Hamilton’s thing could become a meme. It has a popular appeal whilst holding absolute artistic integrity and choreographic rigour.

Images came and went: Pencils with personality; Burglars under moonlight; Rainy nights tinkering in the laboratory; Creaky doors and cat purrs. I love circles, I love details, I love watching people concentrate. I love visible thinking. So Meeting was like a cascade of box ticking for me – it was gratifying.

Meeting had the effect of imprinting my brain in the short term. Strangely it didn’t linger (post night-wake) in the way Force Majeure’s Nothing to Lose did. Whilst Meeting left me satisfied, Nothing to Lose had the opposite effect – it stubbornly sat in my head and I didn’t quite know (still don’t) what to do with it, nor how to write about it. But here goes…

I should have known better than to fall into the trap of expectation (and admittedly perhaps the re-interpretation of a show-blurb) and then pinning my disappointment on my perception that the work didn’t reach its potential. To explain my (perhaps too rigid) position upon entering – I hoped to be presented with the particular possibilities of movement developed and realised through a fat body. To me this was a curious and intriguing prospect. How great that we were going to see something ‘other’. Perhaps an investigation of movement possibilities that we didn’t know existed or sequences and relationships that went physically and dramaturgically beyond what we are so accustomed to seeing in contemporary dance and dance theatre performance.

It was certainly an unusual situation. It’s rare that we see large bodies in a professional contemporary dance context (I don’t remember ever seeing this in Australia) and here we have a core group of large performers as the protagonists of a main stage work. Additionally there is an ensemble of chorus extras, also large. So yes, Force Majeure, in this way, is challenging norms. But is creating a ‘situation’ enough?

As the audience entered the dancers were present – low to the ground, stretching, preparing, reclining, resting. Some images start to form as rolls, curls and contact occur, but nothing in particular emerges. A sequence of standard contemporary dance gestures occurs in unison, but nothing in particular emerges. A layering of recorded voices gives us a battering of derogatory names, back-handed compliments and inappropriate questions and we understand that this is the kind of commentary that has been tediously present in these performers’ lives. As a theatrical device it was familiar terrain – exactly where one would expect a workshop idea to begin – but again, nothing in particular emerged from it. No subversion, no mischief. I wondered what answering some of those inappropriate questions would have opened up.

Indeed, through text, we were allowed more specifically into one or two of the performers worlds. (Ally Garrett offers up the most personal and hard-hitting of moments). Otherwise the performers seemed to be lumped into one personality. A dominant tone of the palette was what I interpreted as gloating – like an assumption that the audience were all a bunch of non-believers who were about to have their minds blown, daring us to think otherwise.

Physically Claire Burrows’ repeated-pummelling solo into the floor tested the waters for something ‘other’ but it was overridden by lighting and sound theatrics that suggested less trust in the image on its own. Three other solos were based around provocative posing and writhing, reminding us (again and again and again) that fat people are sexy too. But don’t we already know this? In a (seemingly never ending) climate where to be sexy is to be something, I felt kind of sad that rather than celebrate and investigate difference the work perversely seemed to celebrate sameness. Granted, I personally couldn’t get such a great wobble out of my body as displayed in a moment when the dancers lined up in an orchestration of jiggling flesh, but the lack of choreographic exploration left it gimmicky.

The premise for Nothing to Lose sits in such interesting territory and there is plenty of value in the political and social dialogue that the situation inevitably creates. But, for me, the treatment of the territory was underwhelming and ultimately unsatisfying. I guess I was looking for nuance, skill and expression that went beyond the universality of humans enjoying moving their bodies. The vital energy of the work was at times contagious and most of the audience gave a rapturous applause – several gave standing ovations – but I was disappointed by the lack of adventure and the absence of ideas that really challenged the form. Having struggled for several weeks to write about this work and wrestling with the other voice that tells me my viewpoint is redundant because of my initial expectation – I can at least say I’ve been reminded not to project my preferences onto someone else’s work. It’s a dead end.

So I didn’t read the blurb or the programme before seeing 10000 Small Deaths. And I still haven’t.

Paula Lay’s 10000 Small Deaths was one of those rare works that actually induced an emotive shift in me. And I didn’t really know why. All I knew at the time, when tears welled up in my eyes, was that there was something here about grief and wisdom and acceptance that was infiltrating. Lay’s performance was one of absolute composure and attention to detail. The movement had a silkiness and exactitude without being overly punctuated or deliberate. It just got on with what it needed to do. Who was this woman in the blackness – was it Paula? She could have been someone much older, she could have been a spirit, she could have been a small child. I thought a lot about legacy while watching this work. I thought about what we leave behind, and how ritual, tradition, love and courage are passed on when someone dies. Apart from one section, later in the work where the music shifted tone into a break-beat dance music genre (it felt somewhat like an outro gearing towards a ‘happy ending’) and slightly un-did the work that had been building beautifully and concisely until that point, 10000 Small Deaths gently and elegantly suggested a connection and return to nature, reminding me of the immense size of the universe. At once it traversed an individual’s significance in the world and at the same time alluded to our insignificance on a grander scale. I wonder if 10000 Small Deaths held such resonance for me because I had recently made a work about grief/coping (Recovery) and my frame of reference made me particularly available to its tone and message. Or maybe 10000 Small Deaths was simply a deeply considered, humble and excellent work about transience and acceptance of mortality.

 

Meeting, Antony Hamilton & Alisdair Macindoe
As part of Dance Massive 2015
Arts House, North Melbourne Townhall
dancemassive.com.au/program/meeting

Nothing to Lose, Force Majeure
As part of Dance Massive 2015
Malthouse Theatre
dancemassive.com.au/program/nothing-to-lose

10,000 Small Deaths, Paula Lay
As part of Dance Massive 2015
Dance House
dancemassive.com.au/program/10000-small-deaths

 

Nat Cursio is a choreographer, performer and curator based in Melbourne.

This text has been produced as an outcome of the ‘To Write: Dance Massive Writing Workshop’ that was held on 1 March. As part of this workshop participants discussed approaches to writing about dance, notions of voice and audience, issues of value and function, and strategies of engagement and reflection. Throughout the Festival texts made in response to works in the Dance Massive program by the workshop participants will be published online at the Dance Massive website.

For more information on ‘To Write’ please visit: dancemassive.com.au/news-item/dance-massive-writers-workshop