This year’s edition of Dance Territories takes as its theme ‘the rituals of now’. The season, an annual event curated by Melbourne’s Dancehouse and co-presented by the Melbourne Festival, consists of two separate double bills, pairing local artists with international. Part one opens with a remount of Zero Zero by Tony Yap, Yumi Umimare and Matt Gingold, a work first seen at fortyfivedownstairs in 2013, followed by the bracing, mistempered humour of Belgian company Mossoux-Bonté and their Coffee Drinkers.
Zero Zero is an absorbing puzzle of structure and feeling. We begin with midnight, in darkness. Umimare is hugging a digital alarm clock, flashing, zero zero, zero zero. Initially, it seems as if Yap and Umimare are telling off the hours of the day. We advance, one distinct movement after another, each like an abstract representation of a block of time, and each associated with a particular feeling of restraint or discipline.
But structure is tested, too, and discipline resisted; there is a mood of tension, even disquiet. One of the more striking movements sees Tony Yap lying down, trying to rise, shaking, as if his bones were all broken, almost like he were an injured creature on the side of the road. As shaking turns to writhing, it starts to look more like an internal struggle, as though Yap were straining against the limits of his own self, as if the animal were inside, trying to break free, clawing at the walls.
Towards the end of the piece, the two come very near to a duet, performing mere centimetres from each another, with neither acknowledging the nearness. Their personal spaces overlap, and yet the bodies don’t touch. This mutual invasion of a doubtful zone exacerbates the unease, as does the sense that, far behind the fortifications of subjectivity, and the mask of oblivious self-involvement, both are conscious of the tension and are yearning to touch — a touch which is beyond ritual, beyond even space and skin. The moment where they finally do come together is sort of an obvious release, but is impressive nonetheless.
It all has an attractive kind of international Buddhist flavour. Yap and Umimare both draw on their respective ancestries, Malaysian and Japanese, while Matt Gingold, who creates a complex live soundscape, adds a touch of modern post-rock dharma. Electric guitars suggest distant zithers, and the jangling of a symbols is something like prayer bells. Some very snazzy video projections extend the layering of ancient and modern. If it doesn’t quite add up to the sacred, it does at least gives some sense of how far the sacred has receded.
The Coffee Drinkers is a more theatrical piece: funnier, and with a clearer sense of place and narrative. But it’s still mysterious, in its own specially twisted and attractive way. Two women in matching platinum-blond wigs and bright pink jackets, looking like escapees from a Vanessa Beecroft photoshoot, take their coffee at identical scroll-leg coffee tables. The ritual is elaborate, passionate, and symmetrical –each to each. It’s mesmerising, the two women, weird sisters, with their mirrored expressions of sensual delight.
With folded napkins, they dab at spilled coffee; then, with a glance at the audience, they simultaneously use the napkins to wipe under their armpits. There’s a lot of coffee under the armpits. The napkins come out stained brown. It looks like dried blood, and the napkin looks like old sanitary pads. Another significant glance at the audience. Leave it on the table. It doesn’t matter. Soon coffee will be everywhere.
It’s a terrible cliché to describe something as David Lynch-like, and it’s usually an injustice. But The Coffee Drinkers, choreographed by company founders Nicole Moussoux and Patrick Bonté, really does have an eerie resemblance to Twin Peaks. Where else could this sombre coffee lounge be, with its floor-to-ceiling curtains and its spaced-out Badalamenti jazz, if not the waiting room of the Black Lodge? (“Would you like some coffee?” A sly grin. Enter Laura Palmer.)
Recurring references in Twin Peaks to coffee and pie and doughnuts are all symbolic of socially prescribed patterns of behaviour, the basic units of a small-town life in America. Here, for Mossoux-Bonté, coffee figures a similar sort of symbol. Even the disruptions seem like echoes from Twin Peaks. At one point a tray of sardines is produced; the heavy smell of brine quickly insinuates itself into the audiences, wrinkling noses. (“Fellas, don’t drink that coffee,” warns Pete. “There was a fish in the percolator.”)
The humour and the symbols are similar, but The Coffee Drinkers goes further in digging out the absurdity. And there’s more than just fish in the pot. From the coffee lounge, the scene shifts to a sort of backroom, where a third dancer appears, a tyro coffee drinker – an initiate. Dance gives way completely to theatre, with a spoof horror twist; the ritual of coffee drinking rises to a full-blown brown mass – or a black mass, au lait.
The performers, Leslie Mannès, Maxence Rey and Frauke Mariën are wonderfully droll. In wigs or in coffee-spattered underwear, appalled or rapturous, they’re always precise, with only the barest suggestion of a character smothered behind the mask.
Dance Territories is a brilliant double bill, each piece its own small festival highlight, its own dark question mark; together they traverse the stranger limits of profane ceremony, of habit and discipline, opening an unexpected dialogue of body and bondage.