Dance massive: merge, Stampede the Stampede, Kingdom reviews (Arts House, Melbourne)

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Melbourne’s Dance Massive festival ended at the weekend and in this final wrap Andrew Fuhrmann reviews merge, Stampede the Stampede and Kingdom (all at Arts House, Meat Market, Melbourne).
Merge by Melanie Lane
Strict geometries dissolve and ordered mime and gives way to frenzy in the shrouded, crepuscular world of Melanie Lane’s merge. It’s a performance of muted gothic affectations and post-apocalyptic atmospheres, where a never wholly realised dance-drama is held in tension with a more abstract interest in fugitive combinations of bodies and props.
More than anything, it is an exercise in style, a confirmation of Lane’s penchant for ceremonies of posthuman ambivalence. It begins as a sort of Le Sacre du hiver — perhaps a nuclear hiver. Four dancers — Antony Hamilton, Melanie Lane, Ashley McLellan and Sophia Nbaba — negotiate a small square space delimited with golden rods. They wear black, carry black garbage bags, scuttle and huddle. Three raise their arms in an outward show of supplication — one cowers. She is cast out. Here McLellan, in a shadowy yet graceful solo, recovers for a fleeting moment the tragic pulse of whatever world it was that came before the dim sterility we find in merge.

merge by Melanie Lane

The use of props is intermittently interesting. Gold-coloured rods are used to frame and entrap. Pictorially it’s an effect reminiscent of Francis Bacon’s golden cages. It’s all accompanied by Chris Clark’s thumping electronic, which dominates the twitchy, bobbling gestures of the dancers.
Especially toward the end of the piece, culminating in a free-for-all with miscellaneous props produced from the garbage bags, merge strays into bombast and approaches something like the kitsch of a music video. Although the performances are at all times sleek and precise, it’s difficult to find a way into this final, forced progress toward anarchy.  THREE STARS
Stampede the Stampede by Tim Darbyshire
There are three scenes, but we should properly call them tortures. Certainly tortures for performer Tim Darbyshire (main image above), but perhaps for the audience, too.
In the first we find Darbyshire on his knees on top of a kind of phone-box. Big, aggressive beats rain like mallet blows. Darbyshire is rocking back and forth, arms flailing, his silhouette leaping as spotlights flare. Then silence. Then the hiss of a hydraulic valve and the roof gives way, plunging Darbyshire into the booth. The aural assault recommences, this time with a musique concrete of distorted voices, unintelligible but surreally chantic. Inside the booth Darbyshire prepares himself for the next station — donning safety goggles and dust mask.
Now Darbyshire is the rock drill. Next to the booth there’s a table with a top made of thick but flexible plywood. Beneath the table are hidden a mass of subwoofers; on top of the table there’s a large pile of stones of varying size, from pebbles to tennis balls. Darbyshire stands on the table, in the middle of the pile, on his head. As soon as his body straightens, the bass kicks in. Rocks leap and bounce, working their way to the edge of the table and clattering to the floor. Dust billows around the inverted, perpendicular figure. In the low, orange light it looks like he is beginning to glow and smoke, like a drill bit grinding into bedrock.
It’s perhaps the most memorable image the entire festival.
Really, it’s an endurance test for Darbyshire who must stay inverted until all the rocks are cleared from the table. And for the audience, too. We must endure the abrasive bursts of noise and the sight of Darbyshire’s spine slowly curling.
Finally, Darbyshire mounts a second booth, this one with a rotating harness above it. He straps in. Is he a parachutist? A dead horse in a gallery? Jets of stage smoke rush around him as if to simulate a man plummeting through clouds.
Wherefore these scenic circus acts? This performed installation art? These duets for stage machines? These technologies of endurance? They intrigue us, yes, like all devices of torture, but what else? Do they extend choreography, or do they only cripple it?  TWO AND A HALF STARS  
Kingdom by Phillip Adams BalletLab

The four men idle through the space, slowly constructing their palace of homosexual desire. Heavy mats are schlepped from one end of the Meat Market to the other. The three younger men manipulate long poles — some pink, some white — while Phillip Adams occupies himself slotting pink batons into an ugly bit of pvc tubing.
Perhaps, in theory, we’re meant to see an intensive architecture of shifting planes and liberated vectors slowly rising before us. In practice it’s very tiresome. Right from the beginning you sense something is lacking in this kingdom.
The show is always, distressingly, about to collapse on itself. The parts hang loose, and vast longueurs suggest an earnest but clumsy groping toward intellectual seriousness. It is, through all its movements, disjointed, inconsistent, condescending and underdeveloped. Only when, at the last moment, it approaches the lurid low camp of a pornographic dream does Kingdom seem to live, and to confront us with something authentic.


There are a few points of incipient interest. The construction activities at the beginning, for instance, evoke the Trisha Brown Early Works program performed in this same venue at last year’s Melbourne Festival. The reference in Kingdom seems deliberate, but it was also suggested by the use of props in merge. It’s an example of the way particularly powerful works endure in a space long after the performance, influencing the reception of later work.
Toward the end of the piece there’s a sort of ceremony of the proverbial golden condom, where a naked Luke George and a naked Rennie McDougall are smeared all over in gold body paint. Matt Day appears to opt out, making a point of putting his clothes back on. There’s an attractive quality of disobedience and revolution in this, but in terms of the trajectory and coherence of the show it looks odd. Indeed, it looks almost like sabotage.
Ultimately, Kingdom is stunted by the kind of aesthetic tyranny it seeks to question. Perhaps George, Day and McDougall were given freedom to explore in their own way the intersection of art, desire and sexual identity, but that freedom clearly had a limit. Everything here seems to happen at the pleasure — the indulgence — of the king, who shuffles among his youthful courtiers with a look of benevolent tolerance. Yes, it’s good to be the king. No doubt that’s why Matthew Day’s subversion of the final orgy is so interesting a gesture towards art without approbation. ONE AND A HALF STARS
Read more Andrew Fuhrmann reviews of Dance Massive here, here  and here
[box]Main image: Tim Darbyshire in Stampede the Stampede presented as part of Dance Massive at Arts House. Picture by  Sarah Walker.[/box]

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