Humphrey Bower reviews the following shows from Dance Massive held at various venues in Melbourne, March 12-24:
Luke George and Collaborators, Public Actions
Atlanta Eke, The Tennis Piece
Stephanie Lake, The Skeleton Tree
Marrugeku, Le Dernier Appel/The Last Cry
Joel Bray, Biladurang
Russell Dumas, Cultural Residues 2020
How can dance intervene in the world? And how is it subject to the world – not only physically but also economically and politically?
This year marked the sixth edition of Dance Massive, a biennial festival of Australian contemporary dance held in Melbourne (sometimes called the nation’s dance capital). Hosted by Arts House (whose venues include North Melbourne Town Hall and the Meat Market just down the road) alongside Melbourne’s venerable Dancehouse and Malthouse Theatre – as well as at alternative venues like Collingwood Town Hall and the Abbotsford Convent – this year’s festival embraced 30 productions from around Australia as well as a free public program of masterclasses, talks and showcases. Crucially the festival is also a market for domestic and international producers, and the pressure of this on some of the work and artists was palpable.
The dominant themes in the work – and brochures, programs and online marketing – were democracy, identity, technology and the nature of dance itself. More interesting to me however (especially in the context of dance) than these verbally articulated themes were the physically articulated performance practices they inspired – and beyond these, the economic and institutional practices that support or undermine them, including those of arts organisations, the arts market and the festival itself. In particular, the festival (my third in less than two months, after Perth and Adelaide) raised questions for me about how art is marketed and described (including in reviews like this one) in ways that don’t helpfully serve or even accurately ‘frame’ the work. This is especially the case when art is talked about in terms of ‘content’ instead of artists, materials, processes and what might generally be called ‘form’.
Luke George has been making Public Actions with a diverse group of seven other performers and creatives (Nick Roux, Brooke Powers, Latai Taumoepeau, Leah Landau, Melanie Lane, Russell Walsh and Timothy Harvey) for the past couple of years. The work is described in the program as being in three ‘Parts’: Part 1 (‘Public Action’) and Part 2 (‘Group Action’) are ‘performative happenings’ that occur in the theatre at North Melbourne Town Hall; Part 3 (‘A Call to Actions’) is an exhibition in an adjacent room at the town hall archiving a series of ‘happenings in public spaces enacted by public participants’. The exhibition contains archival material including a looped video screening and a tree trunk; the video shows some of the artists and members of the public carrying the tree truck and negotiating their way around the Abbotsford Convent with their eyes closed.
‘Part 1: Public Action’ begins with the audience on movable chairs on a tiered seating block, facing an empty floor with a large projection screen at the back that shows what appears at first glance to be a mirror-image of ourselves. Closer inspection reveals that it’s actually a cleverly constructed collage of ‘strips’ of footage taken from previous audiences and ‘sutured’ together. As it happens, I recognised some of the performers (who in some cases appear more than once in the image) sitting in various seats amongst the mirror-audience looking back at us; and as it happens I was also sitting next to a friend who had seen the show more than once, and his image also appeared more than once in various seats.
I was totally enchanted by this, although others in the audience were still talking and generally behaving as if they were still waiting for the show to start, until a commotion began several rows behind me. My friend and I stood up and turned back to see what was going on. Someone in the middle of the audience appeared to be slowly sliding or falling out of their chair. As it happens (that phrase again!), I recognised them as one of the performers and surmised that this was part of the show, especially as they continued slowly sliding down the seating block. Other members of the audience seemed unsure; and their uncertainty was compounded when a member of the front-of-house staff entered and announced (somewhat bizarrely) that they would have to stop the show.
By this time some of the audience members sitting near the performer had vacated their chairs and begun moving towards the aisles on either side of the auditorium, either to make room or simply to stand and watch. At this point, the usher came back in, announced that it was indeed part of the show and (even more bizarrely) asked us all to sit down again. Most of us however remained standing, especially as other performers were now emerging from the audience and sliding down the seating block, tumbling over the empty chairs ahead of them in a slow-motion avalanche of bodies and chairs that reminded me of Michelangelo’s Last Judgment, Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa or Rodin’s Gates of Hell.
Once again, I was fascinated by the image, but distracted by the confusion of the front-of-house staff and audience. As the prison warden says at the end of Cool Hand Luke, what we had here was a failure to communicate. I also found myself distracted by thoughts of health and safety, not to mention legal liability, especially when one of the performers caught his belt in a chair leg, and an audience member reached out and began struggling to disentangle him.
Meanwhile the human avalanche continued crawling across the floor towards the projection screen – which now showed its mirror-audience sitting in the brace position as if for a crash-landing – while we stood somewhat awkwardly around them. They began to raise the screen, which it became apparent was made of fabric, and revealed the rest of the vast Town Hall space. This ‘reveal’ inaugurated Part Two: ‘Group Action’.
Sound and video artist Nick Roux was positioned on the proscenium stage at the far end, with a sound desk and microphones positioned in front of several vertical sheets of metal and some kind of long wind instrument that looked like a Tibetan horn. We’d been offered earplugs at the box office before the show, and fortunately I’d accepted, as unpredictable bursts of deafening industrial noise ensued for the next ten to 15 minutes.
No one else seemed perturbed, but even with earplugs and both hands covering my ears I felt nauseous from the bass frequencies, and found myself struggling with the urge to either leave the space or cross the floor and unplug the sound system; once again, I found myself distracted by thoughts of legal liability in the event of long-term hearing damage. (Afterwards I was reassured that the sound-levels had been meticulously ‘tested’, to which my response was: ‘On whom?’)
If it was meant to be an exercise in voluntarism or ‘direct democracy’ then it seemed as naïve, specious or even disingenuous as those concepts themselves.
Meanwhile, the performers were now marching up and down around the space and auditorium like soldiers or robots, reinforcing the (presumably intentional) impression that this section was meant to be an example of ‘group action’ by a stronger group against a weaker one (in this case, the audience). On every level, I felt that the transition from Part 1 to Part 2 certainly performed what the brochure described as a ‘rupture’ in the theatre (if not the ear-drums).
However it totally negated the proposition (also stated in the program) that social ‘displacement’, ‘relocation’ or even ‘terra-formation’ (literally, the transformation of a planet or moon to make it like Earth and therefore habitable – a rather dubious ecological metaphor for social change) might happen through ‘immense softness’ rather than violence and noise. As such, I felt it had more in common with fascism than democracy. Again, perhaps this was intentional; but I found myself confused about the larger purpose or necessity of this, and increasingly troubled by the work’s method of implementation and ethics.
Individual performers were now moving among the audience and issuing instructions. One ‘group’ of audience took their chairs into the space and formed a new ‘onstage audience’; then a performer approached me and others sitting nearby and asked us to do the same thing (though I had trouble hearing what she was saying over the noise). Other audience members were apparently following instructions in various ways, doing creative things with brooms and generally enjoying being part of the action, as people often do (for better or worse).
Eventually two audience members approached my onstage group and instructed us to pile up our chairs and then lie down on the floor. I assumed that they were relaying further instructions from the performers, and obeyed, even though once again I found myself distracted by thoughts of safety and liability as we piled up our chairs somewhat precariously and then lay down beside them.
Afterwards, I learned that the second round of instructions had simply been an invitation to enter the space and change anything we wanted to (or not); and that the two audience members who had approached us had simply taken this a step further by telling us what to do. (It’s too bad I missed out on the original invitation, as I would have unplugged the sound system.) When I learned this I couldn’t help reflecting on the fact that once again (as with the ‘avalanche’ in Part 1) there had been a systemic distortion of communication, aided and abetted by a lack of transparency or reciprocity between the performers and the audience.
In particular, I was struck by the somewhat mystificatory and even dogmatic silence or lack of intervention from the performers when things ‘went wrong’ – or perhaps simply ‘went differently’. This seemed to me like a case of doggedly ‘sticking to the script’ and washing one’s hands of the consequences while encouraging the audience to improvise and take things into their own hands – unlike the verbally transparent and reciprocally guided ‘happenings’ at Abbotsford Convent, where both artists and members of the public had their eyes closed but remained in physical contact and were allowed to signal ‘Eyes open!’ when needed.
This inconsistency seemed particularly distorting given the imbalance of power between performers and audience in a theatre (just as it would be for police to simply ‘let things happen’ when things ‘got out of hand’ at a protest on the streets). If it was meant to be an exercise in voluntarism or ‘direct democracy’ then it seemed as naïve, specious or even disingenuous as those concepts themselves (in fact both are typically manipulated by demagogues and often lead to violence); if a more ‘value-neutral’ demonstration of ‘how things happen’ then once again its purpose, execution and ethics seemed poorly thought through. In comparison with the original ‘happenings’ of Cage or Allan Kaprow, participatory performance works like those of the Fluxus artists, or more straightforward immersive performances like The Nature of Why (reviewed in an earlier Postcard from Perth Festival), this felt like an needlessly complex and distorting hall of mirrors, and ultimately a game of power rather than a work of genuine collaboration.
‘As it happened’ however this time I was happy enough to lie down (at a safe distance from the pile of chairs) and watch the rest of the performance pleasantly unravel around me. In fact I found it something of a relief to return to the more traditional (albeit immersive) role of contemplative audience member while the performers embarked on a final, very beautiful and indeed ‘immensely soft’ sequence of improvised individual interactions and ‘farewells’ in relation to the space. At last, I felt, a genuinely transparent and reciprocal (even if wordless) encounter between performers and audience took place. Such surely is the beginning of any collective action not based on force – and perhaps of any genuine democracy.
(Since writing and posting this I’ve received a personal communication from a cast-member and friend to the effect that my review may inadvertently give the impression that Public Actions failed to take adequate precautions in terms of health and safety. This was not my intention; rather I was reporting on what I experienced as moments of perceived confusion (in the cases of the ‘avalanche’ in Part 1 and the relayed instructions about audience participation in Part 2) and oppression (in the case of the sound levels), which on reflection I attributed (in the former two cases) to distorted communication and (in the latter) to a neglect of audience comfort, as well as (in both cases) an underlying confusion (which could be mine!) about the work’s intentions and execution. It’s true that as a performer and theatre-maker I’m highly sensitized to issues of health and safety in the theatre as my habitual workplace, as well as to issues of audience perception; and that personally I’m also highly sensitized to the issue of noise (which I regard as a neglected health and safety issue across all workplaces and in society generally); but I have no doubt that the project took adequate precautions and always had the performers’ and the audience’s health and safety in mind and at heart at all times. )
I found Public Actions deeply problematic; but this is also a tribute to the work’s complexity and fundamental integrity. Such complexity and integrity was sadly lacking in some of the other work I saw at Dance Massive, which consequently I wouldn’t describe as ‘problematic’ but simply as bad work.
The Tennis Piece by Atlanta Eke for example was performed in the ballroom at Collingwood Town Hall, a charming Art Deco refurbishment of a typical late-19thCentury neoclassical shoebox-style auditorium with a wooden floor and proscenium stage at one end. The venue was ideal for concerts and dancing, so I felt we were off to a promising start.
Tennis court markings were taped to the floor; the audience entered the brightly lit ballroom and sat downstairs in a single line along the walls or upstairs in the gallery. Four dancers (Atlanta Eke, Ivey Wawn, Annabelle Balharry and Ellen Davies) warmed up playing tennis, while their images were duplicated on a video screen above the stage, and the sound of the ball hitting the racket was echoed by deafening synthesised lute chords (generated by sound artist Daniel Jenatsch) which continued relentlessly for the next hour.
Presumably this had something to do with the French Revolution, patriarchy, the female body, royal tennis and the origins of ballet as an instrument of political power in the court of Louis XIV.
Sadly the warm-up was the most interesting part of the show. The tennis net was removed, and two of the dancers re-entered without expression and moved around the space taking it in turns to exchange short barrages of dance steps back and forth (just like playing tennis). Then another dancer entered, covered herself in a dark sheet, knelt and began intoning the Latin names of female body parts (which were also projected as text on the video screen) while a tennis ball machine began lobbing balls at her.
This was followed by all four dancers performing an interminable series of what looked like Renaissance or possibly French Baroque court ballet dance steps with great precision but still no expression or significant variation in length, rhythm or dynamic. Finally, the lights went down, ultraviolet lights came up and a barrage of tennis balls began flying through the air at the dancers, who smeared themselves with luminous paint and began rushing around, occasionally trying to catch the balls or hit them back.
Presumably this had something to do with the French Revolution, patriarchy, the female body, royal tennis and the origins of ballet as an instrument of political power in the court of Louis XIV; but the sound and staging made it almost impossible to contemplate the movement and allowed no imaginative space for corporeal meaning to emerge; the choreography was inert and demonstrated no sense of visual or spatial intelligence; and the whole thing was illustrative.
I thought of the term ‘program music’. Perhaps The Tennis Piece could be described as ‘programmed dance’.
Little advance on this score was made by the admittedly more accomplished Skeleton Tree by Stephanie Lake Company at Malthouse Theatre. Lake, like Eke, is currently hot property on the contemporary dance market, and is described in the program as a ‘multi-award-winning choreographer’ who ‘draws inspiration from the punch and poeticism of funeral songs and dances for the dead to create a powerful new work about the primary human experience that language constantly fails to articulate: the ecstasy of grief’.
As with so much contemporary theatre and dance that is driven by technology and technique, images and sensations were all.
As this blurb suggests, death and grieving were totally aestheticised and anything ‘primary’ completely avoided. Lake admitted in an interview in Dance Magazine during rehearsals six weeks before the show opened that she had no experience of death but was ‘planning to interview people once I get further into the process’.
I’m not sure how things panned out on that score, but the work certainly showed no evidence of any primary research – or indeed of any direct emotional response or original thought. Instead, as with so much contemporary theatre and dance that is driven by technology and technique, images and sensations were all. The staging was certainly eye-and-ear-popping (or alternatively ‘caressing’, depending on the sensation required) and the choreography occasionally jaw-dropping, but there was an emotional and intellectual coldness and emptiness at the heart of this work that made it less ‘about’ death than dead itself.
After a preliminary ‘Final Bow’ by the dancers (to recorded applause), a sequence of 13 so-called ‘meditations on death and loss’ ensued. This largely consisted of a series of clichéd images augmented by lighting and sound effects, and a ‘funeral playlist’ of songs created by sound designer Robin Fox and including tracks by Joan Baez, Nick Cave, J.S. Bach, grindcore metal band Agents of Abhorrence, techno ‘noisician’ Paula Temple and (most cringingly) Saint Saëns’ Dying Swan, along with tracks by Fox himself.
Opening with Baez singing Babe I’m Gonna Leave You was I felt a mistake as nothing else in the show could (or would) match the sadness and beauty of her voice or that song. Playing it at the end might have worked – certainly better than the hackneyed Saint Saëns, which coupled with the deciduous gold-leaf worn in that final number had me wondering if the intention was to be naïve, sentimental, kitsch or just plain camp.
In between, there was the eclectic ‘playlist’, a lot of loud noises and flashing lights (expertly engineered by Fox and lighting designer Niklas Pajanti but essentially more about sensation than imagination or reflection), and a series of dances that exploited the beauty and dexterity of the performers (James O’Hara, Nicola Leahey and Marlo Benjamin) and a few dazzling choreographic moves by Lake – most memorably including a seething pre-human John Carpenter’s Thing-like collective body with twelve arms and legs, which was for me the most striking image in the show, while still remaining an essentially a derivative and sensationalised one.
I couldn’t help feeling that Lake was trading on an aura of sexiness surrounding death and grieving, and that the whole show engaged in a kind of pornography of mourning.
The most problematic sequence for me involved Benjamin and O’Hara laying out and washing Leahey’s flesh-coloured-underwear-clad ‘corpse’. I found the image generic, aestheticised, inauthentic and (in the languorous movement, arrangement of limbs and choice of underwear) primly eroticised. I would have been less irritated if it had been entitled ‘Necrophilia’ instead of ‘Ritual’; alternatively they could have simply washed a naked body.
More generally, I couldn’t help feeling that Lake was trading on an aura of sexiness surrounding death and grieving, and that the whole show engaged in a kind of pornography of mourning – both in the element of voyeurism assumed on the part of the spectator, and in the simulated or absent emotion on the part of the performer in the role of an object offered to our gaze.
The title Skeleton Tree is presumably taken from Nick Cave’s 2016 album of the same name, recorded just after his son’s death. Cave at least speaks from experience, has chosen to share his loss with his fans and been characteristically careful to remain the subject rather than the object of the album as well as the concerts and films – and has used these to probe deeply into his own psychology and spirituality. Lake’s work in contrast seemed to me derivative, exploitative and ultimately shallow.
Four of the works showcased in Dance Massive were by First Nations choreographers. I saw two: Marrugeku’s Le Dernier Appel/The Last Cry and Joel Bray’s Biladurang. Both were much more substantial productions than The Tennis Piece or Skeleton Tree, even if they lacked the formal sophistication of Public Actions or Russell Dumas’s Cultural Residues 2020 (see below).
Marrugeku is an intercultural indigenous performance company based in Broome and Carriageworks in Sydney, and led by artistic co-directors Dalisa Pigram and Rachel Swaine. Le Dernier Appel/The Last Cry is a new ‘trans-indigenous dance theatre work’ created in partnership with the Centre Culturel Tjibau in Nouméa, directed by Burkina Fassoan/Belgian associate artist Serge Aimé Coulibaly and co-choreographed by Coulibaly and Pigram, with dramaturgy by Swain. It features six dancer/co-creators (Anrita Hepi, Stanley Nalo, Krilin Nguyen, Yoan Ouchot, Dalisa Pigram and Miranda Wheen) of First Nation, immigrant and settler descent from New Caledonia and Australia.
It’s a striking team, and perfectly poised to ask painful questions about colonization and post-colonialism in a comparative and collaborative spirit. The work is inspired by the 2018 referendum in New Caledonia on independence from France, as well as the 2017 Statement from the Heart by the First Nations Convention at Uluru, which made recommendations on recognition, treaty and an indigenous ‘voice to parliament’ in Australia. The Statement from the Heart was rejected by the Australian Government; in the case of New Caledonia, a narrow majority (56%) voted to remain a French colony.
I wanted to love this work and be moved by it, but I felt that it was dramaturgically inert and that its rhetoric remained trapped in a form of generic protest.
Le Dernier Appel/The Last Cry is thus a work born of collaboration but also frustration and even anguish (as the title suggests), and its form and content are hard-edged and unrelenting. This may have been intended to reflect seemingly unchanging colonial and post-colonial realities, but the aesthetic made me switch off from the work and close my eyes and ears to its relentless message.
Nicolas Molé’s set and video installation – including an abstract geometrical backdrop that looked like an 80s space ship, and a giant iPad-shaped screen displaying endlessly looped text and footage about the New Caledonian referendum and the Uluru Statement from the Heart interspersed with a screen-saver of digitized leaves – was ugly and distracting. Nick Wales and Bree Van Reyk’s electronic score was similarly monotonous, relieved only by Papuan ‘future soul’ singer-songwriter Ngaiire’s haunting vocal tracks, which evoked a sense of possibility that seemed otherwise lacking in the work. The program refers to Beckett’s Waiting for Godot in relation to decolonisation and its ‘states of inertia and reoccurring cycles of waiting’; but Beckett’s play is leavened with a sense of humour and indeed playfulness (if not necessarily hope) that was sadly absent from Le Dernier Appel.
The choreography ranged from pacing up and down or standing and staring into space (as if ‘waiting’) to semi-internalised spasmodic twitching, which eventually blossomed into frenzied outbursts of traditional and contemporary dance and movement. These revealed a little more individuality and complexity in terms of personality and movement-language, including some beat-driven break-dancing from Noumean Stanley Nalo, wild martial-arts-inspired leaping and spinning from Noumea-based Vietnamese Krilin Nguyen, intense traditional/contemporary fusion from Kanak/Indonesian New Caledonian Yoan Ouchot, and the more subtle and mature presence of Yaruwu/Bardi woman Vanessa Pigrum.
However, there was very little contact between the dancers, who seemed emotionally trapped in their own worlds, and consequently their internal stories didn’t translate beyond the footlights. This was frustrating, as it seemed as if intercultural collaboration and interpersonal communication must hold some kind of promise for the future, but it was not visible onstage (although it was audible in Ngairre’s music).
I wanted to love this work and be moved by it, but I felt that it was dramaturgically inert and that its rhetoric remained trapped in a form of generic protest that seemed ultimately self-defeating.
Joel Bray’s Biladurang also grapples with questions of colonisation, trauma, struggle and identity, but it does so in a much more personal, complex, engaging and inclusive way. The psychologist Abraham Maslow theorised that ‘love and belonging’ constitute a cluster of interrelated human needs. Biladurang speaks to us intimately of this, no matter who we are or where we come from.
In terms of form, it’s an immersive and participatory one-man dance-theatre work performed in a hotel room for an audience of about 15 people. Originally commissioned for the Deadly Fringe program of Melbourne Fringe Festival in 2017 and performed at the Sofitel on Collins in the Melbourne CBD, it has since been remounted in hotel rooms in Darwin, Brisbane and Sydney. This was a return season at the Sofitel – on the 44thfloor, to be precise.
I found Biladurang an absorbing and moving experience. Despite the clunky dramaturgy at the start.
The immediate creative and personal ‘inspiration’ for the show comes from a time when Bray was living in hotel rooms while on tour in Europe after having lived and worked in Israel for ten years, broken up with his partner, lost his visa and found himself single and homeless. The deeper source-material for the show however goes back to his upbringing as a pale-skinned Aboriginal man from north west NSW coming out as gay while being raised by a white Pentecostal Christian foster-family in the country town of Orange and spending holidays with his Wiradjuri activist father.
Beyond this lie two hundred years of colonisation and thousands of years of racism and homophobia. All this is symbolically expressed in the dreaming story of the biladurang,or platypus, who was born of the forbidden union between duck and water rat and banished into exile upriver in south-eastern Australia, where it lives (and struggles to survive, depending on the environmental health of the river) to this day.
All of this – and more – was revealed in the course of the show. We were ushered up to the 44thfloor of the Sofitel by a host (Sofii McKenzie) who told us that ‘Joel’ was a bit self-involved and liked having his photo taken. She then knocked on the door and a naked and flustered Joel opened it and asked us to wait. He reappeared a few moments later in a white hotel bathrobe (and white undies) and let us in, handing out matching bathrobes for all of us, inviting us to make ourselves comfortable and pour ourselves some sparkling wine or mineral water.
A deliberately awkward (and I felt slightly clumsily conceived and performed) exposition section ensued, establishing ‘Joel’s’ nervous performance-persona and a somewhat sketchy dramatic scenario in which he’d invited us up to his room after apparently having had sex there with someone (who it turned out later had possibly left with ‘Joel’s’ phone).
Things became more interesting when he began throwing himself violently around the room, against the walls and on the floor; the use of his body and the space was remarkable throughout the show, especially given the confines of the hotel room, its typically cluttered and clunky furniture and the proximity of the audience. He then embarked on the story of his sexual coming-of-age as a teenager in Orange, saving up to buy his first gay porn magazine and compulsively wanking over it night after night; this lead to a hilarious physical sequence with him bouncing around under the doona on the bed.
The final and most interesting part of the show involved Joel giving audience-members hand massages and inviting them to share their own stories.
The show became even more interesting when he asked an audience member to assist by operating sound and video cues on a laptop and then dimmed the lights, went into the bathroom, filled the bath, poured in bath foam, stripped, got in and began a writhing dance sequence, while his image was relayed back to us via a closed-circuit camera on the TV screen in the bedroom, before coming back naked and covered in foam to continue speaking and moving around the room. More personal revelations ensued about self-abuse in the form of smoking, drinking, drugs, casual sex, self-harm and even dance training itself. He danced again, then invited us to imagine what the country outside, its ceremonies and dances might have looked like before Europeans arrived – a landscape and culture now lost to us, and even more poignantly to him.
The final and most interesting part of the show involved Joel (now dried off and dressed again) giving audience-members hand massages using hotel products and inviting them to share their own stories about who they were and where they’d come from. He then put on some more music and we were invited to do some couples-dancing together (I danced with Joel and was complimented on my dipping-technique – ‘You’ve done this before!’– which was gracious of him but far from true). Finally we were invited to open the blinds and gaze down on the city at night, before being told the story of the platypus.
I found Biladurang an absorbing and moving experience. Despite the clunky dramaturgy at the start – which I felt had to do with its somewhat artificial nature – the rest of the show was finely judged in terms of its structure, pace, dynamics, use of space, physicality and text, and especially its relationship with the audience. Bray himself is a charming and compelling performer, especially when the artifice is left behind and he’s no longer ‘playing Joel’ but simply being Joel.
The most effective part of the show for me was the last section, and especially the sharing of stories – which on the night I attended included one of Joel’s white foster-siblings (who revealed that they didn’t know at the time about his Aboriginality or that he was visiting his father) and a French woman of Native American ancestry who spoke about her ongoing relationship with land and ceremony.
As we all left the hotel room together at the end, I was reminded of Inge Clendinnen’s book Dancing with Strangers, about the first months of tentative contact between the the First Fleet and Aboriginal Australians, and the sense of alternative possibilities that existed then – and perhaps still exists now, if only we have the courage and will: not to go back, but to move on.
And so at last to Russell Dumas’s Cultural Residues 2020, the most artful and in its own way most provocative show I saw at Dance Massive. A standout work of pure choreography, it also managed to deconstruct the form/content dichotomy and address the questions of marketing and commodification raised at the beginning of this overview.
In a way, ‘dancing with strangers’ could also serve as a description of Cultural Residues, because of the eschewing of narrative or psychology in the duets and trios that make up the show. Even if Dumas’s dancers are known to us, and have certainly rehearsed and performed together, they become strangers in the freshness, immediacy and unfamiliarity with which they encounter each other and move together.
The program claims that the work explores ‘history and fake news’, but I suspect that this was partly Dumas poking fun at the need for dance to market itself by referring to ‘relevant’ social and political content in order to be funded, programmed or sold. In fact, for Dumas all such references are probably ‘fake news’, because dance as an autonomous artform is arguably ‘about’ nothing other than itself.
However things are not so simple. Cultural Residues does not foreclose reference or escape ‘the closure of representation’; at the very least, it refers to and represents itself, because of the way it has been created and staged. The show takes the form of a re-enactment of material from Dumas’s own repertoire performed by a rotating cast of dancers (Jonathan Sinatra, Stuart Shugg, Alexandra Petrarca, David Huggins, Linda Astradipradja, Rachel Doust, Megan Payne) whom he has worked with over many years (Sinatra has been a member of Dumas’s Dance Exchange since 2011). According to the program, the cast choose the material, and Dumas chooses the sequence, so that the show is different each night. The dancers are also accompanied and illuminated by silent black-and-white film projections of what could be the same material (it was hard to be sure) performed by two other dancers (Josephine McKendry and Nick Sabel) 30 years ago.
Moreover, Dumas’s work does have historical and social implications, not only because it’s conceived at least in part as an embodied critique of existing performance and political practices (including government arts funding policy and government-funded arts programming by institutions like Dancehouse and Dance Massive). More deeply, it also seeks to ‘remember’ how movement and even thinking itself (including thinking about dance, arts funding and programming) become habits – and it does this in order to rediscover the possibility of moving and thinking differently. In other words: it’s a practice of freedom, or at least is in search of it: freedom of movement, freedom of thought, and above all perhaps the freedom of a form of sensation that is no longer tethered to meaning.*
This is partly (and perhaps only partly) possible because, as Dumas acknowledges in the program, his practice is financially supported by a network of artists and friends, and materially supported by the artists who work with him. In other words, he doesn’t receive (or more accurately, no longer receives) government funding and so is dependent on patrons and collaborators who presumably donate their money, time and skills for free. This is certainly a tribute to Dumas and the generosity of his patrons and collaborators, but it raises questions about the sustainability of this kind of practice – and even perhaps the sustainability of artform-based practice itself under mixed-economy capitalism.
It’s notable in this regard that Dumas was primarily inspired by the postmodern dance scene he encountered in New York in the 1970s after dancing in Australia and then the UK and Europe in the 1960s, since broadly speaking the limited performing arts opportunities that existed in Australia during that era were either amateur or commercial (Dumas himself danced for the dominant theatrical entrepreneur of the time J.C. Williamson), while in the UK and Europe government funding for the arts was already well-established and in its heyday.
In New York by contrast, there was (and still is) on the one hand a world-dominant commercial sector (Broadway) and on the other hand a largely self-funded experimental sector relying on cheap rents and free spaces like the Judson Church in Greenwich Village (or partially funded off-Broadway venues today). In other words: Dumas is still making work according to the social and economic model of mentors like Trisha Brown and Twyla Tharpe (or Merce Cunningham and Martha Graham before them). The difference is that the tradition (or ‘provenance’ to use a term favoured by Dumas) of American modern and postmodern dance arose in what might be called ‘salon’ or relatively small-scale performances; but that (in the case of its emblematic figures at least) it led to privately or publicly funded international touring companies and dance techniques that bear their names.
In Australia by contrast, a figure like Dumas is relatively isolated and unsupported by the social and political infrastructure, and so continues to work on a small scale and remains something of a legend in his own backyard – in his case, a small but dedicated community of supporters and collaborators in the contemporary dance community in Melbourne and at a ‘salon’ like Dancehouse.
This has its advantages, not only in terms of the work’s ferocious stylistic purity but also how it is made, presented and – perhaps most importantly – transmitted. As well as being a dancer and choreographer, Dumas is also a teacher who is interested in what he calls ‘embodied knowledge’ and how this is transmitted from one generation to the next. In fact he is interested in the faculty of sensation – both the sensations of the dancer and of the person watching (be that the audience or himself).
As such, he belongs to that tradition (or provenance) of teacher-artists who have much in common with religious or spiritual teachers (especially in Eastern traditions). Such artists and teachers are less interested in language than in the body, and have a particular focus on the present moment. In the context of dance, this means relying on movement and sensation rather than the ‘language’ of choreography, at least insofar as the latter is conceived in terms of writing things down or even naming them, as opposed to repeating and copying them. Once again, this focus on ‘presence’ still remains within ‘the closure of representation’, but it has more to do with images and sensations than words; and ‘representation’ here literally means doing something (or ‘making it present’) ‘again’. Of course, ‘doing something again’ also means doing it differently each time – which is partly why we continue to do or go to see live performances.
Dumas’s choreography is obviously related to American postmodernism in its independence from narrative, language or music (there are none of these in the show).
Cultural Residues 2020 heightens this sense of ‘doing things again differently’ because of the way the material has been chosen, arranged, performed and juxtaposed with the film footage. This is projected onto a large fabric screen on one side of the raised proscenium stage at the rear of the Sylvia Staehli Theatre at Dancehouse. The screen can also be backlit to serve as a scrim behind which silhouettes of the live dancers approach and retreat or form various ensemble shapes. Most of the duets take place on the floor space below the proscenium (although a memorably trio takes place up on the proscenium itself) and are illuminated by spill from the projection or by minimal lighting from the floor. This is mostly from one side, so that shadows of the dancers are also thrown up on the opposite wall.
The entire set-up is simple but enchanting and highly theatrical (a term Dumas himself might not like), being reminiscent of a magic lantern or perhaps Plato’s Cave. The superimposed layers of film, memory, physical presence and shadows evoke a dream-like state of contemplative reverie in the observer, and render us highly susceptible to the sensory and bodily-kinaesthetic intelligence of the work we are observing.
Dumas’s choreography is obviously related to American postmodernism in its independence from narrative, language or music (there are none of these in the show), its minimalism and its interest in pedestrian movement – or more precisely, in what Dumas calls ‘the quotidian’. This is distinguished from ‘the everyday’ not only because of the skill required for its performance but because it focuses on ‘the forgotten in the everyday’; we might also call it the non-habitual, or even the anti-habitual.
I found Cultural Residues 2020 a fascinating introduction to Dumas’s work, and a salutary reminder of what pure choreography can still achieve.
A simple example is running backwards; but most of Dumas’s choreography involves more complex mutual interactions between the dancers such as supporting, holding, lifting, catching, leaning or rolling against or away from each other, often in unusual ways or using unusual surfaces of the body, and in a state of perpetual imbalance which is endlessly sustainable and watchable. His preferred term for this is ‘managing instability’, and it obviously relates to the sense of ‘wildness’, ‘abandon’ and being ‘out of control’ that he admired in Trisha Brown and others when he encountered them, but which he felt was later tamed and commodified by being formalised as ‘techniques’; here though the mood is not so much ‘wild’ as gentle, focussed, flowing, peaceful, occasionally comic and very beautiful. As such there’s something inherently restrained, neo-classical and even Apollonian about it; the choreographer that springs to mind at least in this regard is Balanchine.
I found Cultural Residues 2020 a fascinating introduction to Dumas’s work, and a salutary reminder of what pure choreography can still achieve. In comparison with almost everything else I saw at Dance Massive, it dispensed with language (spoken or text), as well as music, ‘sound’ and all but the most minimal lighting or other technical ‘effects’. It also dispensed with the marketing language employed by most of the other shows, including (almost) any reference to ‘content’. Instead, it limited itself to saying what it would actually be and do. As such, it posed some challenging questions about the making, presentation and marketing of work today.
*Here and in much of what follows I’m indebted to an interview with Dumas conducted by Sally Gardner and published online in Postcolonial Studies; a link is available on Dumas’s website (Russell Dumas & Sally Gardner (2018)…dance for the time being: Russell Dumas in conversation with Sally Gardner, Postcolonial Studies, 21:3, 379–390).