Miss Universal review (Chunky Move studio, Melbourne)

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What would our bodies be if they were bigger than they are, Atlanta Eke seems to postulate in her Miss Universal. More limbs, more heads, more torsos: a swirling mass in conflict and in symphony. If love was so much that all our bodies could do was meld together. We watch a beast of four heads and eight limbs and it is those friendships of young womanhood, so intense it is all you can do to physically entwine your bodies: limbs at once splayed and hugged, belonging to no one and everyone all at once.

As this mass, Eke and her three dancers roll down the seating bank in Chunky Move’s studio space. They fold over and through each other, descending over seats and through aisles. Ankles are passed from hand to hand; thighs are caught in elbows; long blonde hair is caught up within a hand, carrying it and then the head out of the way in a protecting sweep.

In this moment, Daniel Jenatsch’s composition sounds of a jetty with the claps and creaks of old wood shifting as the waves swirl underneath. A crack in his sound or the sudden slamming of a chair in the seating bank and it sounds like their bodies are snapping, but they continue to circle and protect each other in this uncomfortable struggle.

They roll down onto the floor and across the room and we stand above them, Eke inviting the audience to interact with the space as we wish. Some prop themselves against walls, some make their way to the seating bank, some stand as close as they can, shuffling away only when the dancers get too close.

This transformation of performance space into gallery space, this destruction of separation between artist and audience member, invites study of their bodies in minutiae. The definition of the dancers’ muscles are smoothed over by the thick foamed material of yellow wetsuits, but we see the tension in their feet: tendons raised and pressing against the surface of the flesh.

We notice the chipped black nail polish on Eke’s fingernails; the smattering of light freckles across Angela Goh’s cheeks. We see faces of absolute concentration and sweat beading on brows, and mouths taut with stifled laughter. We glance up to the ceiling and see undefined shapes: a bronze torso, something white and undefined. Sitting in the space, we can watch the work of creating a piece of performance: the stage hands bringing in new sculptures and props; bar staff moving the table out of the way; the stage manager calling cues. Miss Universal sits firmly in a constructed space that never hides the stings behind the magic.

Time and time again, Eke returns to notions of connection and how our bodies fit together with each other, together in the world, and here in this studio. These dancers wrestle, limb over limb in competition to hold the other down. They pause as they breathe or calculate their next move. They collaborate and move in unison; one dancer acts as a deadweight in the face of another’s persistence at creating movement. They, finally, find space apart, but are still intimately connected through movement.

To articulate meaning from Eke’s work, especially in the hours after its conclusion, can seem hopeless. You can see the intellect that informs the work and textures of ideas rich and varied, but these are translated to us in the audience through pure instinct that doesn’t serve immediate performance criticism well.

Moments can be grabbed: notions of these bodies being at once one and four; the simulations collaboration and competition of wrestling; the distortion of the ways we talk about love.

But mostly, Eke’s work demands to be accessed only in our ineffable, indefinable emotions and physical reactions: eyes widening in wonder at the found beauty in the expansion of theatre seating; the expel of laughter when you realise how truly bizarre this exercise is; the sharp intake of breath as you watch four women swinging though the air, trying desperately to catch one another. The sickness in your stomach from Matthew Adey and Eke’s lighting casting a jaundiced yellow over the dancers; the swell as your heart is instinctively manipulated by Jenatsch’s harp.

To traverse her work is to give yourself over to these instincts. To just be present in the space, and to feel the work, and to note the physical reactions your body undertakes. To know that the work’s secrets may not divulge themselves for days or months, but the ideas will be there, quietly working over each other. Miss Universal is intense and deeply ruminating; joyous and harsh; intellect and instinct that perhaps can only be truly understood by grabbing a loved one’s body and refusing to let it go.

Miss Universal is on until December 12. Main image by Pippa Samaya.

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