Torque ~ theatre notes

Thursday, April 28, 2005


Torque: Liquid Paper 1: Making Light of Gravity by Hellen Sky and The Proscenium by Margaret Cameron. Three performance "showing" @ the Malthouse Theatre.

One of the definitions of torque is "the moment of a system of forces producing rotation". It's easy to see why Hellen Sky and Margaret Cameron chose Torque to title this double bill: Liquid Paper 1: Making Light of Gravity and The Proscenium stand in dynamic relation to each other, circling around common concerns and creating a deeply interesting theatrical conversation between two extremely accomplished and very different solo performers.

Hellen Sky's background is mainly in dance and new media; she is artistic director of Dancehouse, and the co-director of Company in Space, whose work focuses on the intersections between technology and art. Margaret Cameron is a performer/writer, whose profoundly poetic work has for years been stubbornly challenging conventional theatre practice in Melbourne. Seeing their two solo pieces in tandem was fascinating. Both are challenging works of considerable beauty, and both, in different but deeply related ways, interrogate notions of the self and the body.

Liquid Paper 1: Making Light of Gravity is an elegant and multidimensional work which synthesises a number of approaches to theatre. Hellen Sky uses performance, text and new media image-making to create a densely poetic work on the mediated, technological body.

For me, new media works in the theatre when it sets up a tension between the living, immediate performer and the mediated image. Liquid Paper not only sets up this tension: it's about it.

Three sides of the stage are hung with long rolls of paper, on which are projected animated images: elemental images of flames and water, words which break up into their constituent letters, disconcerting close-ups of a woman's body. Hellen Sky moves between and within the projections: sometimes she dances, sometimes she sits at a desk reading from a computer screen, pushing it around the space. A monitor forestage captures her live movements on a screen.

Her stage presence flickers from complete anonymity, silhouetted against the febrile projected images, to a particular, if nameless, individual. This performance interrogates an idea of the body which attacks the notion of the individual self. It shifts between differing angles and states of perception, oscillating between expressing the body as conscious subject and describing it as technological object. The tension in this work is partly between ideas of the body and this body; that is, an Aristotlean tension between the universal, which can be described, and the particular, which no term can wholly capture and which, therefore, becomes the province of the poetic.

In a text which is a collage of quotation, poetic epiphany, snatches of anecdote and ironic observation, Sky draws connections between the social /political body, computer technology, media networks and cellular processes like the neural networks of the brain. The boundary between one self and another is skin, but skin is by no means a certain border: it is permeable, fluid, a layer of "liquid paper".

The connection between different systems - social, biological, technological - is code: the codes of spoken language, DNA, computers, social encounters; all the subliminal systems that shape meaning, place and identity. With code, as with language, the question is whether we define it, or if it defines us. Sky's answer is by no means definitive: she opens with a sinister example, the Bush Government's colour-coded "Homeland security defence system", which controls power by manipulating social fear. "Green - 'low'; blue -'guarded'; yellow - 'high'; orange - 'elevated'; red - 'severe'...."Safe," Sky notes, "doesn't even merit a hue. Safe, it would seem, has fallen off the spectrum of perception."

That is, of course, if "safe" ever existed as anything more than a comforting illusion. Sky explores a reality in which nothing is safe or certain, in which the self threatens to disappear entirely in a haze of pixels, to "fall like Alice down that virtual hole". But rather than vanishing, the self adapts and transforms. "The body is a conduit … making meaning…making new bodies and senses of the languages of media, codes and scripts codes of inscription... The key to my code is in my skin, is in my blood, and is in my brain," says Sky. This recalls cruder ideas that remain, despite the vertigo of virtuality, as tangible and intransigent as her dancing body is in the space before us.

The text is pre-recorded, and shifts between clarity and distortion. The distorted sound makes the language work as if it were a score, with phrasal repetitions acting like musical motifs. The audience listens, half hears, misinterprets, then collides with a shock against a clear passage, an intimate anecdote or a repeated poetic line. The effect is grating, disconcerting, alienating and intriguing: like some contemporary poetries, it asks you to focus on the sonic qualities of words, their rhythms and sounds, as much as on their meanings.

Margaret Cameron, in startling contrast, is an actor standing barefoot on a stage, mediated by nothing except the masks of her words and performance, which reveal as much as they conceal. For Cameron, the mind itself is the theatre, and thinking is a kind of performance. The stage is a space of dream, a threshold where anything might be possible, "the scene of thought, the proscenium".

The Proscenium is subtitled "A childhood speaking against the drying wind", and the text constantly returns to some very specific childhood memories: the vivid image of her father being hosed through a window, making it "rain inside", which becomes for Cameron a primary metaphor of possibility in the theatre; and a memory of standing at a doorway, a threshold, on the other side of which stands her unhappy mother. The threshold is also a central image: the doorway where an artist hesitates, neither in one place nor the other.

"Our work," says Cameron, "enunciates thought / becoming shape". The Proscenium doesn't seek to express a finished thought, but rather to catch it on the wing, in the moments where thinking is still not quite articulate, when it is indistinguishable from physical embodiment or dream. It's an ambitious and fascinating undertaking, and suggests a profound idea of the theatre.

This performance dramatises a return to the very genesis of creation, its a priori. Where Sky uses code as a primary metaphor, Cameron speaks of the dream image "embedded within the ancient erotic curve / of the imaginary of the symbolic of that / which forms us". Which could equally be an image of DNA, as much as a description of dream.

Cameron's only prop is a large stone, which she stands on, plays with, or lays on her belly in a series of fluidly linked scenes that are differentiated by David Franske's evocative lighting states and soundscapes. The stone's obdurate materiality becomes the outward embodiment of primordial imaginative form, the expression of a freedom which is the return to "a bare child of imaginings / prancing barefoot / with a stone".

An avowed ambition of this piece is to embody ambiguity, a state when form is still shaping itself and has not solidified into singular meaning: and here Cameron resorts to the language of paradox. It is in this language that it's possible for a stone to symbolise a liminal state of becoming, to be at once a literal outline of form and an allusive and elusive symbol. She speaks of a "return" to an interior landscape of memory and desire, a movement which folds back against itself in a spiralling motion or which she describes elsewhere as a "vertical descent". "I must advance to return," says Cameron; but clearly also she must return to advance. This double movement is, as is Cameron's project to physicalise thinking, essentially erotic: a motion of fluid exchange between substance and the insubstantial, the literal and the metaphoric, act and thought.

Like all Cameron's solo pieces,The Proscenium is a strikingly personal work, an impression reinforced by the astounding mix of vulnerability and forceful presence that Cameron achieves in her performance. But it is a mistake to think of Cameron's work as merely personal and impertinent to assume it is autobiography; its authenticity stems from other qualities. Cameron's concern with aesthetic as a process pushes her work past the personal into something like the anonymity of poetry. Memory is not locked into a nostalgic past: it insists itself actively into the making of the present, the atemporal space Cameron creates so compellingly on the stage.

It's the latest and perhaps the most lyric of Cameron's ongoing explorations of the "solo female performer". Its contrasts with Liquid Paper are as interesting as its cross references, and seeing both together was an experience which resonated well beyond their performance. No doubt these works will return to Melbourne, though perhaps not as a double bill. They are each well worth the attention they demand.

Company in Space
Knowledge and Melancholy by Margaret Cameron

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