Review: Tense Dave ~ theatre notes

Friday, April 27, 2007

Review: Tense Dave

Tense Dave, devised and directed by Lucy Guerin, Michael Kantor and Gideon Obarzanek. Dramaturge Tom Wright, design by Jodie Fried, Andrew Livingston and Ben Cobham, lighting by Niklas Pajanti. Original music and arrangements Francois Tetaz. With Kristy Ayre, Brian Carbee, Michelle Heaven, Brian Lucas, Luke Smiles and Delia Silvan (understudy). Chunky Move and Malthouse Theatre co-production, @ the Merlyn Theatre, Malthouse, until April 29.

Tense Dave is a collaboration between some of the most interesting minds in contemporary performance now working in Melbourne: Lucy Guerin, Michael Kantor and Gideon Obarzanek. Attempting to integrate three such individual visions - two choreographers and a theatre director - entails the risk of each of them becoming obscured, but a rigorous simplicity at the heart of its concept permits each talent to glow, as they say, with the genius of the ensemble. They've made a work of rich and resonant lucidity that authentically straddles dance and theatre.

It's essentially a meditation on catastrophic solitude that is at once witty, sad, violent, sinister, tragic and euphorically uplifting, shifting through its kaleidoscopic and fantastic variations with an unerring suppleness. The production on at the Malthouse demonstrates a deep polish, the mark of years of touring. Its track record speaks for itself: Tense Dave premiered at the 2003 Melbourne Festival and then toured extensively around Australia and to the US, where its New York season won it the 2005 Bessie (the dance equivalent of a TONY) for outstanding choreography.

The performance occurs wholly on a simple, quite small wooden revolve placed in the midst of a large, dark, amorphous theatrical space defined by lengths of black curtain. It turns through the entire show, its constant creaking a crucial part of the soundscape. I adore revolves: I know there's something about them which threatens arch theatrical tackiness, although it's probable that fairground quality is part of their attraction. But essentially I think it's the fascinating tension between stillness and movement that's created when the scenery is as mobile as the performer. I can promise that you will never see a revolve used more creatively than in Tense Dave.

The dance opens with a naked lightbulb that gradually brightens to reveal the revolve. The revolve is divided like a pie by rough wooden walls, in which a kind of keyhole space has been torn to permit the lightbulb to pass through the walls, sequentially illuminating several claustrophobic "rooms". In the first sequence we are introduced to the various "characters" of the piece: first of all Tense Dave himself (Brian Lucas), a tall lanky man standing alone, his body the epitome of unspecific anxiety: his gestures are rigid, he obssessively fiddles with his shirt, he crouches foetally against the wall.

Gradually the other sections become inhabited: a man in a suit, talking to his patent leather shoes (Brian Carbee); a woman in a petticoat staring longingly at a red velvet eighteenth century dress (Kristy Ayre); a woman in a night dress on a bed, holding a huge kitchen knife (Michelle Heaven); a man with almost waist length hair, seated with his back to the audience, carefully combing his hair (Luke Smiles). I thought at first that Smiles, glimpsed in a classic pose of a female nude, was a woman; the next glimpse, revealing him as a man, is the first of several perceptual shocks that accumulate through the performance.

As the rooms move past us, we are privy to a series of vignettes, all of them comically sad expressions of private desire and loneliness, and begin to enter a series of fantasias that are explored throughout the rest of the show. The suited man photographs his shoes and argues with his telephone; the woman in the nightdress acts out scenarios of threat and terror with the knife, hiding under her bed; the other woman puts on her dress and reads from a bodice-ripper romance novel set in a fantasy Scotland (I'm almost sure I've read this novel - a genre which revels in wicked fathers, forced marriages, romantic soldiers and rape fantasies).

Gradually Tense Dave begins to be drawn into the other rooms: he eavesdrops on the other characters, enters their lives, and finds himself involved in a series of obscure dramas. The scenarios are like those in dreams: Brian Carbee gives him a shoebox that must be delivered somewhere, and abuses him when he doesn't know what to do with it; Michelle Heaven's character both threatens him and asks him for help; he becomes a hapless character in the romantic novel.

Perhaps because of the formal device of the revolve, which holds the fragmentary narratives together in a single, clearly coherent space, I saw all these characters as aspects of Dave himself, grotesquely flowering out of the repressed anxieties and desires his body expresses. But equally, it's possible to see in these scenes a version of Sartre's statement that "hell is other people". It's probably most true that in watching the dance, you oscillate between these possibilities, inner and outer realities, without ever deciding it is one or the other: Tense Dave is a show which brilliantly exploits the fertile anxieties of ambiguity. The movement is for the most drawn from the ordinary gestures of vernacular life, here given formal precision and focus.

Desire - towards death, or towards a possibility of love - is enacted in all sorts of displaced ways in a fragmented narrative that becomes progressively more violent. In one very witty sequence, Brian Carbee sits in a chair, exactly as if he is ordering a prostitute to enact various sexual fantasies, ordering Michelle Heaven to act out various scenarios with her finger: her finger is lonely, meets a friend, has dinner, falls in love, murders, goes to prison. Luke Smiles makes various attempts at suicide. The bodice-ripper fantasy is read out by a disembodied voice, lipsynched by the performers, until it reaches its logical end of rape. Dave's anxieties fantastically explode into fear: he becomes the murderer and the rapist that he fears he is.

Perhaps the most moving sequence is between Dave and Michelle Heaven, in which they dance a lyrical pas de deux, mirroring each other's gestures until they make love, but all the time - even while love-making - separated by a wall. Despite their yearning and desire, they cannot actually touch each other. The aching sadness of this dance is immediately exploded by a musical number, a sardonically seductive take on the hedonistic, numbing optimism of American musicals. Dave, very briefly, forgets his troubles and gets happy.

Another peak moment is a comic satire on the butchery of splatter movies, in which the dancers are dismembered by chainsaws. For all its comedy, I squeamishly found this all but impossible to watch, although the violence is primarily generated through sound effects. I have often thought that horror movies primarily generate most of their visceral effects through the suggestiveness of sound, and for me, this proved it.

All the transitions are performed seamlessly, with the help of what must be a superlative backstage crew, and the rhythms are superbly orchestrated: there wasn't a single moment where I found my attention flagging. The dance ends as it begins, with the solitary figure of Dave. This time he's freed of his walls, freed of the other voices and bodies that have haunted and traumatised him. It's an image that's at once bleak and heartening; he is no longer trapped in the travail of his anxieties, but he is walking nowhere, his body relaxed, utterly alone.

Chunky Move web documentary on Tense Dave


Anonymous said...

You were too squeamish to watch the schlock horror section?! I just lost a tiny bit of respect for you... It was bona fide one of the funniest things I've ever seen on stage, it's hilarity all the more acute as a result of the chilling precision of the dancers' movement.

Loved your analysis of the final moment. On the whole I was more fascinated and enthralled rather than moved by the piece, but the ending certainly stirred something in my viscera. One thing that struck me was that the revolve's (one really does think of 'Les Miz' doesn't one?) change of direction provided the piece's first and only moment of stillness. It was a brief hiatus, but struck deeply for me, I suppose because the constant rotation had become so normalized throughout the duration of the piece. The change of direction, and the change in Dave's physicality which you noted, were all the more poignant after this utterly simple but deeply significant aperture in the piece's established rhythm.

Reminds me of Kierkegaard's theory on grief (which Helene Cixous has got me thinking about a little overmuch of late) from 'Either/Or'. His idea is that repressed grief (that which never finds an 'expression') remains trapped in the body in a state of continuous but ever-changing revolution, an unpredictable yet monotonous movement like a rat in a cage, and that eventually this movement becomes naturalized, such that the sufferer ceases to notice the grief in its specificity, but continues to be affected by its vicious oscillations - we might now say 'unconsciously', though of course Kierkegaard died the year before ol' Siggie F was born.

Quaintly, a key point in his argument is the concept that this repressed grief is very difficult, if not impossible, to 'represent artistically', as it finds no concrete outward expression. I suppose you could say that the history of the visual (and performative) arts since Kiergekaard's times, particularly what we might now call the 'Modern' and 'Post-modern', has largely been an attempt to prove him wrong - the quest for representation of the pangs and turmoils which has become increasingly repressed and internalized as 'civilizing' institutions and structures have grown in size and power (for some reason the austere but excruciating exactitude of Whistler's Mother, originally entitled 'Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1', comes to mind), resulting in the age's attendant phychological characteristics of depression, anxiety, psychosis; 'tension'. 'Tense Dave' seems to belong very strongly to this tradition: a deconstructive investigation of the human soul which Kierkegaard might have dreamed of.

Ben H.

Alison Croggon said...

Ah Ben, I promise I watched the chainsaw sequence, and even laughed, but oh my. I have never been good at that kind of thing.For some reason I was sent once ( as a tyro journalist) to review a movie - still the only movie I've ever reviewed in my life. The showing was in one of those tiny cinemas with a dozen seats, and I was seated with all the other distinguished media film critics. Unfortunately it happened to be the remake of The Fly, which scores very high on ick factor. It was very embarrassing because I was hiding behind the seat making retching noises... I have I think become a little less of a delicate flower since then. In mitigation, in real life I can deal with blood, injuries, breakages, physical pain and other such things, but I just can't deal with the sound effects.

I might get to the more interesting part of your post tomorrow...oddly enough, it's the subject of an interesting book I'm reading and have been talking about tonight. But now it's late. If I'm a good girl and do my words tomorrow I might be able to say something ...