Review: Miracle, Disagreeable Object ~ theatre notes

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Review: Miracle, Disagreeable Object

It's difficult to think of two works more contrasting than BalletLab's Miracle and Chunky Move's Disagreeable Object. One is expansive, raw, harshly lit; the other takes place in a darkened theatre as intimate as a cubby house, as if it's a dream printing itself on your retina. One pushes to Maenadic extremes, the other is worked to a deep, luminous lustre. One is out there, the other is in here. But they're both beautiful works.

Phillip Adams, the force behind BalletLab, is presently celebrating the tenth year of his company. My first encounter with Phillip Adams's choreography was two years ago, with Brindabella. At the time, I wrote: "It occasionally happens that a performance can produce a strange sense of dissonance. You realise that you have no idea whether it’s good or bad; all you know is that you can’t stop watching it... Moments in Brindabella made me reflect that, although I had no idea if it was any good, I was quite sure that it was brilliant."

I still have no idea whether Adams produces "good" dance. I suspect these kinds of judgments have been pushed off the table in the creation of Miracle: Adams is looking for another kind of experience, beyond the tickling of aesthetic niceties. There is a muscle in his choreography that reminds me of the poet Allen Ginsberg, who famously used the phrase "first thought, best thought" to describe his process of spontaneous and fearless writing. For Ginsberg, it's a way of "telling the truth", of exploding the chains of formal convention to reveal the raw soul beneath.

There's an attractive liberation in that, as well as myriad dangers for those without the courage of mind to push towards that Ginsbergian truthfulness. Ginsberg's greatest poems reach their brilliant transcendence through a human world of hair and sweat and bodily humiliation, a wrenching and painful emotional honesty. Adams's work is more abstract, less intensely personal, but in this work, which explores religious experience, he is in similar territory, exploring the paradoxical unification of mysticism with extreme and naked physical experience. It's rare to see this actually achieved in performance (or anywhere): one wobble of uncertainty, one flicker of doubt, and the whole thing sinks into a puddle of embarrassing kitsch. But not here: this is genuinely Dionysian in its extremity, with all the discomfort and exhilaration that this implies.

It's a peculiar paradox of mystic writing of any stripe - Christian, Hindu, Islamic - that the further spiritual experience escapes the possibility of linguistic expression, the closer that expression comes to embodied language and even to frank eroticism. From St John of the Cross's erotic poems about the Divine to the startling sexual imagery of women mystics of the Middle Ages, from Tantric texts to Sufi poetry, the body asserts itself in the moment the soul takes flight, placing its imagery transgressively in the centre of ecstasy.

And it's this paradox that Miracle explores. Well, not so much explores as expresses. Miracle is nothing if not a total sensory experience, which at times registers as an assault - the score (an extraordinary work in itself, by David Chisholm and Myles Mumford) is sometimes so loud that you are offered earplugs before you enter the theatre. As well as scored music, the sound design includes, like Axeman's Lullaby, amplified sound from the performers: percussive beats from their feet, breath tormentedly drawn through harmonicas, and their voices, screaming, shouting, whispering.

The dance begins and ends in darkness and stillness. When we enter the dimly lit theatre it is filled with smoke; as the performance begins, two huge industrial lights snap on, one each side of the stage, sending harsh white beams towards the ceiling that illuminate the metallic stage lights which cluster in the centre like a strange, alien chandelier. There's an extended heiratic stillness: four dancers in long, coloured robes, two men and two women, stand like a frieze from a mediaeval church for one long, caught moment, before they run diagonally across the stage, screaming.

What follows is a dance in three parts, with a short and startling coda that returns us again to silence. The dance works as Octavio Paz says poetry works: it moves from silence to silence, but by the end the silence has changed. The first is a expression of ecstatic experience, extreme and violent and charged. It has the air of a pagan mystery, recalling the ecstatic rites by which worshippers of Dionysius danced themselves into states of violent rapture in which they became one with the godhead. Or perhaps the pilgrims of the Middle Ages, who scourged and starved themselves into extreme states of ecstatic abjection.

The middle section moves abruptly to the present day: dancers in contemporary clothes shout through megaphones, at once grotesque and comic. And here there begins to be a theme of persecution and exclusion, with a scapegoat dancer who becomes the violated focus of everything the believers wish to reject in themselves. The final piece returns us again to the past, with costumes this time recalling the draped materials on ancient Greek vases, and the theme here is pneuma, the ancient Greek term for both breath and soul. Harmonicas are jammed in the dancers' mouths, vocalising their breath, at once choking and liberating them.

It closes with a coda - as ecstatic trumpets herald an annunciation, the lights reveal two Bhuddist monks levitating in the midst of contemplation, having at last achieved nirvana. And they really were floating. It was an astounding image, and I don't know how BalletLab achieved the illusion. I'm not sure I want to know, either.

No doubt it was just as well it was a few days before I saw Disagreeable Object at Chunky Move. One needs a palate cleansing after an experience like Miracle: and Michelle Heaven's work, remounted and reworked after a premiere season at Arts House, is almost at the polar opposite of the possibilities of dance.

This 30-minute work takes place in a purpose-built theatre inside the Chunky Move Studio, an enclosed space smelling of freshly-sawn wood in which the audience sits intimately together on a rake of stairs below a low ceiling. I knew it reminded me of something when I sat down, something to do with childhood, but it took a while to trace the resonance: it was like sitting inside the cubby houses I used to make out of scrap bits of wood, with the same sense of delighted secrecy.

And there's that childhood resonance in the dance itself, with a good dash of subterranean Freudian macabre, where the nonsensical is a prompt for the darker realities of the psyche. Childhood is not, after all, the sunny place of innocence that some people claim: it's cruel, primitive, full of shadows and inchoate fears. This dance takes place, as Heaven says, "downstairs", in the mysterious reaches of the subconscious, where childhood still lives in all of us.

It's like a strange fairytale, the Brothers Grimm filtered through Edward Gorey, perhaps, with a dash of German Expressionism and the Addams Family: comic, dreamlike, fantastic and unsettlingly sinister. And, like a proper children's story, it's deeply concerned with eating: in this case, peas. The program note, which describes it as a "tall short tale", will probably suffice as a plot: "she eats..... blackout. peas. he craves..... peas."

The "tall, short" tale extends to the dancers: the choreography exploits the enormous height difference between Heaven and her co-dancer, Brian Lucas, to its full comic effect. The production plays with the perspectives of the enclosed stage areas (there are three, each framed behind the other in a receding hallway of space) in ways that make Lucas, who is already tall, seem to be a giant, or the diminutive Heaven gain a good two feet. Lucas, with shaved head and full dress tails, is the sinister silhouette on the stairs at the back of the mind, or the childish man being spoon-fed - or in this case, fork-fed - by an impatient and murderous maid (Heaven), who has poisoned the peas in a Mad Scientist scene which does wonderful things with dry ice.

The dance emerges and retreats from total blackness with some astounding and gorgeously subtle lighting effects by Ben Cobham of Bluebottle, which intensifies its dreamlike qualities. Bill McDonald's sound design, with its scratchy recordings of silent film music or the jarring repetition of a needle bumping a vinyl on a record player, builds its strange claustrophobia, as if we are underground and half-hearing remnants from a past we don't quite understand.

As in a dream, you are not quite sure what is happening; as in a dream, it is limned with significance, possibly a dreadful one. The neurotic precision of Heaven's stylised choreography - as when she turns on a tap with hands that wrap around it like neurasthenic spiders, her bum stuck up in a beautiful curve that shows off her absurd bustle, or her rabbit-like chewing of pea-pods - focuses on the tiniest details in a way that distorts everything around them. It's a kind of force-field of sinister absurdity. A wholly enchanting, exquisite work, perhaps especially for people who like cubby houses and Edward Gorey.

Pictures: Top: Miracle by Phillip Adams, picture by Jeff Busby; bottom, Michelle Heaven in Disagreeable Object.

Miracle, choreographed and directed by Phillip Adams, composed by David Chisholm and Myles Mumford. Lighting by Bluebottle and Jenny Hector, costumes by Tony Maticevski. Danced by Brooke Stamp, Clair Peters, Luke George and Kyle Kremerskothen. Meat Market, North Melbourne Arts House, closed.

Disagreeable Object, choreographed by Michelle Heaven. Designed by Ben Conham, composition and sound design by Bill McDonald, costumes by Louise McCarthy. Danced by Michelle Heaven and Brian Lucas. Chunky Move @ Chunky Move Studio until July 25.


Gilligan said...

Hi Alison,

Saw Miracle on Saturday and found it to be an extremely fascinating, powerful and moving work.

From the incredible opening image as the lights came up and the performers were revealed, to the mind boggling levitating at the end, I was transfixed by the energy of the performers and the power of the images.

It was certainly the finest sound design I have experienced. And how good were the harmonicas!?

For me Lawn is still the best dance piece Melbourne has seen this year, but this was certainly an extraordinary work. Perhaps the Malthouse should give it a return season next year, as due to the short season and sell out crowds many people didn't get to see it.

And a quick question:

Did ANYONE in the online community review Ranters Theatre's Affection? I was wondering what people thought, and after the success of Holiday was suprised at the lack of reviews. Any ideas?

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Gilligan - I'm glad you liked Miracle. The score was certainly astounding!

I did see Affection, finally catching up with it on the final night. Then I was swamped and it kind of slipped under the radar, which is why I haven't blogged it. Now that you mention it, it is strange that others haven't... Many people, anecdotally, preferred it to Holiday; I have to admit I wasn't so taken, myself.

Gilligan said...

I certainly don't think it was as strong a piece as Holiday. But then again, Holiday was a masterpiece. I did enjoy it, but felt it was missing the beautiful and unsettling atmosphere that Holiday had. I found it to be a really difficult play to watch at times- not necessarily in a bad way. I think this had a lot to do with the addition of a female character that really shifted the dynamic of what felt like an existing relationship between the two males established in Holiday. Would be interesting to hear from those who thought it was a stronger piece...

richardwatts said...

Oh, the harmonicas! The most accurate evocation of the sound of hysteria I have ever heard...