The melancholy of modernity On the day of the explosion
There’s a poignancy in looking down over a city from a plane that in certain moods can be overwhelming. The structures that dominate and shape our lives are suddenly rendered minature by perspective and – especially at night, when the lights give it a shimmering unity – a city seems a live creature, a single organism that pulses and consumes and excretes. A parasitic organism perhaps, cankering the landscape like a feral moss or a luminous fungus, but still with its own fragile beauty.
Flying into Melbourne on a clear evening you can see human habitats with the same eye that perceives the web of an orb weaver or the scarring aridity of rabbit warrens, as functions of us. We are animals who build. The structures we make are at once intimate ("a house is a skin") and alienating, our private selves intersecting with the implacable machine of capitalism, our social beings and collective imagination exteriorised and made concrete.
We trust those structures: we will not admit our fragility, our contingency, our smallness, since if we did, if we really knew it in our bones, how would we get out of bed every morning?
The tower will stand tall. The bridge will not fall down.
Fulcrum: passion and intellect
Lucy Guerin's Structure and Sadness is about Melbourne, and its performance here has a particular poignancy of recognition. The collapse of the West Gate Bridge is part of our story: we all, however tangentially, know that history. From my house I can walk to the memorial for the thirty five men who died when it fell into the Maribyrnong River. Many people still remember what they were doing when they heard the news. That famous tale of how the editor of the Age took a call in his Spencer St office from a reporter who told him the bridge was down. "Don't be stupid," he said, and hung up. Then he turned around and looked out of his window.
The perspectives in Structure and Sadness are close up and far away. Like so much of Guerin's work, it is a weaving of duets, of relationship: these six bodies meet under stress, desire and repulse each other, moving in rhythmic harmonies of yearning that dissolve into solitude. In the first half, Gerald Mair's score is an abstract electronic score woven with the sounds of materials - wood, concrete, steel - creaking under stress. It opens with a solo dance with a flexible board, the dancer at once in total control, fluidly manipulating the board, and vulnerable, his body hanging like a corpse over a deadly edge. The dances embody vectors of force and balance; they are geometric and precise, leaning into each other, straining against each other. Objects - an elastic, a stick - are at once tools of expressiveness, extending their bodies, and harbingers of danger, capable of piercing the skin, hard against a visceral softness.
Behind these duets the other dancers gradually, patiently, build a house of cards, triangular structures made of rectangles of wood that slowly cover the stage, slowly rise into a tower. It looks unsettlingly like Bruegel's The Tower of Babel. We know it will fall down, that is part of the narrative before the show begins, but when it does, it is wholly unexpected: one little piece is knocked over and the whole thing folds like a row of dominoes, amplifying disaster until the whole stage is covered in litter, the potential energy of the fragile triangulations of wood dissipated in collapse.
In the centre is a bold glimpse of realism, the ethical core of the show. To speak of any event which cost thirty five lives as if it is merely an occasion for aesthetic tinkering is beyond heartless. On the other hand, to be constrained in a documentary verity is imprisoning, a courting of artistic coarseness. Guerin finds the fulcrum in the centre of the dance, where she invokes the reality of grief head-on with a moment of literal domestic banality. A woman is doing the washing up, singing along to the radio, when the broadcast is interrupted by a news report about the West Gate Bridge.
The dance tips now into an elegy, an evocation of mourning that has the emotional simplicity and restraint of Greek tragedy. The three women dance with their dead men, reaching out to ghosts who vanish from their embrace: the men are summoned by their burning longing, but will never come back. It is a dance with the bitter beauty of Philip Larkin's poem The Explosion, an account of an accident in a mine when men went to work in the morning and didn't return. A common enough story, a common enough grief:
Shadows pointed towards the pithead:
In the sun the slagheap slept.
Down the lane came men in pitboots
Coughing oath-edged talk and pipe-smoke
Shouldering off the freshened silence.
One chased after rabbits; lost them;
Came back with a nest of lark's eggs;
Showed them; lodged them in the grasses.
So they passed in beards and moleskins,
Fathers, brothers, nicknames, laughter,
Through the tall gates standing open.
At noon, there came a tremor; cows
Stopped chewing for a second; sun,
Scarfed as in a heat-haze, dimmed.
The dead go on before us, they
Are sitting in God's house in comfort,
We shall see them face to face -
Plain as lettering in the chapels
It was said, and for a second
Wives saw men of the explosion
Larger than in life they managed -
Gold as on a coin, or walking
Somehow from the sun towards them,
One showing the eggs unbroken.
In the final sequence the dances of the first half are reprised, this time as a chorus work, the molten significance of grief informing the dancers' gestures. An abstract pattern of neon lights on the back wall is selectively turned off to reveal the West Gate Bridge, complete and undamaged: it is ambiguous, we don't know whether it has been rebuilt or if, in the impossible dream of return, it has never been broken.
Dance is always impure in Guerin's work, its precision intersected with the unruliness of chance and the literalness of narrative bodies; yet through a thickness of encroaching meaning it reaches moments of lyrical purity, sheerly beautiful movement that escapes itself and lifts its resonance out of its specific time and place. Celebration and elegy are two sides of the same coin, just as death is the subtext of civilisation.
The final image is breathtaking in its simplicity: the dancers lie in a diagonal line on the ground and a plank is placed on top of them. The last dancer walks over the plank, into the darkness at the edge of the stage.
Once human sacrifice was a sacred ritual, a consecration of a building. Sacrificed bodies have been found in the foundations of Roman buildings; some ancient keystones are said to be red because they are mortared with human blood, and legends of immurement are rife in Serbian history. Our modern cities still demand their sacrifices.
It is said they never found all the bodies, that some are still embedded in the West Gate Bridge. And every day we drive over them.
Picture: Structure and Sadness. Photo: Jeff Busby
Structure and Sadness, choreography and direction by Lucy Guerin. Composition by Gerald Mair, set and lighting design by Bluebottle: Ben Cobham and Andrew Livingston, motion graphics by Michaela French, costumes by Paula Levis. With Fiona Cameron, Kyle Kremerskothen, Lina Limosani, Byron Perry, Harriet Ritchie and Lee Serle.
On the day of the explosion