Review: Amplification, Faker ~ theatre notes

Friday, April 01, 2011

Review: Amplification, Faker

Finally - the last of my responses to Dance Massive, which, such is the pace of life around these here parts, feels in the remote past already, although it only closed a few days ago. I managed to see around a third of the events, although it was one of those aggregations of energy in which everything caught my eye. Those hungry for more reviews can, if they haven't already, direct their browsers to Real Time's Dance Massive special, where various critics, including the indefatigable Keith Gallasch and fellow bloggistas Jana Perkovic and Carl Nilsson-Polias, have logged their various critiques.

When I attend a performance, some part of my brain seems to erase any information about the show I'm about to see, even if I have read it. The one thing that seems to form expectations is the previous work I've seen by the artists involved: I have a magical ability to forget press releases completely. (It's only by dint of serious concentration that I am able to note the correct venue and time.) So it was that I watched BalletLab's Amplification under the impression that it was a new work, and read it as an evolution of Miracle, which in 2009 was a new work.

This is, of course, totally backwards: Amplification is in fact 12 years old. It was choreographed long before the photographs from Abu Ghraib, long before Guantanamo and the psy-ops tortures which locked prisoners in containers and played Ravel at deafening decibels. As Phillip Adams says in his program note, he was working from a variety of genre and SF ideas: Kubrick, Frankenheimer, Lucas, and in particular JG Ballard, whose novel Crash is a deeply discomforting narrative about people who are sexually aroused by car crashes. For Ballard, the car accident suggested "the portents of a nightmare marriage between technology, and our own sexuality".

This perverse fetishisation of violence, a sexuality alienated and mediated through technology, was brought to a macabre apotheosis by the perversity of the Abu Ghraib photographs, which literally implicated every viewer in the torture of Iraqi prisoners. And it's this which gives Amplification its nimbus of prophecy: it's not as if that alienation was new in 2004. It's been said that prophecy is about seeing the present clearly, and in this dance Adams sees something very clearly indeed. All the same, the specificity of the images created is disconcerting: Adams's dancers are hooded, thrown naked in collapsed piles of limp limbs, locked in boxes, assaulted by deafening waves of sampled sound, all actions that seem to be the vocabulary of modern military violence.

Since this is articulated by choreography that is, often, extremely beautiful, I experienced Amplification as aesthetic trauma. In the opening dance the dancers' bodies became almost mechanised, their limbs unnaturally straight, creating unexpected angles and shapes, and I felt I was watching a rigorous process of objectification. This is true, to some extent at least, of all dance, but here this feeling was heightened to menace, and laid the ground for the violent images that followed.

Dancers dressed in drab, uniform-like costumes circled two others seated in chairs, their arms straight beside them as if they were restrained, and drew long lines of recording tape out of their mouths, as if they were drawing speech or entrails, winding them around their prisoners. Then one dancer flourished a pair of scissors and cut them, and there was a flash of the prisoners collapsing, before the stage was plunged into darkness. In another sequence, three clothed women, using only their legs, nudged a passive, naked male body into a box and closed the lid on him. In yet another, a pile of naked dancers - seemingly representing corpses - becomes erotically charged.

These disturbing scenes cut against others that can only be described as images of transcendence, which is where I found myself making the strongest connections with Adams's later work, Miracle. There is a beautiful, but overlong and overworked, sequence of movement where two bodies, brought on stage in body bags, are wound in cloths, as in a ritual of preparing a corpse for burial, and the dance ends on a strangely ambiguous resolution, all the dancers democratised by their mutual nakedness. Perhaps the most confronting aspect of this work is its eroticism, always at play in Adams's choregraphy: the body is a site of violent conflict, seeking escape from its materiality.

The design and sound amplify the impact of the choregraphy. Bluebottle's set and lighting - a raw, white stage hung with angled fluorescent lights and arc lamps - looks like a live installation by Joseph Beuys. Lynton Carr's score, performed live on turntables, begins at full throttle, sampling everything from electronic noise to snatches of dialogue from movies, then moves to a surprisingly lyricism and powerful moments of silence. An extraordinary work.

Gideon Obarzanek's solo work Faker is at the other end of the spectrum, although in its own way it is equally exposing. The conceit is simple: Obarzanek, successful choreographer, is approached by a young, female dancer, who wants him to create a work for her. Obarzanek agrees. The collaboration fails, and results in the dancer, some time later, sending an excoriating email in which she ruthlessly criticises Obarzanek's work. She claims that his exercises were such that she could "only fail"; she says that he has no coherent aesthetic behind his work, beyond pure curiosity; she compares him unfavourably with German choreographer Tom Lehmann, claiming he is merely superficially copying his techniques, and she attacks him for his sexism and the gendered carnality of his choreography.

The stage is completely bare, a mimesis of a working studio, aside from a desk on which is a laptop computer. The structure of the work is very plain: Obarzanek enters the stage, read us parts of the email, and then performs as if he were the humiliated young dancer, answering the unspoken question: would you put yourself through what you're asking of me? It reveals that as a dancer, Obarzanek has a considerable comic gift: some of this performance is very funny indeed.

In the first performance, she/he puts on an iPod and dances, creating a series of naive and comic movements; in the second, she/he is asked to improvise for a stated period of time, using only movements which she/he doesn't know how to do. The third is a Cagean exercise in which instructions written on paper are thrown on the floor, picked up randomly and then performed in the sequence in which they fall. It culminates when Obarzanek strips to his underpants and performs a solo that he created for the woman to a lush choral score. It's the only time when stage lighting is employed, and the one thing of which she is proud in their failed collaboration. The dance itself, performed by an aging, male but still athletic body, is extraordinarily beautiful.

Out of this simplicity emerges a lot of complexity. The title alone alerts us to the perils of taking anything here literally: Obarzanek claimed in an interview that he wrote the email himself, although the dance was sparked by a real incident. If anything, this is a work of self-interrogation: aside from the final dance, Obarzanek gives no defence of himself against the criticism in the email.

Lightly, with a steady neutrality that avoids defensive heroics, Faker exposes the power of the choreographer, who literally shapes the dancer's body, scrutinising and exposing her; the abyss between perception and self-perception; the dilemma of creating art, of generating renewal, when the surge of youthful curiosity and passion has evaporated and a certain necessary self-deception is no longer possible. At the centre is the question of authenticity: what does it mean to create authentic art? What can truthfulness mean when all art is, by its nature, a conscious and fabricated act?

The performance ends with the chasm of self doubt that opens in Obarzanek from a single glance of contempt thrown his way by the dancer: "I already knew," he says. "All that in one look."

Top, middle: BalletLab's Amplification. Photos Jeff Busby. Bottom: Gideon Obarzanek in Faker.

Amplification, directed and choreographed by Phillip Adams. Composer and turntablist Lynton Carr, set and lighting by Bluebottle, costume design by Graham Green. Performed by Timothy Harvey, Rennie McDougall, Carlee Mellow, Brooke Stamp and Joanne White. Malthouse Theatre & BalletLab, Dance Massive. Closed.

Faker, choreographed and performed by Gideon Obarzanek. Lighting design by Gideon Obarzanek and Chris Mercer. Malthouse Theatre & Chunky Move, closed.

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