Next Wave: Monster Body, Dewey Dell, Justin Shoulder ~ theatre notes

Monday, June 04, 2012

Next Wave: Monster Body, Dewey Dell, Justin Shoulder

Over the past few years, I've lost count of the number of columns I've read which lament the Youth of Today. Pundit after pundit has informed me that young people, Generation Whatever, are spoilt, self-obsessed, materialistic and non-political. This always makes me think of the poet Kenneth Rexroth, who as a fascinated elder statesman was one of the first people to chronicle the youthful counter-culture of the 1960s. Back then, as Rexroth reported with constant surprise, newspaper columnists also regularly lambasted the apathetic, non-political, self-obsessed youth of the day. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose...

Publicity shot for Atlanta Eke's Monster Body

Like Rexroth, I think that underneath the surface, something interesting is stirring in Generation Youth. Of course, as in the 1960s, the majority of the population observes the status quo: what matters is the critical mass of those who don't. It doesn't take an especially sharp observer to see the symptoms of a new political urgency occurring everywhere: the raw protest of the Occupy movement through 2011, the resurgence of feminism and Marxism, the resistances against increasingly repressive regimes worldwide in Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, the responses to increasing environmental crisis. As with the apocalyptism of the Cold War, coming out of the birth of the nuclear bomb and the disaster of the Vietnam War, there is a sense of global crisis driving politics now. And, as it was back in the 1960s, you'll only find the surface reflected in the news.

Given the tumultuous events of the past couple of years, it's unsurprising that much of the work in the Next Wave festival harks back to the art of the 1970s. The difference between what's going on now and what happened then is that this is a generation that knows what has already happened: it's perhaps the most historically self-aware generation we've had, with more access to more information than at any point in human history. At its most shallow, this results in the pomo irony of the hipster. But, as performance art works like Atlanta Eke's Monster Body or Justin Shoulder's The River Eats demonstrate, this awareness of the past can lead to something altogether more interesting.

Monster Body is a pitch-perfect work that examines the inturning grotesquerie of the female self as it deals with the image of the feminine. We enter the Dance House theatre, harshly exposed by flurorescent lighting, to find Eke, naked except for a rubber lizard mask, standing on a box made of mirrors, rotating a hoop on her hips. She stands there for ages as the audience sits and settles, totally exposed and yet, because her face is covered, totally hidden. Her body trumps her identity, is the whole of her identity, and she gazes out on us through the eyeholes of the mask with the anonymous face of a reptile. It's an image that somehow has the impersonal, stark impertinence of Manet's Olympia.

What follows is a series of sequences that riff off various representations of the nude, both historical and contemporary. There's the disciplined, angular control of a ballet dancer, who utters inarticulate growling screams; the nude of a thousand Playboy centrefolds, posing in a puddle of her own urine; an infantile cartoon bunny with a grotesquely large head, poignantly waiting as a motorbike whizzes back and forth, always a little sinister, never arriving; perhaps most confrontingly, five naked female dancers bopping along to Beyonce in Abu Ghraib black hoods, which managed to be outrageous, excessive, disturbing, absurd and bizarrely joyous all at once. At various points the leaky female body is cleaned up by a man in a biohazard suit.

Eke's images balance disturbingly between comedy, disgust and eroticism. So much of this show was funny. The point where people stopped laughing was when Eke put on a flesh-coloured body suit and filled it with pink water balloons - analogues of breast implants - turning her body into a misshapen, lumpy monster. She then took it off over her head like a reptile skin, so it seemed that her head was eaten by this other body. The image recalled the obscene surrealism of Hans Bellmer and his mutilated mannequins, and was as viscerally disturbing. A fascinating, deeply absorbing and intelligent work, driven by a profound anger, that was performed with outstanding poise.

Dewey Dell's Grave. Photo: Pia Johnson

The big talk of Next Wave was The Exchange Program, two evenings of performance presented by Italian theatre artists Dewey Dell ("the Castellucci kids") and Sydney performance artist Justin Shoulder. I only made the second program, which made me very sorry I had missed the first. Dewey Dell are second generation artists, the children of Romeo Castellucci and Chiara Guidi, directors of Societa Raffaello Sanzio. Comparisons are probably inevitable, but it's clear that Dewey Dell, although they create the same kind of resonant theatrical ambiguities as their parents, are making a different kind of work.

Grave is a new piece, performed with local artists, which is as driven by anger as Eke's work. Picking up on images from contemporary horror films, Dewey Dell create dark, ambiguous dance theatre. It expresses a dead, chaotic urban world possessed by zombie ideas, ideologies long emptied of their significance: but underneath this is an irrepressible feeling of immanent life, imprisoned and rebellious, flashing out from beneath the undeadness.

It opens with a figure drawn from the Japanese horror film The Ring: a girl whose face we never see, because her long hair completely covers it. This is genuinely spooky: the low lighting at first made it seem that the lone figure at the back of the darkened stage had no head at all, as her white hands crawl up the wall blindly searching for something. For us? She lurches towards us with a sense of blank menace but also, perhaps because she is physically present, a feeling of vulnerability. There's a brief interlude of colour as a bizarre clown figure, whose costume I am unable to describe, emerges from back stage, a historical memory perhaps of commedia dell'arte.

Then, like denizens from some surreal underworld, the other dancers enter the stage, strangely lit by lights concealed in the backs of their costumes, zombies who transform into, well, not-zombies. The final extraordinary image, the shadow of the first dancer's hair lit from behind and projected into the wall like a veil or a curtain, seemed an image of hope. I have no idea why: perhaps it was the sense of the organic nature of the hair, which suddenly was alive and real, an expression of life. Perhaps it was because the image created was of a threshold, an opening into something new.

Constantly inventive and surprising in its movement, sound and design, this was a work that left me feeling exhausted. It's a measure of the attention it involuntarily elicits, but also of the violence you feel is contained in the work, not quite articulate, but always there. I'm sure everyone there made their own meanings from what was presented, but the images on stage were all tightly focused and totally specific, created with the discipline that permits such images to go straight into your subconscious and resonate with multiple possibilities.

Pinky the clown from The River Eats

Justin Shoulder's The River Eats - brash, colourful, funny and spectacular - was a brilliant foil to Grave. On reflection it had a similar trajectory, a journey from the alienations of urban technology to a contemplation of and return to the natural world, enacted here through a superb performance of display. Again, I don't know how to describe the costumes. The show began with a kind of pink animal, a heart-like creature the colour of fairy floss, with naked legs and bottom painted pink. It was marching across the stage to harpsichord music, like a clockwork toy. Then the costume was serially discarded to reveal the clown Pinky, in huge pink wig, body paint and sequinned g-string, bowing and primping before a soundtrack of tumultuous applause. The soundtrack ceased, and he kept bowing to the silence, suddenly poignant and bereft and absurd.

Then Pinky was on skype, waving at three huge projections of himself, who were all waving happily back, holding a birthday cake. Sequence followed dazzling sequence, projected image and costume melding into each other, all focusing on the gorgeously costumed figure of Shoulder. Pinky draws from pop culture referents - pornography, the internet, music videos - creating unsettlingly bizarre and funny images (at one point we see a butterfly made of dildos). But this is a performance of transformation: we watch the emergence of something other, the creature OO: an elaborate, atavistic figure, half animal, half god, that is an expression of harmony and, perhaps most surprisingly of all, of the natural world. The River Eats is a beautiful exploration of the estrangements of desire, the hunger towards wholeness that inhabits the divided self, that is at once wholly contemporary and yet reaches back to impulses much more ancient than our civilisation. Truly astonishing.

Monster Body by Atlanta Eke. Sound design Tessa Broadby, lighting design Sophie Beirne, videographer Sarah Ling, set design by Ashlea English, costume design Amanda Betlehem. dramaturge Tim Birnie. Dance House.

Grave, by Dewey Dell. Creators: Agata, Demetrio and Teodora Castellucci, Eugenio Resta. The River Eats, devised, performed and designed by Justin Shoulder. Original music by Nick Wales, vision design by Toby K. The Exchange program 2, North Melbourne Arts House, Next Wave.


eugenia said...

My two picks of the festival also. Atlanta Eke was indeed astonishing, brave and brilliant. Saw the Exchange Part I and the Dewey Dell work there was another stand out. Truly inspiring and a really heartening sign of what is being created by the "yoof".

Tom said...

Monster Body was a fabulously disconcerting experience. I laughed at and was disgusted by the caricatures she drew with her body. It was so simply presented, too, and with great effect: I felt totally engaged by the direct, concentrated seriousness of this work. I was so alarmed that the next morning when what popped into my head was "I'm not a girl, not yet a woman": thank you Atlanta for reminding me of the BS in BS.

Anonymous said...

Hi Alison, the children are the offspring of Romeo Castellucci and Chiara Guidi. Claudia is Romeo's sister.

Alison Croggon said...

Many thanks, Anon. Duly corrected. That'll teach me not to take my facts from the Age...