Review: Aether / Brindabella ~ theatre notes

Friday, December 07, 2007

Review: Aether / Brindabella

Brindabella, choreographed by Phillip Adams and Miguel Gutierrez, composed by David Chisholm. Set and lighting design by Andrew Livingston, Ben Cisterne and Ben Cobham of Bluebottle, costume design by Doyle Barrow. With Derrick Amanatidis, Tim Harvey, Luke George and Brooke Stamp. Music performed by Lachlan Dent, Peter Dumsday, Timothy Phillips and Nic Synot. BalletLab and Malthouse Theatre, Merlyn Theatre, CUB Malthouse until December 8. Bookings: 9685 5111.

Aether, choreographed by Lucy Guerin, composed by Gerald Mair. Motion graphics by Michaela French, costumes by Paula Levis, lighting by Keith Tucker. With Antony Hamilton, Kyle Kremerskothen, Stephanie Lake, Lina Limosani, Harriet Ritchie and Lee Serle. Lucy Guerin Inc and Malthouse Theatre, Merlyn Theatre, CUB Malthouse.

Last week the Croggon wordhoard collapsed in a heap of disconnected vowels. This poor minstrel stood in the halls of the thane – I’m speaking metaphorically, of course – and could spit out nary a hwæt. (Ok, I admit it: I’ve been reading Beowulf and the Geats have got to me). It was in this mode that your disconsolate bard took herself to the Malthouse to see Lucy Guerin Inc and BalletLab.

A major reason I enjoy dance is that it doesn’t have words in it. Or if it does have words in it – both Brindabella and Aether have a few – it doesn’t tend to have very many; and they function, as in poetry, as much in their texture and rhythm as in their meaning. So the conjunction of the wordhoard going awol and two pieces of contemporary dance was, as you might imagine, a happy one.

On the other hand, dance – being a medium that employs meanings and articulations very far from words – is, at the best of times, very difficult to write about. At the hoardless times, it’s just about impossible. And there are other considerations highlighted by dance that haunt all the writing I do on theatre.

Writing about performance of any kind is always an act of uncertain translation, a recording of complex sensory and emotional impressions that will, always and inevitably, falsify the experience. Words are slippery; they betray the wordsmith, they lock down the multiplicity of experience, they elide memory, they deceive and seduce into their own reality.

The act of writing is a translation, among other things, of the present into the past tense. This is one reason it’s so much easier to write about language-based art: anything written down is, a priori, in the past tense (this is why writers have a tragic view of life). It’s hardest of all to write about work that exists in time; unlike, say, a painting, it can’t be contemplated and returned to. All these things add up to a constant addressing of the impossible. The certainty of failure is, of course, no reason to refuse the attempt. In a way, this blog is a record of such attempts – as Eliot said:

...every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it.

Enough of the apologia, I hear you cry... So I’ll get down to that business of attempting the impossible, and tell you about the dances. Description will have to suffice. So hwæt, my little athelings.

The first thing is that these two pieces, run in tandem as a short dance festival at the Malthouse, are an exercise in contrast. Aether is all subtlety and complex motion, where Brindabella is a crude and sumptuous excess; the beauty of Aether is cool, intelligent and restrained, the passion throbbing beneath the icy discipline, while that of Brindabella is about the frank unleashing of the anarchies of sexuality.

As its name suggests, Aether – an ancient word for air – is a meditation on the medium of communication. Speech, written language, the technological means of communicating, are all (as I have suggested above) a third thing, neither what is said nor what is heard, and have their own determinations. To quote another poet (it’s a week for poets), Giuseppe Ungaretti:

Between this flower picked and the other given
the inexpressible nothingness.

Aether, with a deal of comedy and poignancy, explores this nothingness, a space that in the 21st century is overloaded with noise, and rather bleakly suggests that humans, for all their technological ingenuity, are still alone, still halted in bewilderment before the threshold that separates self from self.

The dance is divided into two parts, the first roughly about the medium of technology, the second about human attempts to communicate. When we wander into the theatre, the dancers are already on stage, idly fiddling with torn up pieces of newspaper that are arranged in coiling patterns on the stage floor. Even before Aether begins, Guerin is dividing our attention: it is impossible to watch all the dancers at once, and so you watch one and then another. The number of dancers on stage kept changing, as if by magic: I continually missed their entrances.

When the dance proper begins, some words creep across the bottom of the blank screen that dominates the back of the stage, as if unseen hands are typing them. Gradually the writing creeps up the screen, becoming more and more fragmented, and the screen fills up with numbers and graphics, obscuring the text until it becomes unreadable, one more broken sign among too many others.

Meanwhile the dancers, dressed in unisex tunics, perform increasingly complex movements, creating continual eddies of harmony that break into arrhythmic disruptions. There is a particularly beautiful sequence where the dancers link hands and weave in and out of each other’s bodies in a continually surprising fluidity, like a human Möbius strip. The dance demands that you choose where to watch – complex things are happening at extreme ends of the stage – mimicking the effect of information overload. And it’s beautifully detailed: in particular, you notice the subtleties of hands – fingers are compellingly expressive in Aether.

The screen narrows to a slit and then vanishes, signalling the second half, which concerns itself with the less abstract physicalisation of human communication. I mean no disrespect when I say that parts of this reminded me of Mr Bean: there are elements of clowning, especially in Antony Hamilton’s brilliant and disturbing performance of a man struggling to speak to others. Speech is evoked by wordless noises and intricate movements that mimic the patterns of conversation. But speech itself is not absent: there is another very funny sequence where, speaking in precise chorus, the dancers tell us about the vagaries of rehearsal.

Perhaps the most beautiful dance is created by a stroke of lighting genius. Keith Tucker opens a strip of white light across the darkened stage, as if using the shutter of a very big slide projector. It begins with lighting a single undulating finger, and gradually widens until the beam of light illuminates a strip of the whole stage, about a metre deep and a short distance above the floor. Only parts of the dancers are illuminated: their legs or their arms rise from a sea of darkness and dip back in, or a man sits up and is startlingly headless. The final image of Aether returns to darkness, the light dwindling until it illuminates one finger.

It’s compelling, intelligent work that moves you at obscure and unexpected levels of consciousness. And I was glad there was an intervening week before I saw Brindabella, which is an entirely different pickle. If nothing else, these two works indicate the depth and variousness of contemporary dance in Melbourne now.

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. (This is, admittedly, true of a car crash: but I associate this feeling with some of the most exciting theatre I’ve seen). Moments in Brindabella, a collaboration between BalletLab’s Phillip Adams and New York choreographer Miguel Gutierrez, made me reflect that, although I had no idea if it was any good, I was quite sure that it was brilliant.

Loosely based on the fairytale of Beauty and the Beast, it cheerfully destabilises aesthetic judgement, pillaging influences as diverse as Jean Cocteau, Disney and porn flicks. Yet the effect is far from a flippant post-modern irony. It is, rather, a passionate work that at times attains the anarchic energy of a pagan ritual. It’s perhaps most like a 21st century Dionysian mystery, a kind of contemporary Bacchanal that releases bestial and divine energies through ecstatic dance.

Through its three acts – La Belle, L’Amour and La Bête – we witness a complex process of playful destruction. The four dancers gradually strip away their social dress, even their gender, until they are four possessed, erotic bodies, personifying the anarchies, clumsiness and beauty of raw sexual desire.

Bluebottle’s lighting and design is one of the stars of this show: it’s nothing short of stunning. The only design elements are the huge curtain - actually white, but painted with light and lifted or ruched in various ways (the curtain technician was working very hard) - and light itself. Behind the curtain is an utterly bare stage, and at one point the huge back door is opened to the yard outside, giving even deeper perspectives.

Brindabella begins with a coup de théâtre. The three musicians, in an orchestra pit before the brothel-red curtain that dominates the stage, begin the prologue to David Chisholm’s continually surprising score, in this case a sensual scraping of cello and percussion. The opening dance is the fascinating play of the musicians’ shadows across the curtain. Then the dancers step onto the forestage. The sole woman, Brooke Stamp, is dressed in a ball gown that is a Cocteau fantasia, holding a hand mirror, while the three men - Derrick Amanatidis, Tim Harvey and Luke George – dressed as elegant Beasts, whirl around her, in a dance that is a parody of the narcissism of Beauty. Finally the curtain lifts, and Beauty vanishes into the cavernous darkness behind.

The dance moves from an almost (but not quite) parodic evocation of classical dance towards an athletic nakedness, the beast inside the beauty. The transitional dance is a long and strangely compelling sequence where the four dancers simply jog around the stage. Their running is oddly formal – they are almost always facing the audience – but otherwise it is just running, an exhausting physical effort. As they run, they gradually strip off their clothes down to their underwear, throwing their garments into the audience in a dissociated strip tease, and gradually their unity begins to fragment, the physical effort becomes harder, one dancer outstrips the other in a burst of energy. Maenads, I thought. It must be my classical education.

Another highlight is a comically dark dance in which the dancers have pine trees strapped to their backs and howl like wolves, that again suggested an obscure pagan ritual; something perhaps to do with a winter festival of death and rebirth. There’s a gesture towards gay porn that involves assembling a surreal bicycle enhanced with dildos, and a long sequence to a screaming electric guitar and kitsch lights that is, well, simply about fucking. It is somehow glorious, transcending its own self-conscious tackiness to become a celebration of sexual bodies.

The final sequence is a brief coda of ethereal beauty in which the naked dancers, adorned with feathers that gradually are shed around the stage, are silhouetted against a golden light. It has a disembodied serenity that suggests the mystic edge of the erotic.

It’s a commonplace for artists to claim that they are exploring the nature of desire, but it is quite rare for someone to actually attain it. In this dizzyingly various dance, walking a very narrow line between self-conscious parody and the extremities of passion, Phillips and Gutierrez have made a genuinely erotic work.

Picture: Aether by Lucy Guerin. Photo: Rachelle Roberts

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