Dance Massive: Lawn, Rogue, Untrained ~ theatre notes

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Dance Massive: Lawn, Rogue, Untrained

I've had one of those months where writing a sentence - any sentence - feels like I'm trying to sculpt a hammer out of porridge. Or did I just imagine that sometimes the logos floweth like those rivers of wine and honey? Maybe it's a trick of memory, something like the idea that women forget about the pain of childbirth (although that one must surely have been invented by a male gynaecologist whooping it up on laughing gas - I've never spoken to a mother who has said anything of the sort). Surely there must have been some reason I took up the trade of wordsmithing, besides an inability to play world-class tennis or to add up columns of numbers?

So take this as an apologia: I know very well that what follows is a loose and disconnected series of impressions rather than a sober review. Perhaps I can't think properly because my novel keeps calling me and taking some dastardly inner revenge when I don't answer. Perhaps it's just that I need a new brain from the supermarket. When I finish this, I am going to have a bath and a good lie down, and perhaps then I'll remember why I ended up being a writer. God was having a good laugh that day.

You know that things aren't working when it looks difficult, when those sentences still have hammer marks all over them. One of the hallmarks of ability is its invisibility, how it makes skill look like ease. Or so I reflected last week, watching the guys in Lawn lift each other with one hand as if they were made of paper. Goddam it, they made it look as if they were lifting balloons. They crawled up and down walls as if they were cockroaches. They threw themselves around the stage as if their bones were made of rubber. They stuck their heads in chairs and stayed there for what seemed like hours, and didn't suffocate. (Actually, that didn't look easy, it looked very uncomfortable). Afterwards, as they took their bows, you saw the sweat soaking their clothes. And by then you were so enchanted and moved by this extraordinary piece of dance theatre that all you could do was cheer.

Lawn is a collaboration by three Australian men - Vincent Crowley, Grayson Millwood and Gavin Webber - that is about the relationships between three Australian men in a cold German winter. It was created in Berlin and expanded in their native Brisbane, and has toured internationally to enormous acclaim. And no wonder. This is deeply exciting dance, physically thrilling (and sometimes even distressing in the anxiety you feel for the performers), visually beautiful (an extraordinary collapsible set by Zoe Atkinson) and musically brilliant (Iain Grandage creating a collage of vastly differing styles of music, from achingly lovely cello solos to German heavy metal).

Emotionally - well, emotionally it's all sorts of things. It's a passionate and unabashed exploration of masculinity - its aggression, its lostness, its danger, its tenderness, its hilarity - that makes you realise how exciting the smell of testosterone can be in the theatre. Through the physical language these men create, its wit and tension and brutality, emerges a profound tenderness, a lyrical delicacy and grace that is almost classical in its purity of movement.

The dance begins with the absolutely mundane - one man brushing his teeth, another eating cereal, another vacuuming - in a grotty apartment with thin walls and dodgy pipes. But this mundane reality is full of cracks through which emerge the grotesque, the violent, the beautiful and the funny: cockroaches appear from nowhere and run down a dancer's arms, a wardrobe door opens to reveal a man playing a cello, or a man in lederhosen comes out and plays Waltzing Matilda on an accordion, which is one of the funniest things I've seen on stage. The final image - an extraordinarily moving evocation of homesickness - makes you gasp with its unexpected beauty.

The young company Rogue, which presented three short dances at the Tower Theatre, offers a contrast to Lawn that demonstrates the range of Australian dance. As I saw one immediately after the other, the contrast was marked. Where Lawn is three bodies lost in an infinitely expanding domestic space, Rogue is many bodies crammed into tiny spaces. Lawn is impure dance/theatre, generating a personal, even lyric narrative; Rogue is much more concerned with pure dance, the intricacies of abstract movement. It's marked by a street-smart, pop sensibility, and is a lot of fun.

Byron Perry's A Volume Problem is a witty take on amplification, using two speakers as props. It begins in miniature, a dance of hands on a table-sized stage, and expands into short vignettes punctuated by darkness: flashes of a crowd at a concert, or solos that seem to be interior dances, the inward-directed privacy of the iPod generation. Antony Hamilton's The Counting, choreographed with the dancers, extends the technological imagery to sinister evocations of techno-humanity, with machine-like gestures evolving before an insistent, metronomic beat.

The final dance, Puck, reduced me to uncontrollable giggles: here the dancers are framed by a set by Malthouse in-house designer Anna Cordingley, which pulls on the imagery of shopping centres or games arcades. Another dancer carrying an old-fashioned Streets ice-cream tray roams the audience, distributing various noise-making objects: a bicycle bell, a light sabre, a ridiculously honking horn. Each sound is a command to the dancers, signaling a different routine. When the dancers run out of routine, they simply stop until someone in the audience rings their bell. The dance - which otherwise might continue indefinitely - is structured by a couple of blaring sirens and the lighting states.

Our audience was somewhat shy, which I regret: I would have been waving that light-sabre like a crazy woman, just to see what happened. But even so, as the noises became more varied and the dancers attempted frantically to respond to conflicting signals, an irresistibly funny anarchy began to emerge among the tightly disciplined routines. As its name suggests, Puck is an exploration of mischief, with a touch of the sinister: for all its comedy, the dancers are at the mercy of the audience, driven to please, to answer their commands.

Lucy Guerin's Untrained, presented in the dance-friendly space at the Meatmarket, is another take on command and response. The premise is lucid and simple: four performers, two trained dancers (Antony Hamilton and Byron Perry) and two untrained (visual artists Ross Coulter and Simon Obarzanek), are given a series of tasks, which they perform before an audience. The tasks are listed on pieces of paper laid on the floor, and the performances take place in a small square outlined in the middle of the stage.

It could be the essence of banality, a merely intellectual examination of the differences between levels of performative skill. Indeed, before I saw it, I read this withering review in the Age, which said that the work was simply going over old ground broken in the 1960s, and that although it was "mildly entertaining", Untrained was "ultimately uninteresting". Ouch.

After I had seen the show, this struck me as a rather ungenerous response: as with Two-Faced Bastard, I think you have to work hard to resist the unexpected charm of this show. But the review prompted me do some reading about the post-modern dance that emerged in 1960s New York. Post-modern dance evolved in part from the dance of Merce Cunningham, although it was a reaction to the purities of modern practice. It famously began with an influential series of performances in the Judson Church Hall in Greenwich Village in the early '60s. And yes, Jordan Beth Vincent is quite correct: Untrained is indeed in the same area. Like those performances, this show draws on Dadaist influences, Cagean randomness and task-based activity, and the vernacular of the everyday, using both trained and untrained bodies to examine the nature of performance.

Does this mean Guerin is merely reinventing the wheel? Is it naive to find it engrossing? I'm not so sure. For one thing, you'd have to be absolutely certain that Guerin doesn't know that the wheel exists in the first place. Myself, I'd be taking bets that she is perfectly aware of the traditions from which she is drawing. And also, you'd have to ignore the immediacy of the performances, which engage your attention throughout the show (which seemed a lot shorter than its 90 minutes). I thought of Borges's story about the man who rewrote Cervantes' Don Quixote, and his assertion that, although the second text was exactly the same, word for word, as the original, the newer writing was an entirely different work, because an entirely different time and series of necessities had brought it to fruition. I think something similar pertains here. Only more so, because performance only ever exists in the now.

What emerged from this series of tasks, ranging from the mundane - say your name backwards - to the comic - do a slow-motion fall - was a surprisingly moving process of personal revelation. You would expect the non-dancers to be vulnerable, exposed by their lack of skills when juxtaposed with such skilled bodies as Perry and Hamilton; what you might not expect is the vulnerability opened in the dancers as the visual artists began to exploit their comedic incompetence to charm the audience.

More than anything else, Untrained is four very intimate portraits. Portraiture is an overt theme: during the course of the show the performers drew pictures of each other, as well as speaking to paper sculptures that were self-portraits. The show is almost cubist in the way it opens out differing perspectives of looking (I guess it's no accident that two performers are visual artists) - we are aware of the performers looking at each other as well as us looking at them, and of the differing expectations with which we look.

It demonstrates how revealing movement is, exposing a person's shynesses and extrovert defences as well as their generous expressiveness. And it shows how expressiveness expands through play, opening up privacies of which the performers are not necessarily conscious. A young girl in front of me was enchanted and shook with laughter all the way through it; it was certainly funny, but that transparent comedy was gently underlaid by something else, something profoundly humane, which was much more complex than it seemed.

Lawn: Choreography: Splintergroup; performers: Vincent Crowley, Grayson Millwood, Gavin Webber; Rehearsal Director: Michelle Ryan; Dramaturgy: Andrew Ross; Musical Composer/Performer: Iain Grandage; Designer: Zoe Atkinson; Lighting Designer: Mark Howett. Merlyn Theatre, CUB Malthouse.

Rogue: A Volume Problem
: Choreography: Byron Perry; Composer: Luke Smiles; Set Construction: Anita Holloway. The Counting: Choreography: Antony Hamilton and Rogue; Sound: Panasonic; Costume Designer: Doyle Barrow; lighting design: Frog - Bluebottle 3. Puck: Choreography: Rogue; Costume Design: Doyle Barrow. Dancers: Derrick Amanatidis, Sara Black, Danielle Canavan, Holly Durrant, Laura Levitus, Kathryn Newnham, Harriet Ritchie. Tower Theatre, CUB Malthouse.

: Concept/ Direction: Lucy Guerin, Performers: Ross Coulter, Antony Hamilton, Simon Obarzanek, Byron Perry. Arts House, Meat Market.

Pictures, top to bottom: Lawn; Rogue; Untrained.


Anonymous said...

Hi Alison. I saw Lawn on Saturday and was blown away by the power and beauty of this piece. As a theatre student, I don't often have time to go check out dance pieces, but I caught this one on advise of a friend.

For much of the show I felt like I was looking into a nightmare. Much of the Australian dance scene at the moment seems to be examining the mechanics of dance itself- think Untrained or I Like This- however this show transported the audience somewhere else, the way dance should. Its not to say those other works aren't important, but Lawn was something else.

This show was filled with moments of wonder and confusion- a dancers peeling skin suddenly peeling into the wall, or a dancer suffocating in glad wrap. Yet through all of these incredible moments, the connection between the performers was unlike anything I had seen before. Breathtaking.

Congratulations to the Malthouse for getting this show to Melbourne.

Alison Croggon said...

Yes, what a performance! Thanks Gilligan, I too thought it was a very special event. Though I think Guerin's work goes beyond the machanics of dance to literal questions about human relationships and communication, ie, it reaches beyond the artwork as well, if into a different imaginative space. I think Keith Gallasch called it "reality dance", which made me laugh, but in a way is quite accurate.

Anonymous said...

On Untrained - though I wouldn't be nearly as harsh as The Age reviewer, I did have similar feelings. I was indeed charmed by the first 25 minutes or so, mostly by the running humour in the contrast. But after this point I didn't find the accumulation very revealing. I think for me the weakness was in the method of arriving at the portraits. My experience is that those kinds of 'exercises' elicit a style of response that is now too recognisable to be truly revealing. Like a psychological test where you've heard all the questions beforehand, and find it hard not to adapt your answers in the hoping of getting a result that best fits your imagination.

The comparison to Two Faced Bastard is interesting. I felt the heart of that piece's exploration was in issues that the theatre has been meditating on for quite some time as well, and are a main-stay of second year drama courses. (I didn't think it was operating in the same space as Bloody Mess, despite the comparisons.) Nevertheless, I really enjoyed the experience of that show. Ultimately, I think it was because I thought they really went at that exploration, and perhaps Untrained was a bit restrained in how they attacked it.