Dance Massive: Sunstruck, NOWNOWNOW ~ theatre notes

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Dance Massive: Sunstruck, NOWNOWNOW

Dance Massive is now in full swing, offering the kind of fare that means I am constantly kicking myself (an interesting athletic feat) for not seeing everything on the program. Altogether, I'll get to six shows over the fortnight, which is not exactly insubstantial: but such is the diversity of practice on offer - from film, improvisation and sound art to more conventional theatrical performance - that those who get to the whole festival will gain an enviable overview of the vital currents now rippling across Australian contemporary dance. Well, a gal's gotta know her limitations, and mine are intransigent at the moment. Below are meditations on a couple of the shows I did see this week.

One of the pleasures of this festival is the remounts. I missed Helen Herbertson and Ben Cobham's Sunstruck at the 2008 Melbourne Festival, though I didn't miss the buzz. Those who saw its first incarnation tell me that this remounting at North Melbourne Town Hall is substantially different from its premiere in a huge shed at Docklands, but for this kind of performance, which is intensely sensitive to the space it inhabits, that's completely unsurprising.

Its music and movement are improvised, although clearly within solid structures, and the dance exists in that liminal state between sleep and awareness - not dream so much as reverie. When the audience enters, we are immediately made welcome with an offer of tea or sake before being directed to a circle of wooden chairs that glows luminously within an edgeless, smoke-enhanced darkness. The chairs are placed within a circular rail, along which is run the major lighting source for the show, a rig holding a huge sodium-coloured light covered with venetian slats.

It begins in silence, with Trevor Patrick stepping with a delicate, even shy hesitancy before us. At this point the lighting is from above, so everything is softly illuminated, the dancer and the audience. Immediately you notice the expressiveness of Patrick's hands, and you become aware of your own gaze on the dancer, which seems to touch him as the light does. He speaks: "No rain. Still." Then darkness, and the rattling noise of the rig being dragged behind the chairs, and the sodium light comes on. Its effect is like the sun seen through closed eyelids, intense but tempered by darkness, a dream of a harsh sun perhaps recalled in fever. Sunstroke.

Patrick is joined by Nick Sommerville, who seats himself among the audience. They speak again, but this time it is half-heard nonsense, dissolving into stylised laughter that turns into weeping. Then, from out of the darkness, there is the scrape of a cello. (The darkness in the hall was so tangible that I didn't see the musicians - Tamil Rogeon and Tim Blake - when I entered, and this came as a surprise.) The dance shifts between solos, where the other dancer sits among the audience, and duets, and gradually builds up its intensity, weaving deftly through the music and sound and light, responsive and richly allusive. It moves through moments that seem intensely private - the cradling of a child, gestures of affection - to others that touch on public representation of gender: an exaggeratedly feminine step, an overtly masculine pose, masculine conflict, maternal poses - that feed into and transform each other.

A lot of the movement, especially in the rippling delicacy of Patrick's hands, seems to spring from the stylised representations of Asian theatre, themes reinforced by motifs in the music (Tamil Rogeon and Tim Blake): there was a particularly beautiful moment where Patrick mimed wringing out water from long hair that could have come straight from a Kabuki performance. At another I was suddenly thrown into a bullring and found myself thinking of Lorca's great poem, Lament for Ignacio Sanchez Mejias: "The wounds were burning like suns / at five in the afternoon". But, as with the lighting, these images are all liminal, holding themselves on the other side of bald representation: they are allusions that hover on the threshold of perception, winding through the shifting experience of the whole.

Livia Ruzic's soundscape is an important part of this experience: the musicians move unseen around the space, so that the cello or violin emanate from unexpected places, making us aware of spatial perspectives beyond the circle of sight. The music is punctuated by ambient sound - seascapes, birds carolling, subliminal electronic sounds - that enrich the texture of the entire piece. This one will stay with me: it's an exquisitely staged, focused work that offers an enthralling immersive experience.

Where Sunstruck is all darkness, the mind ranging across interior reverie, Luke George's NOWNOWNOW (closing tonight at Dancehouse) is all light and surface. This is an unambiguously joyous experience, in the mysterious ways that dance that attempts to focus on the absolute presence of performers and audiences often is (I'm thinking here of Les Ballets C de la B or Jerome Bel). This makes it intensely difficult to describe at all satisfactorily, because there is almost no there there: as they say, and it's very true of this work, you had to be there.

One of the characteristics of this kind of dance is an abolition of barriers between the audience and the performers. This is evident as soon as you enter the theatre: from the moment you step through the door, shoeless as requested, you are walking on white carpet. The carpet stretches the length of the stage and covers the stepped rostrum where the audience is seated, explicitly embracing us all in the same space. The whole is enclosed by black curtains, and we are all brightly illuminated. In the right corner of the stage, near the audience, is a small television with its back to us, and backstage are a couple of big amplifiers. Otherwise the stage is empty.

As the audience enters, the three dancers - Kristy Ayre, Luke George and Timothy Harvey - are on stage doing nothing in particular, dressed in the most absurd costumes I have ever seen. They look as if they have raided an opshop full of Xena the Warrior Princess dress ups - plastic greaves, velcro armour, yellow shorts, lime-green codpieces, toy Indian head-dress. It's impossible not to wonder what it can all possibly portend. Then, once the dance proper begins, each dancer strips, dresses in plain-coloured tracksuit pants and shirts, and puts the costumes away.

Okay, first set of expectations thrown away. What follows is a series of explorations in which the dancers continually focus in different ways on the bare literality of what is occurring on stage. The performances are key here, because there is nothing else. These dancers, in their physical skills and, crucially, in their ability to merely be on stage, which is much harder than it sounds, are impeccable. The only narrative here is the dance itself, which shifts from complex abstract movement to gestures drawn from aerobic exercise or the mundane minutae of, for example, people watching and responding to television.

They begin by shouting in perfect chorus all the rhymes they can think of for NOW: cow bow frau miaow and so on, an explosion of Dadaist nonsense that sets the tenor for the rest of the dance. At one point all the dancers do energetic star jumps until they are exhausted, and stand, panting, until they have caught their breath. At another George approaches an audience member in the front row and gives her a headset, which she puts on. We can hear the whisper of the sound, but not what it's saying. She walks onto the stage, obeying recorded instructions that become part of the dance.

Or again, all three dancers put on glossy black wigs backwards, so their faces are concealed, and perform a hilarious and somehow sinister minimalist version of a Supremes stage routine. Or they are seated, watching television, making fragmentary, mundane statements that become like prefab phrases repeated with different expressiveness through each performer. Towards the end, they shout out what they are doing and perceiving: BLACK! TEXTURE! SHADOW! DIAGIONAL! ABSTRACTION!!

The effect of all these attacks on the present is an increasing buoyancy and joyousness. George's explicit intention is the exploration of the present moment, especially the complexities and contradictions of spontaneity when it collides with the consciousness of a structured work of art. In depriving us of narrative, sense or expectation, NOWNOWNOW opens up a glorious sense of liberation. Dadaist post-post-modern dance? I don't know. Whatever it is, it went by in a flash: it effortlessly engrosses your entire attention. It's very funny, provoking almost constant ripples of laughter, but underneath that is a sense of generosity and mutual trust that is mysteriously profound. Get there if you can.

Picture: Sunstruck. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Sunstruck, by Helen Herbertson (devisor, director, sound concept) and Ben Cobham (design and lighting). Soundscape by Livia Ruzic. Performed by Trevor Patrick and Nick Sommerville, musicians Tamil Rogeron and Tim Blake. Dance Massive, Arts House North Melbourne Town Hall, closed.

NOWNOWNOW, choregraphed by Luke George. Design by Bejamin Cisterne, dramaturgy by Martyn Coutts, costumes by Ede Strong and cast, music by Glass Candy. With Kristy Ayre, Timothy Harvey and Luke George. Dance Massive, Dancehouse until March 20.

No comments: