Melbourne Festival review: Double Think, Journeys of Love and More Love ~ theatre notes

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Melbourne Festival review: Double Think, Journeys of Love and More Love

Byron Perry's new dance work Double Think opens in complete darkness in the vast space of the North Melbourne Town Hall. To the rhythms of Luke Smiles's electronic score, blindingly bright geometries of white light flash out and vanish. The movements are precise, created as two dancers lift small boxes concealing the light source, and there's not enough time for the light to bleed out and illuminate anything but itself. It creates a dance of image and after-image on the shocked retina, and immediately suggests that this is an experience of interiority as much as spectacle.

It introduces a dance which explores further Perry's fascination with the manipulation of objects on stage, as in his joyous 2008 collaboration with Antony Hamilton, I Like This. The major set element is a wooden wall which can be pulled apart and reassembled like children's blocks. In one sequence, the dancers are hidden behind the wall as they push differently sized blocks in and out like organ stops. This creates a beautiful geometry of shadows, but, as with the manipulation of the light boxes, this is somehow never machine-like: at some subliminal level, we're aware of the minute variations of human movement. Perry is literally animating his set.

The tension between object and human movement widens to a consideration of subconscious contradictions, the "double think" of the show's title. This becomes articulate in a word-play sequence in which dancers Kirstie McCracken and Lee Serle throw random nouns at each other, to which the other dancer responds in wilful, even satirical movement. They then reassemble the wall into two distinct halves. A dancer sits on each side and gives the other wildly contradictory instructions on what they "must" do, furiously agreeing with each other. Serle insists on control, McCracken on the lack of it. It seems very clear here that they are representing the different hemispheres of the brain.

In other sequences, such as a vision where gravity shifts and we see both dancers as if they are seated at a table from above, they become a couple, negotiating the differences and contradictions of relationship. But mostly this is an exploration of the ways in which human beings deal with and express their interior polarities.

I really enjoyed this piece, but I had a nagging sense that there was something unresolved in the whole: the tensions between object and dancer, for example, seem still in process, rather than fully articulated. In the end, I wasn't sure what this work added up to, beyond a fascinating experiment, and some beautiful dance from McCracken and Serle. Perhaps this goes back to its concept, which as outlined in the program is a little muddy.

Perry's title directly references Orwell's notion of doublethink. Doublethink, says Orwell, is "to tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then, when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just as long as it is needed, to deny the existence of objective reality and all the while to take account of the reality which one denies." While this is an excellent description of the rhetorical strategies of someone like Andrew Bolt, I saw few connections with the dance.

Rather than the "deliberate lies" that Orwell describes, it seemed to me that Perry is exploring a creative dissonance. A more precise notion might be negative capability, the quality John Keats famously defined as the capacity to be "in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason". These concepts are certainly related, but they are quite different: Orwell's idea is about destroying thought, Keats's about its genesis. I suspect a little more precision of thought - perhaps even an exploration of the contradictions and conenctions between these two ideas - might have helped to consolidate the dramaturgy of the dance.

After Double Think, I traversed North Melbourne to the Meat Market for motiroti's Journeys of Love and More Love. Written, directed and performed by Ali Zaidi, who describes himself as "Indian by birth, Pakistani by migration and British by chance", Journeys of Love is a story of odyssey, interspersed with a menu of tasting plates. After hanging around a bar decorated with bowls of flowers and pungent with incense, the audience is directed into a space which has been transformed into a large restaurant. The tables are surrounded by four huge screens that are filled with lush animations of flowers, and later with digital graphics which illustrate Zaidi's story.

It's billed as a participatory experience in which the audience gets to share food (recipes created by Zaidi) and Zaidi's personal story, and to reflect on "issues around identity and... static perceptions of culture". I, personally, am all for food in the theatre: La Mama has provided a couple of memorable nights in which the sensual pleasures of theatre are extended to taste. But somehow, for all its impressive dress, Journeys of Love was a lot less than it promised: sadly, the most interesting aspect was the food itself.

As a theatrical experience it gave us an alienated vision of love, mediated through a text that glosses contradiction and loss. Maybe the first mistake is reproducing a restaurant rather than, say, the environs of a home: this effectively atomises the audience. Zaidi is maître d'hôtel rather than a host, and there is little sense of more than a professional invitation. Zaidi's narrative is spoken through a mic, which is immediately alienating, and begs further the question of doing this kind of show in a large space. I had a couple of interesting conversations with my table mates, but this is the kind of interaction prompted simply by seating strangers for an hour or so at the same table. There wasn't much feeling of a collective audience response.

The text itself is banalised by Zaidi's repeated insistence that all experiences of migration - even the miserable existences of migrant workers in Europe - are "journeys of love". Take a letter, Mr Berger. It's hard not to feel that this show is the ultimate neo-liberal theatrical experience: the lesson is that all differences, even the homicidal conflicts between extremist Hindus and Muslims, can be resolved in an embrace, or through eating interesting food together, or by watching videos of local migrants talking about what it's like to be a migrant. Frankly, Poh's Kitchen on ABC TV does far more to communicate the love of food and cultural heterogenity. This is a tourist's experience of difference.

Pictures: Top: promo image for Double Think; bottom, Journeys of Love and More Love.

Double Think, choregraphed and directed by Byron Perry. Sound design by Luke Smiles, lighting by Benjamin Cisterne. With Kirstie McCracken and Lee Serle. North Melbourne Town Hall, Arts House. Melbourne Festival until October 15.

Journeys of Love and More Love, written, directed and performed by Ali Zaidi. Recipes and videography by Ali Zaidi. Composition and sound design by Andy Pink, lighting and production by Steve Wald, video aditing and animation Daniel Saul and Katerina Athanasopoulos. motiroti at the Arts House Meat Market, Melbourne Festival. Until October 16.

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