Next Wave: Shotgun Wedding, Physical Fractals, Wintering ~ theatre notes

Saturday, June 02, 2012

Next Wave: Shotgun Wedding, Physical Fractals, Wintering

As you probably know, Ms TN has been trying to get out less. I am writing a novel which I'd like to finish before September, or at least in the next decade, and then there are all the numberless sundries that presently seem to be the texture of my life. I'm not complaining, you understand; for one thing, it's all my own fault, and for another, I love everything I do. But most of the time I feel like a mini-avalanche waiting for a jolly mountaineer to let loose a careless yodel. And then along comes something like Next Wave, trampling the heights with trumpets and elephants, and down comes the full disaster.

No Show's Shotgun Wedding

In practical terms, the past fortnight's shenanigans means that TN is about eight reviews behind. In the diary, this weekend is marked: "Catch up on Next Wave". Let's see how Alison runs, eh? If I'm a little breathless, you'll know why.

Last Saturday I saw No Show's Shotgun Wedding. Co-creators Bridget Balodis and Mark Pritchard have had an idea for a brilliant new social institution: how about we invent this thing called "marriage", right, a life-long union between "a man" and "a woman"? Let's randomly pick one of each from the people milling about on the pavement outside St Peter's in East Melbourne, and "marry" them. Let's divide the crowd in two, with half belonging to the "bride" and half to the "groom", and let's get going. Right? Right.

So that's what happened. The bride and groom were whisked away to be dressed up and the guests assembled in the nearby gardens, to blow bubbles and contemplate the many bridal parties being photographed in the Saturday sunlight. The couple appeared and were hitched with the attendant ritual. It included a reading from Hans Christian Anderson's The Little Mermaid, which is, to say the least, a problematic text about romantic love. Then we were led to a totally empty room, where we were to invent the celebration that should greet this "marriage".

With the showbiz of reality television, a screen lifted and revealed everything we needed: candelabra, tables, chairs, chair covers, lanterns, plates, decorations. It's amazing how quickly fifty people can transform a room: within half an hour, our reception was all prepared, including food and drinks, and the party could begin. There were the speeches, with various audience members appointed to be the mother of the bride, the best man and so on. The bride and groom thanked us very prettily. There were videos of guests wishing the happy couple long life and good cheer. Then the music started up and an entire room of mostly strangers was dancing Nutbush in unison. (Except for me, because me and co-ordination have never been formally introduced).

It was often hilarious, always fun and also, in a sneaky way, rather moving. The knowledge that the bride and groom had never met each other before they were "married" underlay the protestations of life-long love, ironising the well-worn rituals. Clearly some of the intention of the show is to highlight the contingent nature of these powerful social institutions, which are so often described to us as "timeless". Yet the power of the ritual remained, partly because its familiarity was here sharpened into something less familiar, partly because it was something that the audience had, quite literally, created itself. Beneath the apparent chaos was a lot of smart and unobtrusive crowd wrangling, which gave the whole show a feeling of things magically appearing out of nowhere. For all the variables that must attend a work that depends so heavily on its audience, it came in bang on the two hours it advertised in the program. And it was enormous fun.

Physical Fractals. Photo: Pia Johnson

On Sunday I ventured out for the Day Pass, and in the course of a stimulating and enjoyable day saw two dance works: Natalie Abbott's extraordinary Physical Fractals, at Footscray Arts Centre, and Aimee Smith's Wintering at North Melbourne Arts House. These two works were particularly interesting to see together: both were danced by two women and both relied heavily on mirroring and repetition in their movement to recreate interior states of being. There the similarities ended.

Physical Fractals was presented in a large, empty studio, with the audience arranged in a circle in two rows. The score was entirely drawn from the sounds generated by the performance, which were amplified and looped into a complex percussion. This was part of the work's rigor, which focused mercilessly on the bodies in front of us. Every aspect of this production - the lighting, the sound, the demarcation of space and bodies - was precise and thoughtful, with no superfluity.

The performance began by plunging us into complete darkness. When the lights came up, very low, I jumped, because two dancers were standing right in front of me, close enough to touch. I had had no idea they were there. They stood motionless before us, clad in identical clothes - denim shorts, grey t-shirts - before sweeping their arms backwards and tumbling to the other side of the space in a complex, repetitive series of movements. The spiralling sound of breathing and bare feet stamping or brushing the floor, rose and fell: sometimes undecorated, sometimes looping back on itself in increasingly complicated textures. At one point the dancers whirled microphones around their heads, creating the noise of rushing wind. Towards the end, the dancers fell and fell and fell. 

The choreography was a precise pattern of geometries that worked cross-wise over the stage, and that cumulatively built into an intense, even dizzying, experience of duration. Within the broader patterns of movement were many variations, the fractals referenced in the title, with patterns breaking apart and reforming in constantly changing ways. This was reinforced by the constantly shifting sound and the lighting, which went from total darkness or very low lighting to brutally bright arc lights directed across the space.

The effect was hypnotic and very demanding: there was something brutal about the way I was forced, in those fifty minutes, into the present moment. I was never bored, but I found myself entering an interior space which was something like lucid dreaming. It was disconcerting and created an odd and unexpected feeling of peril. Demanding, as I said, but deeply absorbing. I especially liked the uncompromising nature of this work: there was something very honest about its intelligence. Watch this Natalie Abbott.

Wintering. Photo: Pia Johnson

Repetition is a delicate art: it can enrich a work, but it can also deaden. Wintering, disappointingly, was an illustration of the latter. Aimee Smith's work was billed as a confrontation between humans and the natural world, drawn from an experience of Antarctica. The stage was beautifully set up, darkening the entire width and depth of the Meat Market to create a sense of endless perspective. The opening sequence was musical performance only: a guitar solo (again using loops), played by Kane Ikin at the far end of the stage.  Images of snow whirling in darkness were projected on both side of the stage. The music was unremarkable but inoffensive electronica, and this sense of mere prettiness informed the dance that followed.

I'm sure Wintering suffered from my watching it after Physical Fractals, but it was also an illuminating exercise. In one, the dance was dynamic and exposed, which deepened the sense of duration; in the other, the exposure of the dancers only hollowed it out. The movement was slow, with a lot of repetitive floor work, and for all its minimalism, somehow decorative. Too often the movement seemed simply illustrative. It sent my distracted mind to the shoals of boredom, to wake up on the couple of occasions when the dancers found some electrical physical relationship.

The choreography as a whole seemed to fall into an uneasy place between literal representation and abstract movement. As a result I found myself wondering all sorts of irrelevant things, as sometimes happens when I watch mime. Were the dancers falling down a crevasse and dying? Were they being zombies? Was she opening a letter or climbing something? Why were there ripples in the dance mat? Was that clever lighting or should I ignore it? Etc. Wintering was the one Next Wave work I saw where I had to keep reminding myself that I was watching a young artist: there is promise here, but for all its slick presentation, I couldn't find any substance.

Shotgun Wedding, co-created by Bridget Balodis and Mark Pritchard, associate artist Dan Giovannoni, designed by Zoƫ Rouse. No Show at St Peters Eastern Hill, East Melbourne.

Physical Fractals, choreographed by Natalie Abbott, danced by Natalie Abbott and Rebecca Jensen. Footscray Arts Centre.

Wintering, choreographed by Aimee Smith, danced by Jenni Large and Rhiannon Newton. Arts House Meat Market.

No comments: