Melbourne Festival: Dance Territories ~ theatre notes

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Melbourne Festival: Dance Territories

Melbourne Festival Diary #10

After three weeks of full-on performance, Dance Teritories was a refreshing return to the basics: a stage, a performer, an audience. Dance Territories presented four works over two double bills, curated from both local and international artists. Program 1 was Perrine Valli's Ma Cabane au Canada & Série and Sandra Parker's Transit. For my last night out for the festival, I saw Program 2, which consisted of Swiss artist Cindy Van Acker's Fractie and Australian dancer Matthew Day's Thousands. Rigorous, austere, riveting, these are performances which mercilessly expose the human body.

Cindy Van Acker's Fractie: Dance Territories

Introducing this program, Dancehouse artistic director Angela Conquet invokes the precept "less is more", quoting the modernist architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. For all its modernist roots, it's clear that this is work that has a contemporary urgency, turning its back on the spectacle and consumerist excess that circumscribes so much of contemporary experience. This has a pragmatic aspect that reaches into the political: Matthew Day speaks of minimalism as a sustainable practice, as a reminder of how little one needs to make a performance. "Simplicity is not only an aesthetic value," says Conquet. "It is a moral perception."

Minimalist aesthetic creates work that, while it can't escape representation, is nevertheless a direct challenge to its assumptions. What happens when everything is stripped back? Sometimes, as with the work of Jérôme Bel or Samuel Beckett, an inexplicable joyousness. Sometimes, as with Lucinda Childs' and Philip Glass's Dance, an irresistible, even violent, possession by the present moment.  In the performances of Van Acker and Day, we're invited into a direct, unmediated contemplation of the human body, here exposed to physical stresses that at times seem unbearable, but which, through their intensity and focus, become utterly compelling.

The two dancers in Van Acker's work, Fractie, Tamara Bacci and Van Acker herself, perform mostly naked: both wear faun underpants and a length of stocking on one arm and one leg. The only other costuming, if it can be called that, is some obscure writing on a thigh, which turned out to be Van Acker's choreographic notation, literally inscribed on their bodies. (There is also a mat in the centre of the floor, covered with Van Acker's choreographic language: it looks like a mad periodic table). The dance takes place in a fully lighted studio, with no attempt to dramatise the movement by different lighting states or stage design, to music by five different composers.

The effect of this minimal adornment is to make these bodies seem more naked than if they actually were unclothed: there is an almost shocking sense of rawness in how these dancers present themselves before the audience. There is no decorative protection, no erotic hiddenness. Given this quality, it's no surprise to discover that Van Acker has collaborated with Romeo Castellucci.

Fractie consists of five sets of movement, solos and duets, which are each enacted on the floor. Exposed so mercilessly to our gaze, the dancers became objects, with mechanised, isolated movements that for me often invoked science fiction scenarios of the post-human - China Mieville's bio-engineered Remades, for instance, half human and half machine - and, simultaneously, the animal nature of the human body. I was made almost agonisingly aware, especially by some of Van Acker's isolated shoulder movements, of sinews, muscles and bone, of the body as meat.

Exact, mathematical movement sometimes seemed to dislocate the body from its physical integrity before our eyes. In one set of movements, the two dancers doubled over, one leg poking through the folded torso and keeping time as if it were a metronome, an arm poised above them almost as if it were an expressive head. Arms and legs became difficult to tell apart, impossibly angular, as if the dancers somehow erased the organic limitations of flesh. Between each sequence, the dancers enter and leave the space or pace to another part of it: these pauses were a relief as they stood, suddenly erect and relaxed, recognisably human and, suddenly, inscrutably private.

Matthew Day's solo Thousands has been performed several times, notably at Next Wave, but this is the first time I've seen it. Dressed in silver sneakers, black shorts and black tank top, Day performs in front of a lush curtain, in a theatrical circle of light. Day's performance is a physically gruelling exercise in stillness. We see him in a series of poses that move, with near impossible slowness, from one state to another. At first he appears like a sportsman - a footballer, perhaps - in the act of falling over, or perhaps scrambling for a ball, with the movement cranked down so that it's all but imperceptible.

Over the next 20 minutes we watch as he turns from facing the left to the right, finally facing his audience at the end. Day places his body under such stress that his muscles begin involuntary tremors, which themselves become part of the dance. The sweat rolling down his nose and dripping on the floor is testament to the physical extremity of the act. The poses that he reaches and slides out of are never quite representational, although, teasingly, they almost are: they have something of the quality of Eadweard Muybridge's slides of a body in motion, in how they seem to capture movement in a state of being in between one act and another.

Midway through, the sound track - again, minimal electronics with suggestions of the sea, or perhaps the sound of a crowd slowed down a thousand times - suddenly swells up into Donna Summer's I Feel Love, which plays all the way through before the sound returns to its former state. And suddenly you're not thinking of footballers any more, but night clubs, eroticism. It's a performance that ends up being peculiarly resonant: it recalls classical Greek statuary, athletes photographed at moments of extreme physical effort. Sometimes you're simply admiring the beauty of the male body. And also, perhaps inevitably, it recalls the stress positions the CIA uses in its torture techniques.

Neither of these works is easy, but their austere focus and discipline means they grab and hold your attention. And it was fascinating to see, given their mutual focus on minimalism, how radically different they were from each other.

Dance Territories Program 2: Fractie by Cindy Van Acker, performed by Cindy Van Acker and Tamara Bacci; Thousands, choreographed and performed by Matthew Day. Dancehouse, October 26. Melbourne Festival.

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