sense

A lazy lunch with Bonnie Paskas, one of the dancers in Emily Fernandez’s Sense, on for one more night tonight at 45 Downstairs, and while talking about this performance, I realised I was giving a fairly uncompromising critique of the performance to Bonnie when she still had one more night to go. I also realised the depths of my uncomfortableness in not praising effusively shows that my friends are in here.

45 Downstairs, is the utter basement of what a long time ago was Robert Lindsay Gallery, and is a breathtakingly beautiful space, no less so for being punctured into nine smaller cubes by the vertical presence of structural beams. Vast windows line two walls, though blacked out, and the wooden floor arranged so the audience looked back onto the white internal wall. This is a new performance space in Melbourne, and one that immediately I felt attached to, and certainly a perfect venue for dance.

Emily and Frieder have been over from Germany for the last month working with Bonnie, and another friend I haven’t seen for years, Tina who recently returned also from Germany. Joining this group was sound designer Adam Donovan. The duo, plus projected extras from Frieder is succinctly explained in the programme notes: “In ‘sense’ people appear to be virtual characters and virtual characters are made to seem human; a look at ourselves in this digital age, a sense of dependancy, a sense of disorientation? A sense of humour?”

What is attempted is extremely complicated both technically and, I guess you could say philosophically, in which the perception of singular identities constantly sliding across each dancer and back and forth with their projections, computer-generated or from time-shifted video, is something of an exposition of Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation. To mention Baudrillard could easily be a mediocre ruse to imply this work has substantial depth, but the technical considerations of what’s being attempted I think make it a not unfair comparison.

However, as with much performance that attempts some kind of commentary or discourse on new technologies and the status of individual identity within them, it is frequently oversimplified or a bit naive. Compare the proliferation in Second Life of avatars (I was thinking of Kazuhiro Aridian here), the motivations behind, and consequently identifications of self that is truly fascinating and sense seems to be more representative of thinking from the late 90s.

I was wondering why Becky, Jodi and John, despite absence of costumes, props, sound, unfinished bits in a studio showing managed to be the only performance this year that in fact was a performance, a finished coherent piece, and besides the obvious advantage three dancers who have been close friends for almost twenty years incurs, it is a question of directorship. Sense lacked a single coherent thread to bring together the various elements that otherwise would bang sharp corners against each other.

From a strictly choreographic perspective, the movement at times was very formal and precise, duos that slipped in and out of unison, demanding a high degree of control, and indicative of Emily’s own style of moving, at other times hard slapping body-throwing spasms at the floor, grotesque possessed rictus and contortions. Occasionally definite identities would unfurl, emotions riding their bodies. There wasn’t a clear reason for any of this though, and the indecision evident in going between, and the difficulty in the transitions caused a drift in my attention.

Having danced with Bonnie for years, and seen her in two very different duos one with Gala Moody and now with Emily, I saw last night her quite incredible ability to … not mimic or dance perfectly in unison, it’s more as if she becomes the living shadow of her partner, their identities merging into a thing like twins. I thought when dancing with Gala it was because they’d known each other and danced together before, but no, it’s actually a very special artistry she has, and dancing so close to Emily, together both being quite formidable, tall, powerful dancers, this is one thing I wanted to see more of.

Frieder’s interactive video projection, that most of Australia’s dance scene will know from Chunky Move’s Glow was strangely understated, and only infrequently imbued sense with the subterfuge of identity grown beyond human that was nominally the heart of the work. Again, this I think is a directorial concern, in which the performance often strayed far from the idea’s coherent line and became somewhat lost.

The least interesting part of sense was the soundscape, that once again was an ambient electronic mist occasionally coloured with vaguely quirky noises. It seems that since Aphex Twin released Selected Ambient works Vol. 2 thirteen years ago, sound for dance has been content to play safe within the inoffensive, so devoid of meaning it could mean anything, the sound to use when you don’t want to say anything. I really didn’t hear it beyond as a mask or filter for the noise of the dancers’ bodies.

As usual for dance in Australia, sense has been put together under all the trying conditions that cripple the art form, distracting all involved from the actual point of making dance, it is boring to mention this, as it is always the same, and so is the killer of dance here. I would like to see sense continue, for what works within the performance, the communion of bodies and technology to become intensified, and the remainder left to fall away, there is a vast well of possibilities here only barely touched.