Over the past couple of days I’ve been thinking and talking quite a bit about Chunky Move’s Tense Dave, a collaboration between Melbourne’s Gideon Obarzanek, Lucy Guerin and Michael Kantor. I’d planned to review it straight away, but then as I had time to consider it realised it wasn’t going to be an easy or quick thing. Hanging out with Gala, Banksia and Laura earlier tonight I was … persuaded that it would be a good thing, solely because everyone who has a problem with the performance did so for the same reason.
I’ve seen the set loitering in Chunky Move’s studios on a couple of occasions, a giant raw platter on which a series of walls splitting off from the centre were each roughly punctured by a bulb-shaped, plaster-white edged void, never really certain if this was a rehearsal set or the real thing, until the very same carousel appeared and the gutted void was revealed as where a single naked light bulb passed through as it all revolved.
The set and it’s continual cycling, folding, unfolding, collapsing, skating against or with the velocity, the shaping of volumes as surfaces and voids sliding over each other, and the performers endless revealing and obscuring, inserting themselves between, arrivals and departures, being delineated, enclosed, imprisoned, confined, ensnared or trapped in its maze-like evolvings all under inexorable motion, and the obvious conceptual intensity devoted to exploring this eternal clockwise spinning is what the performance is rightly acclaimed for.
Not occasionally nausea inducing in its grinding revolutions, and frequently causing a visceral dislocation as brains tried to comprehend what eyes saw – counter-rotations, optical illusions like 1950s super-modern mechanised glass and chrome display cases or building entrances redone as humble and slightly decrepit unfinished cardboard housing – one of my first thoughts was the cinematic intensity usually absent in stage performances, the framing of bodies and action by the single light and its traversing minor sections with its glare, like a close-up leaving the remaining scene mostly obscured. This was focussed by the natural creaking, groaning and subterranean abrading of the set, slowly amplified and growing like weeds until it became the aura shrouding the work.
Tense Dave has no real narrative thread, though the bodice-ripper text – part of the sound design – and its significant characters form something of a haze through which everything comes to be seen. Kristy Ayre as the subject of the narration, the bourgeois society girl who is startled by the appearance of Brian Lucas in her bedroom and later as the object of her fixation in the ballroom, Brian Carbee her Machiavellian father scheming to have her married off to the slimy and obsequious Luke Smiles for pecuniary gain, and Michelle Heaven, the vile gossip and confidante of Kristy who attached herself like a succubus to the first Brian, culminating in a possible rape or coupling of the beast with two backs, and the ensuing mental disintegration of Kristy.
Interspersed around this self-contained scene and the characters who appear individually or separately throughout the work are vignettes of a madness or fracturing of identity that reminded me of Being John Malkovich when he enters his own head and all the people in the busy scene are himself uttering, “Malkovich Malkovich Malkovich”. What relationship each of the individual performers’ multiple characters had to each other is not made apparent, though within themselves they are delicately considered and as subtly evolved as the set upon which they exist.
During the spectacle, I was really taken aback by just how good it was, it really is a work of phenomenal quality, and afterwards this thought remained. The issue was with the small portion that wasn’t so remarkable. At first I thought it was just a couple of individual scenes. The duo between Brian and Michelle late in the work had my attention wandering, and the ending where the set paused and began rotating in the opposite direction, Brian going from contorted and stricken by rictus to a relaxed, confident and normal walk was by far over-simple and juvenile compared to the sophistication of the vastness of the rest of the work.
But it was the short disco scene to New Order’s Blue Monday where I thought it had lost it for me, not only because I have a slightly irrational opinion that fading out a song in a performance when you’ve used as much of it as you have wanted is a bit disrespectful to the track and indicative of an uncertainty in what the scene is attempting in the first place. Also because I really saw no point in this scene at all either in itself or as part of the whole work.
The single main issue I have with Tense Dave took a couple of days to become clear, and was largely made so by several conversations I had with various people, dancers and artists. Considering this, the small dislikes above are insignificant, and it’s this lurking theme that turns a very successful and involved work into something quite problematic.
I think I can summarise it by saying the two easiest and laziest things to make contemporary dance about are “the war of the sexes”, and “madness”. The former has been exhumed from so many graves by every choreographer stuck for an idea and is the heart of every Pina Bausch work and so much of the execrable eurotrash I loathe. It says nothing new, and more importantly says nothing about the world I live in. It is a lie built on a hugely indolent act. The world is far more diverse and inspiring than someone who makes this genre of theatre could ever hope to imagine.
Madness as a theme is equally suspect. It is a trope upon which any digression can be hung, and seldom contributes anything meaningful to the utter desolation mental illness brings to the sufferer. Tense Dave as an essay in insanity, schizophrenia, anxiety, agoraphobia and the common miasma of extreme depression yields little other than caricature, a cartoon comedy hollow and devoid of meaning.
In this it is most obvious in the Ren and Stimpy or Spy vs. Spy hyper-violent scene in which amplified martial arts soundtrack vivisection of fighting bodies is matched by slickly choreographed dismembering and all manner of inflicted violence that is redolent of one of Chunky’s earliest works, Bonehead. It’s hilarious to watch but unless you ascribe to a Slavoj Zizek theory of high cultural theory made conscious through pop culture, it is there just to be entertained by.
Like so many gay choreographers making heterosexual love stories with seemingly no conflict of interest, making performance about mental illness is something that is almost universally treated without the due seriousness and honesty it needs. Not the least for the sheer number of dancers and choreographers who struggle with it and the prevalence of depression alone in the arts.
Tense Dave is a splendid work of theatre and I was genuinely astounded by the exceptional creativity of all the artists, I also feel slightly duplicitous in finding myself have to be so critical about what is the heart of the piece I enjoyed so much on the night. But I would far rather have left the performance feeling emotionally drained at an honest depiction of mental anguish than the superficial and ultimately empty “journey through strange and fractured versions of a world distorted by fears, paranoias, and unfulfilled desires” of the programme notes.