monadologie day 40, 41 & 42

Oh, so close now and … mmm nervousness and so on.

A peculiar week. I haven’t been too intent on planning for the showing, the idea all along was to continue playing with stuff up till today and then whatever we have, tomorrow we for once stick with. So in a way it is finished but in more ways oh very much not.

Unexpected not-happening. All the Hydrogen shell stuff, based on the absorption lines, didn’t work. I mean didn’t work in one of it’s possible manifestations as a method to shuffle us closer or further from our centre based on the size and shape of various orbital shells. To wonder what I’m talking about and sometimes pictures are good, look at these Hydrogen atom orbitals. So we thought, oh well, save that for me alone for when I return to the centre.

That is to say, will work in a different way, but it was surprising to see the complexity of the piece disturbed and broken by adding just a bit more.

Altogether, it has reached a level of complexity that is pointless to add to as there isn’t time to fold new things into it, though I do have a couple of clear ideas where it will go in the coming weeks after the showing, and need to work this out myself through my favourite rehearsal method, lying down and dozing.

Gideon came in to watch us do a run today. He won’t be here for the showings, and we were, well, ready to be seen, and certainly by the end knew what it’s going to feel like to perform in two days. I need to learn to breathe differently, but it’s far too late for anything else. And remember everything else as well as how to improvise, and the other way too.

I don’t want to get into an analysis of what the work is viz. what I imagined it could be yet, though it now has the feeling I always get around here, a bit of emptiness at what could have been. It has to, at some time collapse from all the myriad possibilities down into the one thing it will be seen as, and watching it on video, I do enjoy, like endless rain in sheets beating the surface of puddles.

tense dave

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.


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.

sense at 45 downstairs

Bonnie is back from Sydney, tired and exhilarated after the season of Glow, and as I walked through Faulkner Park this early sun-hazed morning on my way to class I saw a beautiful girl with long tanned legs walking towards me. Of course she would have to be Lily who has only now returned from the distant north of Australia’s east coast. So, a reunion and talk of dance and other things and much happiness.

Not content with sleeping, Bonnie is performing again this weekend in Emily Fernandez and Frieder Weiß performance sense at 45 Downstairs also with Tina McErvale who not long ago returned from Europe and Adam Donovan. There is an audiovisual installation on both Friday and Saturday night at 7pm before the performance at 8 30pm.

I don’t know much beyond what’s on the flier, except Saturday night is also the last night of the Greyhound in St Kilda. I have crawled out of there on occasion (at least once with Luke George), and it has forever been my favourite pub, even though I don’t go there much anymore. I have a memory of arriving in the back bar at someone’s wedding also a karaoke night, and everyone was quite enthusiastic at the extra guests. The jukebox is the best, the carpet is sticky.

becky, jodi and john

Not that I’ve seen much dance this year but come December, this will still be one of the highlights of the year. I really like watching showings, often more than the real work itself buried under the detritus of staging. To have John Jasperse explain the makeshift ledge at the back of the stage (in the theatre where it will be performed in a couple of weeks, it’s the cyclorama pit), that he will be wearing a portable smoke machine so he gently smolders, that a radio-controlled car will bring the props on and off, but for now he’ll just announce that, and call for when the video should start and stop, all this, and just a bare room plus tv and a couple of chairs … this nakedness of a performance can capture and transfix me.

Becky, Jodi and John should have had another title but Chrysa Parkinson, who only appears infrequently in a skype video call couldn’t swing the schedule, so John ended up as far from New York as possible where there is still some kind of contemporary dance. Chrysa says she wants to embrace shame, and do everything that makes her feel ashamed. Jodi says she won’t do any of that post-modern roll over the foot stuff, especially on her left leg in a long list of “don’ts” (she does). John gets told by a curator he is too formal, and wonders while standing naked in front of us, if she really meant, “too old”.

They all should have retired at least a decade ago, and certainly to hold aspirations to be making art for another thirty years … herein lies the heart of this piece. Four New York dancers who have known each other for nearly twenty years, who are obviously very dear friends, spread across the globe, and for a month together in Melbourne. We don’t see old dancers, even NDT3 is a novelty act in this context and maybe in Europe the average age for a dancer is mid-thirties, but here, to be over thirty and still wanting something that dancing can give, and – more pertinently as this is how worth is measured – to still be performing, is not so common, and makes conceiving dance a thorny proposition.

Almost ten years ago Becky, Phillip Adams, Lucy Guerin returned from New York to make dance here. Melbourne’s dance is hugely influenced by New York, as became readily apparent in the last few weeks when both John and Jodi taught class at Chunky Move. To see this trio perform together, is in part to see this, as it lives in their bodies. It’s also something like reading someone’s letters, or eavesdropping, it’s the life that surrounds this movement that is on display.

I really want to rave about this work, even though it’s unfinished, it was only a studio showing, there was no music. It is magic to watch them move together, to obviously enjoy being together and to know each other so well it is no longer three separate people. And yes they dance, and entangle themselves around each other, get a little slappy and breathe hard. And they take their clothes off. Well, Jodi doesn’t, she doesn’t like showing her arms. (And Becky has the superhero power of Disappointment).

What more can you do in the face an endlessly deadly climate that sees no value in the arts, and has scant interest in seeing artists develop over their entire lifetime than to make a work such as this. Becky Jodi and John is considered, poignant, beautiful and makes stars of all of them.

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glow in sydney

Chunky Move’s Glow, one of the performance of year in 2006 (that I managed to miss) is in Sydney opening tonight and running till Sunday. Amazing lighting (the word really does no justice to Frieder Weiß’ organism illuminating the sole performer) and spellbinding performers including Kristy Ayre, straight off the plane from Chicago and Bonnie Paskas. On at the Sydney Opera House Studio.