You know, I thought that Melbourne was a small city, just the right size for a cultural grasshopper like Ms TN. Unlike the seething metropolises of London or Paris, it seemed to me that in Melbourne a keen observer would be able to see most of the interesting performance on offer, or at least a good proportion. Lately, I've been revising this view. 2011 is full-on already, and no one can keep up. Least of all me, but that's another story. The turbulent currents that make the Elegies so enthralling are generated by the dynamic contradictions of a mind acutely conscious of its own movements. There is nothing static in the Duino Elegies: direction, velocity, is all. This is why it is such a mistake to read them as if Rilke were dispensing philosophy, as if a meaning can be accurately paraphrased away from the texture of the language itself. Rilke is not a philosopher, still less a sage: he is a poet. The poems are not “about” life: rather, they are a startling mimesis of its instability and transience.
Dance Massive, which began humbly enough as a small and exciting festival only a couple of years ago, highlights this energy vividly. Operating across three venues - the Malthouse, North Melbourne Arts House and Dancehouse - it's rapidly grown to be the biggest dance festival in Australia, with a program featuring a cross-section of the most interesting dancers and choreographers around. Some events, like Michelle Heaven's strange fairytale Disagreeable Object (review here) or Helen Herbertson's exquisite Sunstruck, of which more later, are return seasons; others, like Gideon Obarzanek's Connected, are lavish world premieres. What the festival as a whole demonstrates is the rich cross-fertilisation of dance and theatre cultures that characterises the best of Australian performance.
Connected, a collaboration with Californian kinetic sculptor Reuben Margolin, is the first work of Obarzanek's final year as artistic director of Chunky Move. Certainly it's been highly anticipated: the buzz on opening night at the Malthouse Theatre was palpable. It left me exhilarated, perhaps a little intoxicated. Connected combines mathematical and human complexities in a work of dance that pulls simultaneously on an almost Platonic idea of beauty and mundane human reality. At its core is the question of relationship: the relationships expressed in complex sciences, for example, which examine dynamic phenomena like flocking or cloud formation, or economic relationships, or the relationship between lovers. The only word I can think of is Rilkean.
A few years ago I wrote an essay on Rilke for the English poetry magazine Agenda, which traced some of the qualities that attracted me in my attempts to translate his great sequence, The Duino Elegies. Forgive me for quoting at length, but almost everything I said about Rilke seems to me to be at work in Connected:
In my struggle to translate these poems, which seems to have taken longer than it did for Rilke to write them, one thing has come very much to the foreground. The intractability of some lines or images, their often stubborn refusal to resolve into a clarity that I knew existed within the most difficult or obscure of them, depended to a crucial extent on my comprehension of the spatial relations within them. The relationship between the poems’ elements is fluid and in constant motion: everything is above, below, before, behind, within, without. Things and people leave and arrive, approach and depart, climb over or vanish behind each other, restrain or release each other. Every surface is permeable, every physical or psychic state in a process of flux. Even matter itself exists in state of dynamic transformation: Rilke makes you constantly aware of its weight or lightness, its viscosity or airiness or solidity. This stanza, from The Second Elegy, is not untypical:
For we, when we feel, evaporate; ah, we
breathe ourselves out and away; from ember to ember
giving a fainter smell. Here perhaps someone might say
yes, you enter my blood, this room, the spring
feels itself with you ... it’s no use, he can’t hold us,
we dwindle in and around him. And those who are beautiful,
who who holds them back? Appearance continuously
enters and leaves their gaze. As dew on the early grass
what is ours rises from us, as the heat off a
steaming dish. O smile, where do you go? O upturned glance:
new, warm, vanishing wave of hearts -;
alas, that’s what we are. Does the universe
in which we dissolve, taste of us? Do angels capture
only their realness, streaming towards them,
or sometimes, in error, a little
of our being? Are we only diffused
in their features, like a vagueness in the gaze
of pregnant women? Unremarked in the vortex
of their recoil to themselves. (How should they remark it.)
The complexity of the transitions here is not merely a question of the supple turning of the metaphor of feeling as an evaporation of the self. Rilke is constantly interrupting himself, as if – to borrow an image from Mandelstam – a thought in flight evolves in mid-air to something else, in a constant process of improvisation. In this stanza Rilke moves restlessly from an abstract thought to a specific place (“this room”), from first person to third and back again, from an image of dew rising to the domesticity of a hot dish of food; and then, without warning, he flings us into the immense ocean of the cosmos, where the faint traces of our felt life are absorbed into the dynamic vortex of angelic being.
Later, which is also important in relation to Connected, I remarked that "the maelstrom of Rilke’s longing holds in its still centre the world of concrete, material reality. He leaves us in the middle of our ordinary lives, as human, mortal and full of yearning as we ever were, but momentarily transfigured..."
Obarzanek is doing something similar here, but with dance rather than poetry. Connected has the same sense of continuous evolution, of dynamic movement and transformation, of shifting focus from the mundane and concrete to the cosmic. At its heart is Margolin's dynamic sculpture, which we first encounter in stillness as we enter the theatre: it looks like an idealised loom, with countless threads threaded through a system of pulleys and suspended in exquisite order over the otherwise bare stage. At their base, the strings are connected by strips that create a fluid, dynamic shape that can be manipulated by a machine or by the dancers.
This is certainly a beautiful object, one you'd examine with great interest should you encounter it in a gallery. Like the dance itself, it has four phases: at first, as the dancers enter the space, it is backdrop, a construction that the dancers are are still making in the background; then it becomes an expressive extension of the dancers' bodies; then it becomes, baldly and crudely, an artwork in a gallery, a valuable commodity; finally, it is an autonomous movement, a dynamic wave that, like the natural world, is not us.
The dance begins at a high pitch of energy: pulsing electric percussion (Oren Ambarchi and Robin Fox) slams us into a world of human geometries meeting, separating, writhing through each other, in a series of duets and trios. The performers who are not dancing stand under the sculpture, linking the string with magnetic strips, completing its construction before our eyes. In the next sequence, four of the five dancers are linked to the strings, bringing the sculpture alive: each movement a dancer makes is amplified in the shapes of the sculpture, creating some of the most beautiful moments in the dance.
This sequence culminates in an extraordinary duet between Marnie Palomares and Alisdair Macindoe: Macindoe remains the only dancer connected to the sculpture, his movements slowed by its weight as if he is walking in a high wind, while Palomares, a free agent, embraces him, moving away. As she walks under the sculpture that Macindoe controls, it lowers towards her or ripples to embrace her, a delicate mimesis of making love.
The third phase is in abrupt, even jarring contrast. Now the sculpture is hooked to a machine, so it is in constant mechanical motion, but stripped of the complexity of human movement: it immediately becomes an object, without the aliveness that marked the previous dance. Here the dancers are dressed as security officers. Obarzanek has recorded interviews with gallery guards, and their various statements are spoken, mostly as recordings, by actors. They are bored, they are interested, they are funny: they are doing their jobs. This is part of the unnoticed labour that surrounds art: the people who spend all day at galleries ensuring the security of the valued object. It's here that the question - what is art? what can it mean? - becomes palpable.
For me, this sequence grounded the work, placing the details of people's lives in direct relationship to its other expressions. For the fact is that art exists first of all in these mundane relationships, and would have no meaning at all if it didn't. And it's here that the desire in the work also becomes palpable: as its title indicates, what matters here is connection. And the connection it seeks is with those who encounter it, with us who are in the audience and beyond. This longing for relationship infuses the feeling of the entire work.
There is nowhere else to go from here but further into dance itself; the curse and blessing of all art is that it can ultimately have no justification except itself. The final sequence is not so much an answer as another question, the dancers recalling Grecian friezes, echoing all the way back to the beginnings of western culture, as the inscrutable object behind them ripples and flows. The music is an intensifying pulse that builds up to a gasp-inducing finale in which the human and the non-human create a deeply moving harmony. I thought Connected an astonishing work: it has the beauty of sheer intelligence made manifest, but its abstractions never forget the humility of human physicality, ours as well as the dancers, the body in its raw presence. Not to be missed.
Connected, directed and choreographed by Gideon Obarzanek. Sculpture by Reuben Margolin, music composed by Oren Ambarchi and Robin Fox, lighting design by Banjamin Cisterne, costumes designed by Anna Cordingley. Performed by Stephanie Lake, Alisdair Macindoe, Marnie Palomares, Harriet Ritchie and Joseph Symons. Chunky Move and Malthouse Theatre, Dance Massive, Malthouse Theatre. Until March 20. Sydney Theatre, Walsh Bay, Sydney, until May 14.
The turbulent currents that make the Elegies so enthralling are generated by the dynamic contradictions of a mind acutely conscious of its own movements. There is nothing static in the Duino Elegies: direction, velocity, is all. This is why it is such a mistake to read them as if Rilke were dispensing philosophy, as if a meaning can be accurately paraphrased away from the texture of the language itself. Rilke is not a philosopher, still less a sage: he is a poet. The poems are not “about” life: rather, they are a startling mimesis of its instability and transience.