Melbourne Festival Diary #6
Even off the plan, the strongest aspect of the 2012 Melbourne Festival was always the dance. It's a feeling borne out in the performances I've seen: William Forsythe's I Don't Believe in Outer Space was the first knockout, and these three works - Chunky Move's An Act of Now, Akram Khan's DESH and Lucy Guerin Inc's Weather - further demonstrate the vitality, reach and power of contemporary dance.
|An Act of Now, Chunky Move. Photo: Jeff Busby|
I've been dithering for several days about how to write about them. Dance, and especially dance of this calibre, often has that effect: you can't hide behind words, even if words are present in the performance, because what matters is movement, gesture, living bodies in space, the performance itself. Critical response becomes, even more than usual, an impossible act of translation, an attempt to interpret the wordless body into written language. Maybe part of this stuttering is overload: when you think of the complexities - the sheer volumes of sensual and intellectual information, the emotional intensities - that attend a really interesting performance, it's ridiculous to think you can even begin to understand it in a few hours. Sometimes covering a festival feels like trying to process War & Peace five times a week. Which is to say, one is always face to face with one's own failure.
I'm no closer to a solution, perhaps because there isn't one: but reviews are beginning to bank up, whingeing is not to the purpose and I'd had better square my jaw, akimbo my elbows and get on with it. Either that, or stop going to festivals and begin a Slow Art movement. I don't know how you young people do it.
An Act of Now is Anouk van Dijk's first work as the new artistic director of Chunky Move, and she has certainly arrived with a flourish. I've only seen one other work of van Dijk's: an extraordinary collaboration with the contemporary German playwright Falk Richter, Trust, at the 2011 Perth Festival. At the time, I was struck by the strangely oneiric effect of her choreography: her rhythms and movement often seem counter-intuitive, gracefulness turning back on itself to create complex, often violent, forms of collapse and reformation. As I was watching Trust, something in the movement of the dancers seemed to creep deep into my subconscious and inhabit it, in unsettling ways that felt akin, if not quite the same as, an experience of lucid dreaming. The same thing happened in An Act of Now, a completely different kind of work, which made me think that it wasn't simply an accident of my subjectivity.
An Act of Now - performed at the Sidney Myer Music Bowl - shows an inventiveness and boldness that really merits the word "risk". The performance begins as the audience is led through the darkness to the Myer amphitheatre. We are given headphones, which create an immediate sense of intimacy and - even more oddly, as they are also alienating - a feeling of communal purpose. We stand, like an invading army, on the lip of the bowl, looking down into the auditorium. The whispered soundtrack consists of instructions and admonitions that generate a pervasive sense of anxiety, which is reinforced by the police tape that marks out where we are supposed to go, and by the figure that emerges out of the darkness and distance, as if it is guiding aircraft into land. Behind it is another figure, perhaps dressed in a hazard suit, illuminated by harsh flashes, from which streams plumes of smoke. On the stage of the Bowl, those same flashes (part of Niklas Pajanti's extraordinary lighting design) illuminate what seems to be a glass house.
We are led to the seats on the stage, which face outwards over the auditorium. Before us is the glasshouse, filled so thickly with smoke that it is opaque: inside we see silhouettes, people moving close to the glass and then back into the house, vanishing into the haze. They are dressed casually, a group of young, contemporary bodies, posed with a slightly heightened formality. The greenhouse is claustrophobic, suffocating, an image at once of climate change, of urban interiority, of entrapment. The smoke gradually clears, but the sense of entrapment remains.
What follows is a dance that demonstrates the range of van Dijk's choreographic vocabulary: it slides from dance to violent, agonistic movement, vivid, passionate and with a real sense of danger. (A sense reinforced, on the opening night, when the dance had to be interrupted briefly because Stephanie Lake broke her wrist). Dancers sling each other across the stage, hang from the rafters of the house, confront each other, hit each other, seduce each other. A feeling of erotic excitement is palpable, a sense of irresistible physical vitality and vulnerability. The dancers are at once individuals - one of the pleasures of this piece is to see a cast which reflects how various people are, with differing ethnicities and body types - and wound into chains of togetherness, collapsing in strange, intricate ring-a-rosies, moving together with a harmony that sometimes seems inexplicable.
Marcel Weirckx's sound design mixes urgent electronic music with live sound; voices, the panting of the dancers, the amplified percussion of feet on the stage. The emotional effect is one of gathering intensity, generated by sequences which continuously break and reform into new patterns. And then, gloriously, release: one by one, the dancers escape from the house. We see them weaving through the seats of the auditorium and further out, over the grass, running through shadow and light to the far horizon, led by a dancer in a silver jacket playing a viola. It's a dance which seems at once ancient and absolutely contemporary: you think of the frolicking of young people at a music festival, of Brueghel's Dance of Death, of the line of souls in the final scene of Bergman's The Seventh Seal, of sudden delight and freedom. For all its darknesses and conflict, this is a joyous and hopeful work, utterly moving as a portrait of humanity.
|Weather: Lucy Guerin Inc|
Lucy Guerin's Weather couldn't be more of a contrast, although in some ways it's deeply connected: like van Dijk, Guerin is fascinated and inspired by how people relate to their environment. No aspect of our environment is more pervasive and less easy to define than the weather, and here Guerin uses the complex sciences of meterology as an inspiration for her choreography. Weather represents a welcome return to pure dance: for several years Guerin has been interrogating dance performance through experiments that incorporate text, instruction, improvisation, non-dancers and so on. Weather demonstrates how much she has learned from this: it's a work of startling elegance, which demonstrates Guerin's exquisite understanding of the stage as a dynamic space. Again and again I was floored by the relationships she and her dancers created.
The six dancers, two men and four women, are dressed identically, in blue crocheted jumpers and black shorts by Shio Otani. They perform on an empty stage of edgeless blackness, which is defined by the single element of Robert Cousins's design: a roof of white, suspended plastic bags, that looks like a square cloud. Gradually, as the dance progresses, bags falls from the ceiling, until the floor is covered with them: they become random elements that eddy and float in the currents created by the dancers' motion, or waves lifting and falling as they are thrown up in surges of movement, or an image of suffocation as a dancer is cowled and enclosed in a bag, which then becomes the membrane of a womb, an image of rebirth. Or they are just litter on the floor, an emblem of the ways in which human beings are trashing the planet.
Weather is characterised by some astoundingly precise chorus work, as dancers line up like isometric bars and move across the floor, repeating angular movements, or link up into chains that wind and unwind, connecting and breaking in complex movements. One dancer, Harriet Ritchie, is pregnant, and becomes the focus of much of the chorus movement. Her visible belly is a fact, not a metaphor: a reminder of futurity, of the generations who will live in the weather we have made. As with all Guerin's work, there is an abiding passion that underlies its apparent restraint, which makes Weather cumulatively more intense, and with a powerful after-effect. Guerin's work has always been concerned with relationship, with how people encounter and affect each other. In Weather, this analysis of the conflicts and desires of intimacy widens into a meditation on human beings as a species.
The movement is less intricate than her earlier work, but somehow, in ways I can't quite define, more sophisticated: the emphasis is on space, the energies between the dancers. Weather has a perspective that seems at once distant and abstract, in the same way weather pattern maps are, and which at the same time foregrounds the fleshly presence of the human body, the breath of dancers, their always visible skin. It reflects the various ways we experience weather: it is personal, in how it intimately affects our bodies, and yet wholly impersonal, an aspect of the sublime. And at the centre of the dance, in both positive and negative ways, is the axis of human agency: our destructiveness, our capacity for tenderness.
|DESH: Akram Khan|
Akram Khan's DESH is a wholly enchanting solo work that exploits every kind of theatrical inventiveness to explore Khan's dislocations as a migrant from Bangladesh. It opens in silence, stunningly: a lone figure dressed in a long shirt and dhoti trousers wanders onto the darkened stage, carrying a lamp. He makes his way forestage and puts down the lamp: and then, lifting a huge mallet, brings it down, blam!, onto a metal plate. The sound is amplified so it shatters the auditorium. And then again. And again.
A simple act of unskilled labour, with a humble primitive tool: a sophisticated work of art, employing almost every device you can think of - projected animation, physical movement, sound, text, dazzling design. DESH brings these two things together in tension, showing how closely they are related. It's an autobiographical work, which explores Khan's dislocations from his Bangladeshi background as an urban Londoner: it shifts seamlessly between the alienated call-centre culture of the 21st century to ancient modes of story-telling, from past to present, from crocodile-infested mangroves to busy urban streets. Exploring generational inheritance, Khan enacts dialogues between himself and his father, himself and his daughter, sorting through the pain and delight of a family history that, like all family histories, opens out into the violence of the wider world.
It's extraordinarily, unashamedly beautiful, overwhelming you with the sensuality of Joeclyn Pook's music, which feels like a cross between the insistent arpeggios of Philip Glass and the levitating voices of traditional Asian chants, with Tony Yip's magical animation, with the constantly surprising visual shifts. There were times when the visual language on stage reminded me of the forlornly beautiful world of Shaun Tan, others when all illusion was suddenly stripped away, and you were left with the dancer alone on stage, bereft in the midst of his vanished enchantments.
Khan himself is an astonishing and charismatic dancer: a lone body attempting to negotiate the conflicting elements of his world, he skirts the traffic in a chaotic street, or transforms into the protagonist as he tells a story to his mischievous daughter or, in a particularly magical effect, actually animates himself, painting a face on the top of his bald head so he is transformed into a puppet. In the climactic scene, the entire stage is drowned in lengths of fabric, a mimesis of monsoon, and he is literally lifted by the elements, twisting and flying as a avatar of the weather, at once a god and a helpless human being caught in forces beyond his control. It finishes in doubt and sudden silence, as the power shorts and fails: whatever is discovered and annealed is only provisional and contingent, part of a process which is the process of being alive, of constant discovery and constant loss. I think I fell in love with Akram Khan while watching DESH. Me and everyone else.
An Act of Now, concept and choreography by Anouk van Dijk, Melbourne Festival and Chunky Move. Arts Centre Melbourne, Sidney Myer Music Bowl, Until October 27.
Weather, directed by Lucy Guerin, choregraphy Lucy Guerin and company. Lucy Guerin Inc and Malthouse Theatre, Brisbane Festival and Place des Arts, Merlyn Theatre, Malthouse, until October 21.
DESH, direction, choreography and performance by Akram Khan, Melbourne Festival and Dumbo Feather, Sumner Theatre, until October 21.