It is the smell of composted ingredients I notice first as I make my way along the passage. A blend of animal manure, rainforest mulch, leaf mould, washed river sand, and loam, giving off that warm garden smell. A mound of steamy soil, piled high in the Magdalen laundry of the Abbotsford Convent; a soil mix for holding moisture in a space still damp from its history. Soil might be a source of nutrients for growth, but in the dirt and dust and sadness of the laundry, its steam is overpowering on a humid autumn night.
Change the location, and a normally pleasing smell of pottering about in the garden alters how it is felt. This cavernous space is airless. I feel like I am being herded into a shed, like livestock penned in against the night and her predators, albeit gently, curiously, by a raft of smiling ushers who motion with torches “mind the cables,” “there’s room along the side wall.” Sand, sphagnum peat moss, perlite, overwhelming! Overhead, a moth crashes into the light. It flutters. I stand. There are not enough seats. (Earlier, audience members who most needed a seat had been asked to come forward.) Grass clippings, fungi, and bacteria! Vermiculite, from the Latin vermiculari, to ‘be full of worms,’ too. The urge to flee, or at least stand near to an exit is strong: I don’t want to put down roots here, in neither laundry’s past nor soiled, oppressive present.
And yet I do, for atop this mountain ‘full of worms’ sails Jill Orr. Majestic and unassuming, simultaneously. Both as assured captain of the craft and as a canvas for the audience to project their own thoughts upon. Legendary. Orr and her boat. Her surname alone, an oar, a navigational means, but I reckon she’d be pretty tired of hearing that. Presented by Dancehouse in partnership with the Abbotsford Convent as part of Dance Massive 2019, “emerging from an installation conceived for the Venice Biennale as a response to the terrible fate of asylum seekers arriving by boat to Australian shores, Dark Night explores the crumbling humanitarian ideals of a world in crisis. In this embodied installation, embracing the dramatics of scale, volume, tone, rhythm and movement, a series of images are performed.”
Thirteen dances. Thirteen stages. “13 meditations on death and loss.” Stephanie Lake’s new work, Skeleton Tree is about death and loss, and in being about death and loss it is also about love and hope. Someone to farewell, to grieve over, an ache to feel and perhaps to heal. A recognition of presence: I existed; I ended. I live on, hopefully. I am remembered; remember me.
Thirteen songs as “a ‘funeral playlist’ . . . describing particular emotional states and the insistence of time.” Just as Lake cautions that the thirteen “vivid portraits” do not follow a thread of narrative or consequence, the portraits depict more than one experience of death and loss from more than one point of view. The performers, James O’Hara, Nicola Leahey, and Marlo Benjamin are the body that passes, and the mourners that live on; they are the departed and those left behind.
And at times, their pulsating movements even read like separate yet interconnected organs within the human body as it begins to shut down. As the pulse increases and the body temperature swings from hot to cold, they skitter. They throb as a red rash above the heart and across the back of the kidneys as blood gathers to answer the alarm call of the major organs. Dance movements like failing organs: this look at death is bodily.
This look at death is frank: death is certain. This look at death is affirmative, unsentimental, and clear-eyed.
“Women of the world, take over, because if you don’t the world will come to an end and we haven’t got long.”
I am looking up a YouTube video of Ivor Cutler’s single ‘Women of the World’ from 1983, recorded with Linda Hirst through Rough Trade Records. Google’s Ad Rank Algorithm complements the experience, while revealing my search history, and now a physiotherapy advertisement appears poetic.
Floating in a ‘click-me’ image box, a photo of an extended leg, shown from the knee down, rests on what appears to be a couch or some form of bedding. In the background of this modern day chiaroscuro composition, an open cat carrier sits. Its small blue door is ajar, but no cat to be seen. The mood: everyday dismal. The illuminated leg occupies most of the frame: barefoot, yellowed big toenail. Around the ankle, a red ring from where a tight sock has cut into the flesh. Not breaking the skin, just too tight. Uncomfortably tight. Beneath this image, the poem, ‘4 Signs Your Heart is Quietly Failing You’. I have also been searching/finding/reading Anne Carson’s woe and odds and phosphorescent-by-lamplight chalk foxes, which Alice Dixon, William McBride, and Caroline Meaden feel convey what it is to be alive in this “heartbroken little era”. I have been swimming in the words that pool together photographs of refugees “pressed flat against one another” and mushroom collecting with John Cage by way of an ordinary lakeside dip. And it is all in there, the poetry and Google searches, the typing in caps lock, bold. The tragic and the everyday. The signs your heart is quietly failing you. All of this and more poured into Lady Example, presented by Arts House as part of Dance Massive 2019.
Five minutes late to the world premiere of Lucy Guerin’s Make Your Own World and I had to wait to be admitted into the Magic Theatre of the North Melbourne Town Hall.
Together with a handful of latecomers, we waited by the door. Our timing marked us a group. Some of us bristled at being painted tardy: “Locked out!? How rude!” Me, I believe it added to my excitement: what awaited me behind the door? How quickly would my eyes adjust to the transition from foyer’s glare to theatre’s embrace? But above all: what was I missing? We’d come from the 6.45pm session of Paul White and Narelle Benjamin’s Cella at the Meat Market located around the hind leg corners of North Melbourne. We’d not been at Cella together, and yet, now, in our lateness, we had. We’d raced from one venue to the next, and owing to the first performance finishing later than scheduled and the second starting on time, we were a group. How fitting, given that Make Your Own World is “inspired by groups, communities and societies in flux …. through timing and spatial formations.”
ENTRANCE NOT FOR EVERYBODY
I do not know what I missed as I felt my way in the dark. (I do know that I stepped on a few toes of the people sitting in the back row as I clambered to the furthest seat in the theatre. And I know that in arriving late to the larger, seated group, I was on the outer once more. In flux, indeed, this belonging.) Yes, dropping away the realities and constraints of physical time and space, I do not know what I missed, but I was free, after all, to make up the beginning to my Own World. Invitation accepted and impulse taken, I was time-muddled within the pages of Hermann Hesse’s novel Der Steppenwolf in Dance Massive 2019.
There is a photo of me dancing in the lounge room of my family home. My arms are flung wide overhead, making the Y shape to the Village People’s Y.M.C.A.. My mouth is parted in a smile, mid pronunciation of the letter Y. Caught in a moment of bliss and expression on the imaginary dancefloor before the fireplace. I am dancing with my younger cousin, following the playful choreography. The letter M: let your elbows point like rabbit ears on your head. The letter C: hug a beach ball to the left-hand side. The letter A: arms overhead once more, fingers touching to create a triangle. My favourite record is spinning, and I am happy. In the adjoining room, the grown-ups are presumably talking about grown-up stuff, missing all the fun, until my Dad picked up the camera and recorded this moment for posterity.
The year captured in the discoloured photograph is 1980. I am five years old. My memory can no longer tell me what costume I imagined myself to be wearing, but I feel certain there were feathers and sequins in there.
“Patterns or sequins?” enquires “Mad Fox” Maggie. Sequins, please, I think. Anything, I say. “How about this black dress with sequins on the hip?”
Recently landed: Soliloquy, Gracia's written response to Genevieve Lacey’s recent performance of Georg Telemann’s Twelve Fantasias for Solo Flute, directed by Gideon Obarzanek and Stephanie Lake, with 38 volunteers, for Fjord Review
Soliloquy is a revelation of the intimate, shared. In the embrace of lights lowered to a fireside glow, from their seats in the theatre, the volunteers rise and softly thread their way onto to the stage to join Lacey as she plays. Summoned by Lake’s cue, and also by a call in the music, and perhaps a call within to respond, here is a rare gift! Together, a new autonomous structure grows through repeated motifs. Lake makes a sundial of her hands, and the participants follow suit. Fingers echo rainfall, puff an organ’s bellows, hug a cloud. Whether all moving as one mass (seated on the stage) or in their own interpretive swim (dancing around Lacey), truth is offered, felt, and, it feels, collectively accepted. Within such a gift, the self dissolves. Dive in!
In the lead-up to Soliloquy, a call for volunteers with “no music or dance experience necessary” was answered by 38 people, including my partner, Louise Jennison, who leapt at the opportunity to become a flowing quaver motion. Just as Lacey’s connection to Telemann’s Twelve Fantasias for Solo Flute is wound up in the personal, for Jennison, accepting the open invitation was also of a personal nature: a chance to prove to herself that her body can continue to deal with the limitations placed upon it by post-surgical chronic pain and emerge triumphant. Facing our fears and vulnerability takes courage, and here was the opportunity to open oneself up to new rhythms.
Here, too, was the opportunity to view things from a different perspective: moving from a seat in the theatre to participating on the stage; from far to near, so close you could hear the sound of Lacey’s fingers upon her recorder as she played; from inward to outward, allowing oneself to be a part of a framework bigger than the self. And like all gifts shared, this was for us all. For those in the audience, like me, moved to tears of joy and release. Whether you are transmitting joy through a “noodling” of arms twirling in characterful rhythm or seated in the audience, joy permeating your every fibre, when the opportunity to nestle within birdsong chimes, accept.
As soft as a white rabbit’s fur: Edwin Landseer’s Scene from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Titania and Bottom (1848–51). In a down of fur, the painting, in the collection of the National Gallery of Victoria, depicts Titania, the Queen of the Fairies, besotted with Bottom, who has recently been reshaped into an ass, from William Shakespeare’s comedy of misplacement. A fairy queen and an ass, two, of opposite realms, entwined and for all to see, in the fairy dell, accompanied by the requisite fairy folk and white rabbits, and on the red wall of the salon room. In an engraving of Titania and Bottom by Henry Fuseli they, too, are encircled by a cast of magical inhabitants, and the print of ink assumes the blush of a rose. To look at both is to cross into the fairy realm. And now I shall add to this Liam Scarlett’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, created in 2016, in co-production between Queensland Ballet and Royal New Zealand Ballet.
To a silvered photograph of Vivian Leigh as Titania (on stage at the Old Vic Theatre in 1937), her right arm extended, her gaze following its line, Queensland Ballet’s Laura Hidalgo, in ethereal gown. From Frederick Ashton’s delirious ass en pointe within The Dream to Judi Dench as a loved-up, painted in green fairy queen in the Peter Hall film of 1968, my Midsummer wunderkammer continues to grow. Seated in Her Majesty’s Theatre on opening night, I am accompanied by all of these versions of Titania and Bottom. The moonlit forest I entered was a familiar one, and yet it was not. I knew I would meet old friends. I anticipated couples to be spun into complicated scenarios. I was expecting to be as bewildered as if I was also beneath a spell. Fairies, and Changlings, and Lovers, oh mischief!
Upon a stage made iridescent by fairy benevolence, Queensland Ballet have brought this magic to Melbourne on tour. First performed by Queensland Ballet in 2016, with set and costume design by Tracy Grant Lord, the palette may be brighter than a glow-stick, but it wears its heart upon its wing. In Scarlett’s choreography, the cast of characters, from Cobwebb and Moth to Lovers contrary, in the few moments they did pause, they did so in a circular formation, echoing Landseer and Fuseli’s compositions. And Oberon, performed by Victor Estévez, sported exaggerated winged eye makeup not so dissimilar to the photographic still of Leigh. See and hear the cymbals and triangles upon his arrival! There are, and will continue to be, many versions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and for them to work, for me, they must be infused with Shakespeare’s own lines plucked from the page: “Our true intent is. All for your delight”. And delight it was.
“Broken necks, splattered patellas, severed arteries: These are the things from which dreams are made of”, according to former professional wrestler, Road Warrior Hawk (ring name of Michael Hegstrand, 1957–2003). Said fellow former professional wrestler Cactus Jack (ring name of Mick Foley, 1965–), “if the Gods could build me a ladder to the heavens, I'd climb up the ladder and drop a big elbow on the world”. They might have been talking about old school wrestling, but on Tuesday night, their words could easily be re-moulded around the hulking form of Lucas Jervies’ world premiere of Spartacus created on The Australian Ballet in 2018.
At the 8th performance of Spartacus parallels to wrestling were shaped in place of Kirk Douglas brandishing a sword in Stanley Kubrick’s 1960s film of the same name. Spartacus was upfront, hand-to-hand, body-to-body combat, which, under the fight direction of Nigel Poulton, left no room to hide. But the fighting throughout was not there solely to entertain the makeshift arena of Melbourne’s State Theatre. Less, blood as spectacle, more, honesty in the face of omnipresent power. When not marvelling at the choreographed battles between gladiators, and, in particular, Ty King-Wall’s Crassus and poster boy, in and out of the theatre, Kevin Jackson as an exceedingly ripped Spartacus, it was the Meditations or spiritual reflections of Roman emperor and philosopher, Marcus Aurelius (AD 121–180), who wrote, “the best revenge is to be unlike him who performed the injury”, which etched the muscle.
The very choreography within Spartacus appeared shaped around the curve of a muscle, with arms arcing the line of a bulging bicep or sharp like the cut of a deltoid. Visual references to the movement of wrestling allowed a new lexicon into the arena, with Jackson’s Spartacus anchored to and of the earth. Every palm that hammered the stage, every fist planted into the sand, every movement stretched like an arrow in a bow being drawn within the body’s casing forged a reconnection to purpose. Jackson’s Spartacus was the body as a weapon, but it was deeper than that. Jackson embodied an earthly gladiator of great moral sinew, his weighted stoicism in stark relief to a golden-fronted, power-soaked King-Wall, whose movements were of the air, upward and with self-appointed, god-like mis-leanings.
Up in the sky there is a giant emu. They have been there all along, in the calendar in the sky. Above our heads, a creator spirit, their long form stretches in the dust clouds of the Milky Way from the Coalsack to beyond Scorpius.2And this is where Bangarra Dance Theatre’s Dark Emu begins. Looking up. Connected. Looking back. Connected. Looking forward. Connected. Like the emu detectable in the night sky, which has been there all along.
Defined not by stars, but by the dark smudges in between. If this were a drawing, we’d say the emu was there in the negative space, in the background. And if this were a dance, which it is, we’d say this is where it begins, and, being cyclical, where it will pass by again as it continues its rotation. Reading the form mapped between the stars: a whole new world opens up before my eyes. Moreover, if this were life, which it most certainly is, we’d say, as expressed by Yolande Brown, one of the choreographers of Dark Emu, together with director Stephen Page, Daniel Riley, and the dancers of Bangarra, “these are stories, ideas and practices we should all be able to access, learn from and respect…. As Australians awaken from a kind of collective amnesia”, Dark Emu is the conversation we need to have, the story we need to be told, the relearning that needs to occur.
“The Emu, as seen by the Kamilaroi and Euahlayi, changed in position from season to season, as the Milky Way containing the Emu changed position in the night sky. As the Emu changes position, it alters in appearance, and that appearance has connections to cultural and resource matters”. Once you’ve spotted the emu, the sky cannot look the same afterwards. And this, in many ways is true of Dark Emu: Aboriginal Australia and the birth of agriculture, the 2014 seminal book by Bruce Pascoe, and the recent work, Dark Emu by Bangarra: once you read the true history, things cannot look the same. Both book and dance expose the hunter-gather label of colonialisation for the myth it indeed is. Both illuminate how pre-colonial Aboriginal people interacted with the land, and the interconnectedness of all things. Where the former is a book recounting “the success and achievements of Aboriginal Australia”, the latter is the beating heart, and though both are stand-alone works, they should be experienced as one. Or rather, reading one inspires you to see the other, and vice versa.
Light and dark, day and night, youth and maturity, a flirtation and redemption, naturalistic and ethereal: Giselle spins a conjuror’s trick all the wilier for its very familiarity, its everlasting allurement.
An autumnal village presented in Act I flips to reveal the ballet blanc of Act II: two halves of a whole. We know this, we anticipate this, we lap it up. Fermented in honey before interval, raising a flagon of mead to love, and even love’s folly, and unpinned madness, we heed the warnings spun to the villagers. The flipside to a light-hearted Peasant pas de deux is heartache and mourning. We are cognisant of the fact that when we return to our seats in the theatre, the scene will have changed. Light for dark. Day for night. Of the earth for beyond this realm. A village for the darkest forest floor of folkloric apparitions who demand you dance to your death. Raise your flagon of mead for raise your ghostly spirits, cloaked in a shawl spun by otherworldly spiders.
True to a magic trick, in the Australian Ballet’s 259th performance of Maina Gielgud’s production of Giselle: how is it that I had not really noticed Hilarion, a forester (gamekeeper) before? Giselle and Count Albrecht make a ballet classic, but Giselle and Hilarion could have made for a happier life. Against the backdrop of opposites, there appears a triangle. In magic, ballet, life, it appears. Unrequited love and anguish wears a beard in the form of Jarryd Madden, and his performance portends great things to come in Lucas Jervies’ Spartacus, to conclude the 2018 Melbourne season. On Tuesday night, Madden’s Hilarion is more than a narrative ploy to reveal Albrecht’s deception through identity as the finder-of-cloak-and-sword; he is more than a game-offering, unnoticed suitor in the woods; more than a warning that Myrtha and her glow of Willis mean business: you will dance to your death.