Max Porter’s novel Lanny begins with Dead Papa Toothwort slipping “through one grim costume after another as he rustles and trickles and cusses his way between the trees”. He is the Green Man myth of decay and renewal, of chaos growing into hope; “he pauses as an exhaust pipe, then squirms into the shape of a rabbit snare, then a pissed-on nettle into pink-strangled lamb. He plucks a blackbird from the sky and cracks open the yellow beak. He peers into the ripped face as if it were a clear pond. He flings the bird across the forest stage, stands up woodlot bare, bushy, and stamps his splattered feet.” He is tree bark and discarded Western rubbish. He changes form. He is unfixed and without end. He pauses, roughly the size of a flea, to listen to and gargle the fizz of human sound.
And I am reminded of this shapeshifting ability each time I enter Dancehouse not knowing where I will go and what the space will be, pausing, in my own way, as an exhaust pipe before later mutating into a flea. I am especially reminded of this as I enter the upstairs theatre space for the white-cell artifice and confinement of Lara Kramer’s Windigo, were performers Jassem Hindi and Peter James wait.
Hindi and James are two sunken forms, slouched into (and possibly becoming) two mattresses. They continue to mark time as the audience fills ‘their’ space, their no-man’s land, and assume it for their own: that’s the one-sided deal, right? They are wasting time, in a wasteland of debris and mattresses. And they are in a way, jangling in their “various skins, wearing a tarpaulin gloaming coat . . . . tingling with thoughts of how one thing leads to another again and again, time and again, with no such thing as an ending”.
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.”
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: Cutting Loose, Gracia's written response to the Keir Choreographic Award semi-finals at Dancehouse, for Fjord Review
At the Kier Choreographic Award semi-finals my shoes cut loose. At the Kier Choreographic Awards semi-finals, independent of me, that is, my shoes cut loose. Lobbed by an enthusiastic audience member, relishing their liberty, my left shoe, it flew across the dance floor, airborne and free. It landed with a thud. The right shoe, it was a log that tripped another audience member mid-dance, before it transformed from obstacle into a fish flipping on land. My shoes, free of me, had the night of their lives, I expect. And when it came time to collect my shoes from the stage, I thought, yes, I am at the Keir Awards at Dancehouse. (In truth, I also thought, why did I wear my new shoes tonight? I’d spent the day treating them like a newborn kitten.) Spread over two nights, four different works presented on each, the brilliance of the unexpected hit me in the heart. Moo like a cow on one, jangle your keys on two, applaud on three, shake it all about. This hokey pokey was the creation of Lee Wilson and Mirabelle Wouters (Branch Nebula) and the invitation to explore the uncharted was lapped up by my chattels a little more than it was by me.
Branch Nebula’s Stop-Go toyed with their definition of performance being “in essence, just one thing after another,” and the audience, furnished with different sets of printed prompts (which had been left on each seat) when asked at timed intervals (at 01.45 to 02.00 “Pass all shoes to the right” / ”applaud for 15 seconds”) were indeed “foregrounded throughout the performance.”
Recently landed: Submerged, Gracia's written response to Salt, for Fjord Review
Like Whoville appears to the elephant Horton (Dr. Seuss, Horton Hears a Who!, 1954), a tiny speck, that’s how our planet looks from up high. In space, if you were to look down your trunk, earth is but a blue dot on a vast, dark blanket. On the surface of things, two thirds of our home appears as ocean, but this is only part of the picture. The earth is three-dimensional, not two, and so, in actual fact, our planet, our Whoville, is 99% water. The three dimensional volume, the biosphere, it extends down into the soil we stand upon, and over our heads, through the tree canopy and beyond. And out in the deepest point of the ocean, the depth is almost seven miles. To us land-based creatures, this is almost too much to fathom.
But cause and effect, we all understand. As the oceans warm, the marine biosphere changes as the water becomes less alkaline (as carbon dioxide in the atmosphere dissolves at sea). Together with marine pollution, the devastation of mining and gas development, the destruction of marine habitat, and unsustainable fishing practices, our cause and environmental effect: the ocean is under threat.
From plankton to humpback whale, what’s all this to do with dance?
Quite a bit, my call from a jukung, bobbing on the water, for though Eko Supriyanto’s Salt is an introspective solo work, it is also about the threats facing Indonesia’s marine life. History, and the actions we take based upon the knowledge we acquire, shapes our future. In Salt, the third in Supriyanto’s Trilogy of Jailolo, still wet from its world premiere at deSingel in Belgium, the audience is invited to dive beneath the ocean surface. From my seat in the Sylvia Staehli Theatre of Dancehouse that is precisely what I did. I tipped my wobbly seat over, and dived in. When your home is an archipelago comprised of approximately 17,000 islands, what happens in the water is not to be ignored.
3, 2, 1, go.
Beyoncé ‘borrows’ moves from the Belgian choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker. She duplicates De Keersmaeker’s Rosas Danst Rosas (1983) in her 2011 clip Countdown. It isn’t plagiarism; it’s homage, it’s a tribute, darling. Besides, what’s original anyway?
Revamped. Resampled. Reconfigured. Influenced by. What’s mine is yours. Following in the footsteps of the dance pioneers. Patti Smith rolls her head back, looks direct to camera: ‘anything is possible.’ History, it’s in my veins. Who’s following whom? Who founded what? Origin or original? Hey, what does it matter anyway?
DADA gave birth to the Situationist International gave birth to punk. No, Valeska Gert gave birth to punk. She did, didn’t she? She who danced “traffic jams, car accidents, slow movie cuts, boxers, babies, orgasms, and most radically, nothing. . . . [She who] managed to put conceptual brackets around “nothing” some thirty years before John Cage would compose his “groundbreaking” silent piece, 4’33.” She was proto punk, born in 1892.
Modern dance is constantly evolving, absorbing what came before it, moulding what is present and pushing towards what is to come. An exploration of the self, of humanity itself, perhaps its only link is that it feels essential to the dancers, choreographers, and the audience, to the makers and the watchers.
Any time between 3pm and 6pm. That was the deal. Any time within a window. And with freedom to explore. Come and go, as you please. The doors will be left open. Take photos, should you choose. Inhabit the space as you would a public area. Like a park, say. Be a living part of an assemblage. Move within the space. Walk through to the library. Squat beneath the window, recline on the slope, lean against the wall, perch on the ledge just inside the door: it’s up to you. Come, stay, and go, as you please, the invitation stood.
When only recently I thought how I would like to have experienced Ashley Dyer’s Tremor (at Arts House) as a durational piece, with the chance to select my own vantage, here was my chance to experience a new work by Dancehouse artist-in-residence, Matthew Day. Assemblage #1 was my chance to encounter dance as I do art, to treat the performance as I would a painting, installation, sculpture, readymade, or a Fluxus box of matches.1 And yet rather unsurprisingly, I conformed to theatre standards.
I arrived just before 3pm. I arrived for the start of a work with no real start. And I was not alone. In the foyer on a quiet Saturday afternoon, a small knot of people waited for the dance to begin. As I collected my tickets from the box office/bar, Day was at the sink getting a glass of water. Upon seeing the waiting spectators, I wondered if he was disappointed by our collective missed opportunity to enter a theatre-cum-gallery and wonder: what did I miss? What happened before? Has the dancer been here all day? Will the dancer leave? Is this art? Is this dance? Is there a difference? And does it matter?
The noise of the day drops away as I make my way to the upstairs studio of Dancehouse. I am one part of an increasingly hushed procession assembled on opening night to experience Sarah-Jane Norman’s The River’s Children (2013), and Take This, For It Is My Body (2010) paired with Heirloom (2013), and Nacera Belaza’s The Shout (2008), presented as part of Melbourne Festival.
Reaching the small landing, I peel away from the line. I remove from my bag a small pair of folded sports socks and hand them to the usher. With an air of quiet solemnity, she pins my socks together with a clear tag. My socks are marked laundry item number two, and I log the particulars of my white laundry on a form pegged to a clipboard. In this context, my washing looks limp and exposed. Beside me, a man hands over an equally unassuming, soft t-shirt. These items, my socks, and his t-shirt, are two of a handful that will be washed in water drawn from the Murray River on Wiradjuri country at Albury with permission of the Albury Aboriginal Lands Council. The usher gently informs me to hand my washing to Norman when I feel comfortable.
And so I enter the darkened landscape of The River’s Children with a pair of socks in my hands; a pair of socks that I can, if I choose, hand over for someone else to wash. In the short distance from the landing to the studio, my limp and humble socks have transformed in status; I am master and Norman my servant, and this is as uncomfortable, possessive and confronting as it sounds.
A single bicycle wheel upturned and mounted upon a stool (Bicycle Wheel, 1951, third version, after lost original of 1913). A snow shovel (In Advance of the Broken Arm, 1964, fourth version, after lost original of 1915). A painted window (Fresh Window, 1920). When Marcel Duchamp placed a mass produced ‘readymade’ before us and disrupted how we thought about and interpreted art, the “ordinary object [was] elevated to the dignity of a work of art by the mere choice of an artist.”
The objects were important not because of what they were, but because they were selected by the artist. Removed from their ordinary function and thereby stripped of their usage, the object became art. With the integral addition of the onlooker witnessing the work and responding to it, the ‘readymade’ “created a new thought for [the particular] object.” We, the spectators, in accepting the role of transference through the act of looking, choose what we see in Duchamp’s ‘readymades’. Under our gaze, objects can take on entirely new and obscure meanings.
To my mind, following this train of thought, both Reckless Sleepers with Nat Cursio’s performance of A String Section (2012) and Sarah Aiken’s SET, (2015) celebrate the utilitarian object, redefining its role and how we regard it. After all, ‘readymade’ (tout-fait) is a homophone for ‘to-make’ (tu fait); it is up to you to make of it what you will.
Thirteen performances in thirteen days: my exhaustive, intense, yet not-nearly-enough, Dance Massive 2015 experience.
Dance Massive remains a celebration and exploration of the body in movement and in stillness; the body shown on a screen, through a screen, and in response to a screen; the body pushed, and the body pulled; the body grounded, and the body weightless; the body as a tool for communication, as a vessel, and equally as a red herring; the body vs. the machine, and as a machine; the body’s very matter decomposing right before my eyes in glorious time lapse. This is all fodder to make weary (and perhaps, wary) the traveller. And this is, above all else, fodder to exhilarate said lucky traveller.
Dance Massive maps the type wilderness that makes me (think I can) pen my own manifesto.