I grew up watching Lucky and Penny spin about the dance floor. I knew their every line, and, more importantly, their every move, and their every move’s lines. Studied on a Beta video and later a VHS, their moving forms were so familiar to me. And perhaps through my repeated viewings I’d hoped for some sort of talent transference through the screen to me lying in Cobra on the floor, my chin resting in my hands. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, as John ‘Lucky’ Garnett and Penelope ‘Penny’ Carrol, in George Stevens’ Swing Time (1936), were my idols in Primary School. They were natural and joyous to watch when they danced, and it was for the dance that I watched Swing Time.
They knew how to move and glide, and were utterly in tune with the other. Their mutual delight drew me in. They danced for the audience, and for each other, and at the end of each number they appeared to share a look of mutual respect that was outside of their characters, a sort of private yet public ‘thank-you for the dance; you were great.’ Thanks to Astaire’s insistence that all dance pieces should be filmed in as close to a single take as possible, with the whole of the figure visible, the effect now, as was then, is just like watching a live performance. The figure uninterrupted is free to tell its truth. Jean-Luc Godard would later echo this unbroken line sentiment in his films: “the cinema is truth 24 times a second, and every cut is a lie.”
Watching Swing Time, or indeed any Fred and Ginger film, it feels entirely plausible that dance numbers should spontaneously spark into being. That’s how people communicate. It all makes sense. All you need is a body, and we’ve all one of those. Though some, why, some can move with grace and rhythm as they speak their truth. As Martha Graham advised (and we’d all do well to adhere to): “there is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action [when you dance/make/do], and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open.”
And so, as I sit now before the keyboard looking back over what I have seen this year, the pieces I recall are those that conveyed honesty and “an energy.” Unfeigned, full-hearted, call it what you will. With my eye, Godard’s camera, my life coach, Graham, and the effortless hover and charm of Lucky and Penny only in dream, let’s look back at 2016.
Tonight as it gets cold
what you know which is nothing
but the tune your bones play
as you keep going. And you will be able
for once to lie down under the small fire
of winter stars.
—Mark Strand, 'Lines for Winter' from Selected Poems (1979)
Like snow falling on exposed skin. Bare and burning. The crunch underfoot, sharp.
Open to interpretation, suggestive of so much. So much said and unsaid. Reading, not between the lines, but between the musical notes, and the body. Always, the body. For in all three pieces, from the opening of Sol Léon & Paul Lightfoot’s Sehnsucht (2009) through the snow of Crystal Pite’s Solo Echo (2012), and finally, Léon & Lightfoot’s Stop-Motion (2014), they are above all about the human vessel. How it moves, responds, feels. What it is to be human. To create in the face of opposition. To use the body as a means to begin again.
In winter, three pieces evocative of the season and its slap across the cheek. Senses, awakened. On a wild night, blown into the theatre on the heels of a strawberry moon, a salute to the long, dark nights. And a welcome return to the Melbourne stage by Nederlands Dans Theater, who last appeared here in 2011. Breath, bated.
Offered forth. Greedily accepted. My feet, thawing. The woman in the row before me, a recently discarded (faux fur) coat draped across the back of her seat like a giant black bear skin. I am reminded of the costumes we wear in anticipation of winter’s bite. And the costumes we wear, to shield ourselves, from feeling, largely. Protective layers, in every sense. A shield to isolate ourselves, more often than not, in what feels an increasingly uncharitable world where we place our own needs above others.