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.
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.
From modern Latin, from the Greek words sumbiōsis, ‘a living together,’ sumbioun, ‘live together,’ and sumbios, ‘companion’ comes the word symbiosis, an interaction between two different organisms living in close physical association, typically to the advantage of both. In the dictionary, the very definition of a symbiotic relationship, why, it almost sounds like a pas de deux. A ‘step of two’ performed by dancers working together, dependent upon each other, with each other, in synchronicity, aware, at all times, of the other.
In Stephanie Lake’s new work, Replica, Christina Chan and Aymeric Bichon embody this definition. From the outset, they are two different organisms mutually dependent upon the other, moving to the benefit of both, or so it seems. In the dark of the theatre in the Northcote Town Hall, as they stand before a strip of light on the floor, they are the bodily incarnation of mutualism. Bichon moves and Chan responds; Chan moves and Bichon responds. Two silhouettes in accord, making ‘a living together’ through togetherness. You scratch my back; I’ll scratch yours. You tap my left shoulder; I’ll tap yours. My arm draws a large circle in the air. My hand lands upon your head. With the tap, you begin to fall, but not before extending your arms forward and tapping at my abdomen. A push here, a poke there, no cause is without effect. We all fall down. Ring-a-ring o’ roses; a pocket full of posies; a-tishoo! A-tishoo! We all fall down; it’s human nature, after all.
Human nature, animal nature, it is one and the same, whether in the dictionary or the nursery rhyme; the slowest faces a penalty, the weakest in the herd is more at risk of falling prey to a predator. Best pair up with another; make a replica of their survival techniques through movement; and remember that if we all fall down, we can also all climb up. Take my hand; pull me up. In ecological rings, in biological terms, a symbiotic relationship between two or more species can be beneficial to all organisms involved (mutualism) or none (competition), and it can benefit one organism without affecting the others (commensalism) or help one while harming the others (parasitism). In Replica, Chan and Bichon, take turns trying on all four caps for size, from mutualism to parasitism, drawing for me the nature of things as the needle traces the groove and the lights shift from dark to light, warm to cool, red to blue. Lake’s choreography, Robin Fox’s sound composition, and Bosco Shaw’s lighting design all follow the same principle. Chan’s hand connects with a part of Bichon and the sound in symbiotic understanding changes. Bichon claps, the lighting alters in response. There is more than one relationship involved here.
If Form Was Repeated.
If Many Was One.
If Cohesion Was Strength.
If Nature Was Beginning.
If Nature Was Heard.
Beautiful patterning that replicated nature took form and was repeated. However, unexpectedly, the suggestion of nature was inferred less in the costuming and materials and more in the movements of the dancers and a world’s worth of beanbag stuffing. This reclaimed nature was not easily found for the artifice, but it was felt. It was in the inquisitive bird-like, feet-together pitter-patter shuffle of Hall in a tinkling-light duet with McLellan. It was in the swirl of uncontrollable beanbag stuffing on the black flooring that simultaneously recalled ocean waves, a desert, and a dusting of snow. Also unfixed to one reading, the large panels employed by the dancers to move and momentarily control the tiny white beads, called to mind delicate fans, the personification of Wind on the pages of an old Atlas when the world was (believed) flat, and a line of police with riot shields. And joined to this unnatural-natural sensation, the uncomfortable loud screeching sound of small Polystyrene beads underfoot. When later adhered to the skin by static electricity, the dancers appeared all the more a part of nature as brutal as it was transfixing. Covered and branded by a manufactured pollen, five lurid pink Birds-of-Paradise, blown off evolutionary course.
If Evolution Was Key.
If Mimicry Was Survival.
If Mimicry Was Absence.
In Lake’s hands, mimicry was strength, where in McCormack’s, it was a weakness that devoured. Two sides of the one coin, spun.
If I Was Won.
Indeed I was.
Lake has replicated ideas behind the Milgram experiment with its snaking red and blue electric cables, but in a broad and visual sense, and in doing so, other psychological experiments were referenced. We also learnt that the human form, once hooked into the amplifier, is a noisy beast; a tap-tap on the shoulder of another sounds like a jackhammer. Clipboard in hand, in this session, where you stood ethically was also pulled from the recesses. In keeping the work open to interpretation, but precise in its choreographic execution, for me, a wealth of imagery, from the twisted surgical experiments of Vladimir Demikhov’s two-headed dogs to the deprivation of Harry F. Harlow’s tragic monkeys isolated within steel ‘pits of despair,’ leapt to mind. Thanks to the subterranean lighting of Bosco Shaw, pit ponies and canaries in a coalmine also got a look in. Bedded in a viscous sludge was every bit as alienating as the white noise confines of a sterile laboratory.
And it was this hideous and macabre imagery that Lake’s choreography hauled from the dark cavity as Haines appeared in a second position plié over a kneeling Macindoe. Her elbow upon his head, they moved as a surgically grafted Cerberus. Operating like an inkblot to interpret, this ‘wrong’ cohesiveness, this mutant form soon shifted. Haines appeared as controller over Macindoe, where she willed him to move, he followed suit. Before again, in role reversal, he donned a laboratory assistant’s rubber glove and appeared to ‘blow’ into her forearm.
Recently landed: Double-Cross, Gracia's written response for Fjord Review
(Outside in the city, at night, briefly. Opening credits begin. Extended tracking shot. A man marches purposefully into the San Francisco Police Department. I follow the back of his suited form. A disinterested Police Office leaning against a column directs him down a second long corridor. At 1 minute and 40 seconds, the music (evocative of striding) fades. Our Sympathetic Everyman (whom I’ve been tailing with the camera) reaches his destination, 44 Homicide Division, and enters.)
— Can I help you?
— I’d like to see the man in charge.
— He’s in here.
(Shown into an office. Note: the standard fan atop a filing cabinet and a small desk lamp casting strong shadows. Decipher: I am in film noir territory, the land of the gumshoe private investigator who is always two steps ahead of the cops.)
— I want to report a murder.
— Sit down.
(Slumps into chair.)
— Where was this murder committed?
— San Francisco, last night.
— Who was murdered?
— I was.
(Close up. I see our Everyman’s face for the first time. Loose necktie. Five o’clock shadow. Crumpled appearance.)
— Well… do you want to hear me out or don’t you Captain, I don’t have very much time.
— Your name Bigelow, Frank Bigelow?
(Long eye blink.)
— That’s right.*