Adrift on a makeshift raft, forsaken by a rescue boat on the horizon, flanked by the corpses of their fellow comrades, hope wavered, and was near extinguished. In the inky waters, mayhem, mutiny, and cannibalism ensured. Théodore Géricault’s romantic nineteenth-century painting (in the collection of the Louvre), The Raft of the Medusa (1819), based on the accounts of a handful of actual survivors, depicts the shipwreck of a French Royal Navy frigate off the coast of Senegal in June 1816. Above all, it illustrates "a synthetic view of human life abandoned to its fate. The pallid bodies are given cruel emphasis by a Caravaggio-style chiaroscuro; some writhe in the elation of hope, while others are unaware of the passing ship. The latter include two figures of despair and solitude: one mourning his son, the other bewailing his own fate. Géricault's work expressed a paradox: how could a hideous subject be translated into a powerful painting, how could the painter reconcile art and reality?”[i]
This collision of art and reality, (soft) human form against the (harsh) material (form), and the pushing of our very environmental limitations, was not so unlike the geography Melanie Lane’s work Merge, seen recently as part of Dance Massive 2015, traversed. As the work drew to its climax, it was near impossible not to see Géricault’s famous painting of futility and struggle as performer Antony Hamilton, aloft a heap of human casualties and smashed-up manmade materials, brandished a makeshift sail fashioned from black plastic and metal. Part Géricault’s shipwreck slammed into the side of Eugène Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People (1830), this sensation of two paintings morphed into one and brought to life in the final moments of a dance performance at the Meat Market, Arts House, was heightened by the work of lighting designer Matthew Adey (House of Vnholy). Lit harshly from above, all else around them fell into a darkness that my eyesight could not hope to penetrate. As all four performers, including Lane, Ashley McLellan, and Sophia Ndaba held their ‘painted’ pose, I reflected on the journey that unbeknownst to me had intensified rapidly in the space of 50 tight minutes.
Like four great metaphoric rocks that had formed under the surface of the earth, Hamilton, Lane, McLellan, and Ndaba metamorphosed throughout the work in response to suggested heat and pressure. To this end, they appeared in constant movement, even when still, depicting a process that at times seemed sped up. In the space of one performance, it felt as thought we’d actually covered millions of years, squeezing and mutating into something other in the truest sign of a collaboration and environmental response. Only at other times to appear stuck in a loop or evolution on repeat.
Just like the metamorphic rocks they called to mind, Hamilton and Lane, in particular, appeared to embody crystal layers within their (now) mineral surfaces. As with his work in Meeting, seen earlier, this time Hamilton had enabled himself to become something other once more, capable of moving various parts of his body as if independent of the other, something not unlike Alice in Wonderland’s Cheshire Cat, albeit somewhat possessed and stripped of all absurdity and whimsy. Expanding and contracting, freezing and thawing in an "incessant compulsion to accelerate and adapt with their environment beyond what natural limits impose," [ii] the performers became a part of the order and the chaos and in turn affected the order and the chaos.
Hewn from within four black man-made craters, additional forms made of metal and plastic are revealed and in turn wielded as the piece reached its crescendo. The sides of the stage previously denoted by narrow beams were plucked from the ground like sleeping skeletons and used to create extended lines, suggest movement, and be broken upon impact. A simple device of a black mat enabled the ‘set’ within a set to be spun and all sides of a form revealed, and later it served as an upright screen from which two dancers gave the impression of having melded into one long super-form.
A considered use of props could also be found in Victoria Chiu, in collaboration with Kristina Chan’s, piece Do You Speak Chinese? presented at the Malthouse, in the Tower Theatre. The paper artworks of Benja Harney, from cut-out paper screens that unfurled from the exposed black rafters to the Chinese dragon headpiece, allowed Chiu and Chan to depict “the closest thing [they have] to a Chinese cultural ritual.... the odd weekend yum cha session.”[iii]
As with Merge, these 'props' became an additional performer on the stage; we ‘read’ the dancers interaction and engagement with them, but these inanimate-animate forms do not (seek to) overshadow. In both pieces, the invitation to interpret and project one’s own reading felt present. In both pieces, though different in feel, tempo, means, and message, dances’ ritual character and its role as a system of inherently open-ended signs that require the audience to complete the work and supply what is signified.
The nineteenth-century poet Stéphane Mallarmé described “dance as a 'rite' ....and as 'alone capable, through its summary writing, of translating the fleeting, and the sudden, even the Idea’.... He thus allie[d] and underscore[d] two aspects of dance, which are not ordinarily simultaneously emphasized – its ritual character and its character as a writing, a system of theatrical signs.” [iv] Mallarmé adopted a broad view of dance using it as “both metaphor and comparison, often rapidly shifting between them, the dancer is a metaphorical figure.... and the dancer’s text, ... a poem that, paradoxically, is never inscribed — that is, fixed or permanently recorded as is the poem on the page.”[v] An unwritten body’s writing, was to Mallarmé, like hieroglyphs to decipher: a pictorial writing that’s had a sacred and difficult quality to it.
How do we read a work? As Mallarmé recommends: “The … imaginative exercise consists in … patiently and passively asking oneself before each step, each attitude — so strange those pointings, tappings, lunges, and bounds — ‘What can this signify’ or better yet, inspired, in reading it.” Giving the viewer the freedom, allowing us to transpose what we see into our own vocabulary, unlike other symbols and language, the audience has the capacity “to transpose form and movement into virtual poetry — in effect, into a not yet written poem.”[vi] The tangible quality of dance constrained by the laws of the natural world, metaphoric rocks and all, the 'sensorial quality of dance', to Mallarmé, had the capacity "to be precisely what it expresses: ' …it roars out its demonstrations through its practice'. And what dance expresses most keenly is the physical dynamism of the human self."[vii]
In referencing Mallarmé, Géricault, and even Delacroix briefly, I am playing into Chiu’s hands when she asks: "I wonder why, in Australia, we are all so heavily imprinted by English colonization"[viii] and European aesthetics. Furthermore, I like that Chiu ruminates over this, and the large distance between her and her Chinese heritage, by opening her artistic notes with a quote from the French sociologist Marcel Mauss about "the body [being] man’s first and most natural instrument".
As Chiu, and later Chan, showed as they entered the darkened space as two bodies, first, heads, second, our “bodies speak for us, often before we’ve even had a chance to open our mouths.[ix] With her head magnetised to the wall, her body supine, Chiu slowly negotiated the floor and gradually, as she became upright, the wall behind her. “Artfully exploring the connection between physicality, language and race, Chiu boldly recreate[d] identity through language."[x]
Where Merge thrashed and rhythmically pulsed, Do You Speak Chinese? proved a quiet meditation. Equally, where Merge hurtled through time, Chiu’s worked seemed almost to stop the tick-tock of the clock, as she rolled herself into a giant fold of paper and the small theatre filled with the sound of paper’s pleasing crackle as it creased. In Merge, bodies emerged from black rock-like forms, whilst in Do You Speak Chinese? paper’s adaptability was explored to the hilt: paper as a tent-like structure; fortune cookie; paper boat; tablecloth for yum cha; scroll; telescope through which to peer through; and mask; before finally serving as encasement for a body.
Inanimate materials: quite the opposite.
[i] Séverine Laborie, The Raft of the Medusa (1819), notes on the painting in Louvre collection, accessed March 2015.
[ii] Melanie Lane, Merge, ‘Artistic Notes’, Arts House, Meat Market, 18–22nd March 2015.
[iii] Victoria Chiu, Do You Speak Chinese?, ‘Artistic Notes’, Malthouse Theatre, 17–20th March 2015.
[iv] Mary Lewis Shaw, ‘Ephemeral Signs: Apprehending the Idea through Poetry and Dance’, Dance Research Journal, Vol. 20, No. 1 (Summer, 1988), p. 3.
[v] Mary Lewis Shaw, ‘Ephemeral Signs’, p. 3.
[vi] Mary Lewis Shaw, ‘Ephemeral Signs’, p. 4.
[vii] Mary Lewis Shaw, ‘Ephemeral Signs’, p. 5.
[viii] Victoria Chiu, Do You Speak Chinese?, ‘Chapter One: Body / Language’, Malthouse Theatre single-page programme, March 2015.
[ix] Victoria Chiu, Do You Speak Chinese?, ‘Aritstic Notes’.
[x] Victoria Chiu, Do You Speak Chinese?, ‘Aritstic Notes’.
Do You Speak Chinese?
Choreographed & Performed by: Victoria Chiu in collaboration with Kristina Chan
Music: Mindy Meng Wang
Lighting Designer: Bosco Shaw
Lighting Realisation: Adam Hardy
Paper Artist: Benja Harney
Understudy: Hsin-Ju Chiu
Writer: Lian Low
Dramaturge: Jana Perkovic & Felix Ching Ching Ho
Costume Design: Harriet Oxley
Assistant Director: Roland Cox
Choreographer: Melanie Lane
Performers: Antony Hamilton, Melanie Lane, Ashley McLellan, Sophia Ndaba
Sound Composer: Chris Clark
Lighting Designer: Matthew Adey (House of Vnholy)
Prop and Visual Design Collaborators: Bridie Lunney, Ash Keating
Producer: Jessica Morris Payne
Artistic Collaborators: Paea Leach, Lily Paskas, Rachael Osborne, Lilian Steiner
Inanimate materials: quite the opposite