REVIEW: Clouds Above Berlin (Spring Dance 2012) | The Studio, Sydney
Chalk and cheese. Black and white. The contrast between the two halves of this programme — titled Clouds Above Berlin — couldn’t have been more pronounced.
First, Melanie Lane’s Tilted Fawn. I don’t know if the fawn being referred to here is a young deer, all doe-eyed and innocent; a yellow brown; or an obsequious propensity. It doesn’t matter. It won’t help. I do know that colour permeated the work and, in its insipidness, characterised it.
The stage is deep (too deep, from where we sit, just a few row back, much of the performance is obscured) and bare, save for a uniform collection of cardboard bricks and Melanie Lane, who proceeds to move said bricks around the space, into a series of formations. She moves gracefully, to a soundtrack composed and installed by Chris Clark. It’s the soundtrack that overwhelms the performance, much of it compiled from animal noises; including the human animal, as experienced and recorded on London’s trains. It gnaws and grates in a mesmerisingly primal way and is noteworthy for its genius design: it seems that, hidden inside a number of the shoebox-bricks are lo-fi tape recorders, playing back the heavily edited and augmented aural documentary. The beauty of this is, of course, that as Lake shuffles her constructions around, the sound moves too, making for a very dynamic, ethereal and enveloping ‘surround’ soundscape.
The boxy landscape evolves from the primitive (think Greek ruins, Stonehenge, et al) to the urban (skyscrapers, fugly apartment blocks, Soviet utilitarianism and capitalist slums). There isn’t, however much dance in the sense you might expect. There are poses struck. And one highly original, superbly stylised choreographic conceit. I only wish there’d been more of same, for the concept, such as it is, becomes utterly breathless long before the piece concludes.
The audience, including yours truly, was (almost undeniably) relieved when it did, meeting the fade-to-black with lukewarm applause, at best. No curtain call was possible. This was the acclamation of frustration, of being duped and cheated; the halfhearted clapping which said, ‘hey, we paid for this!’; ‘you kept us in unrequited suspense’; ‘all this fucking around and no orgasm!’. It seemed, in the end, like a cruel experiment, perpetrated by a psychopath. All the more sadistic by way of its pretence to the intellectual: apparently, Lane and Clark have invited us into “an intimate yet intense audiosensitive universe, where our urge to seek transformative experiences through advanced technologies is brought into question”. Being Berlin-based and, most likely, roundly embraced by the culturally accommodating milieu that (more than a little ironically, in modern historical terms) seems to prevail there might tend to engender a kind of continental confidence; you might easily be seduced into thinking you’ve the cuke-cool cachet of Cave, but no amount of double-Dutch, or even high German, can compensate for an overly long, unconsummated excursion like this.
I’m not saying it need have a beginning, middle, or end, or any kind of conventional structure, but this represents the height of disingenuousness: talk of stripping a work back to its ‘raw source’, the sound, for our sake, to afford we, the audience, a new perspective, could hardly be more patronising and a sense of this comes through in the work itself. If we don’t appreciate it, we must be philistines, narrow, blinkered or closed. The audience might be ‘quiet and concentrated’. Or maybe just bored. My companion even said he felt insulted.
Again, what seems like a good idea in ‘pure’ choreographic terms, in the cut-and-thrust of collaborative creation, ought not be mistaken for a guarantee of theatrical viability in front of a general audience. Lane wouldn’t be the first performer, dancer, choreographer or artist to make this cardinal error, but how I hope she’ll be the last; for a while, anyway. There almost seems to be a minor epidemic taking hold in Sydney, as I write, what with Lucy Guerin’s questionable outing Conversation Piece at Belvoir testing audiences patience to boot.
In conclusion, while I’d be the first to spring, headlong, to the defence of Bonachela and the maker of the work to try and test new things, to confront and challenge audiences with a view to extending the limits of our ideas and perceptions, to test our tolerances, and so on, we still need to make distinctions about what and where work is best exposed. A 10-minute work might have greater value, as a 40-minute opus it’s diluted, aimless, indulgent and undisciplined, tilting more at windmills than any kind of fawn.
Tilted Fawn doesn’t, to any meaningful, tangible or revelatory extent, explore “the relationship between sound, objects and the body”. It intimates this exploration, but never goes beyond the superficial; it hold no surprises; one’s diligent attention is not rewarded and, as a consequence, theres a sense of being duped, cheated, led on. The articulation needs to be on the stage, not in the choreographer’s verbally gymnastic descriptors.
Whatever her talents as a choreographer, Lane is a brilliant dancer and performer more generally (she was exceptional in Yui Kawaguchi’s Scandal), as becomes evident once more after interval, when she appears in Antony Hamilton’s Black Project 1, alongside the creator. BP1 was and is, most happily, one of the most spectacular and innovative theatrical presentations, of any kind, I’ve ever seen, anywhere. Utterly spectacular, in the deepest sense. Better yet, it could be seen, even from the cheap seats, as the stage, an L-shaped platform and wall that occupied the width of The Studio, was set well back. All black, save for some sketchy markings which afforded character, texture and patina, we see, on the right, two frozen-still figures, which turn out to be a man and woman, also all-black.
The man is poised beside and hovering over her. He wears a backpack. The vision is apocalyptic: they could be on a scorched earth, devastated battlefield, devoid of living human presence, save for theirs. The soundscape supports such an idea. Philosophically and choreographically, the pair (who attended university together) might have the same concerns and interests (the symbiotic relationship between the body, environment and objects; the body as sculpture), but their expressions could hardly be more divergent. Having said that, though Hamilton is credited as choreographer, it appears this has been a two-way creative process. This makes Lane’s solo piece even more inexplicable, but does win her back a lot of credit and credibility.
Slowly, if unsurely, these boot-polished ‘characters’ begin to move and unfurl, like just-oiled tin men. In synchronous, robotic, stop-start dubstep fast motion, they launch into what looks to be a programmed humanoid cyber-sequence, executed with impeccable precision. In describing his work, Hamilton tends to be no less ambitious, determinedly iconoclastic or elaborately, almost impenetrably descriptive: “I wanted to move away from the influence of subcultural iconography to arrive at something more subjectively spacious.”
Yeah, ok. But the work itself, though undeniably abstracted, does succeed in tapping into and being ‘driven by the subconscious’. There’s a recognisability in all that takes place that derives not from experience or knowledge, as we usually understand them. It’s certainly a very long way from Hamilton’s childhood inspiration, in Michael Jackson’s Thriller. It’s certainly blacker.
As much as the movement is pivotal to the flavour and feeling of the work, so is every other aspect of it: Hamilton’s design and costumes; Robert Henke, Vainio and Fennesz’ music; Olaf Meyer’s video projection. All are as intrinsically choreographic, if you will, as the other; each contributing equally, but the whole being even more than the sum of its very considerable parts. Armed with white paint pens, the dancers rhythmically etch concentric circles in their vicinity, as in some kind of superstitious, protective ritual, describing a tableau of virtual crop circles.
The performers appear to twiddle dials, as crackling electricity permeates the aesthetic ether. They affect each other by means of some pseudo-electromagnetic attraction. They seem to communicate via a kind of hip-hop sign language. They release ping pong balls and unleash chaos. They strip away tape to reveal bright white saw-toothed graphs of pre-GFC superannuation or the precipitous treachery of Mount Eiger. They mark themselves with war paint and tumble about in slomo. The whole scene is illuminated with epileptic programmed light moves. It bubbles with the lifeforce; bristles with kinetic energy.
The dancers surreptitiously exit the stage, cuing a high-tech Close Encounters light-and-sound spectacle superimposed on the multi-dimensional sculpture they’ve created. The work crosses borders, without visas, leaving provocative questions in its wake. Is it an art installation? An avant-garde theatrical exposition? Contemporary dance? A staccato mime? Visual, or performing art?
Both works fulfil the key requirement of contemporary dance and art in general, in asking questions. It’s just that I much preferred the speculations and ‘answers’ one provided over the other. Chalk and cheese. Black and white. Wholegrain and pigswill. Genius and tedious. Imagination and masturbation.
The details: Clouds Above Berlin, part of the Sydney Opera House’s Spring Dance 2012 program, played The Studio from August 29 to September 2.