The cast of Be Your Self | Sydney Theatre

Dance is so often laden with big, ambitious, over-thought, overwrought, conceptual ideas, often overly intellectual, or just pseudo-intellectual. Worse yet, all too rarely do these ideas, if they’re worth the trouble at all, come through, without the benefit of copious, humourless artistic director’s notes.

But Australian Dance Theatre’s latest production, staged at Sydney Theatre, suffered no such ill-fate. Be Your Self celebrates what dance does best, by celebrating the vehicle that makes it all possible: the human body. In fact, if the God that Richard Dawkins emphatically doesn’t believe in was looking for an advertisement for one of her finest creations, Be Your Self would more than fit the bill.

Underpinning the dance itself is superlative backstage craft, beginning with artistic director Garry Stewart’s overarching thematic and structural notions. Apparently, these flowered, organically, from rather loose discussions between him, his dancers and a Buddhist teacher. This was the fertiliser, if you will. The seed was the teacher’s exposition of Buddhist ideas about self, which dispute the very scaffold on which Western ideas about such are constructed. While, for us, there is little of greater concern than ‘me’, or ‘I’, Buddhism question whether these have any real value or authenticity. It all gets a bit technical. And I’m not sure there’s much material evidence of Stewart’s in-depth conversations with another Flinders egghead, Ian Gibbons, who tutored Stewart as to the ‘neurobiological underpinnings of selfhood and consciousness’. Aha. Nor do I recall detecting much in the way of any outcomes from Stewart’s introduction to feminist writers, Kristeva and Grosz. Speaking of gross, there was a substantial ingenuity between all this ‘philosophistry’ and the work as presented, which, while being far from trivial, was much brighter and bouncier than its process would suggest.

This is the juncture at which excessive navel-gazing doesn’t add much and I continue to ponder why artistic directors of dance companies are so susceptible to such, well, claptrap. I’ll go right out to the twiggy end of the limb again and suggest that, for whatever reason, they seem to insecurely regard themselves as being at the wrong, blunter end of the very slippery intellectual pole. Which is bizarre, as I, for one, don’t see them as positioned there, any more (or less) than cursors and creators from any other performing arts discipline.

Nonetheless, the other key influence, and influencer, in this production has been another of Stewart’s collaborators, in Professor Julie Holledge from the drama department at Flinders University. She came on board as dramaturg and this seems to have furthered and clarified Stewart’s vision for the work. In his words: “Be Your Self quickly splintered away from Cartesian mind-body dualism into a discourse on the gulf between the rationalism of the biological, scientific body and a body that is volatile and disordered and escapes finite scientific descriptors.”

Well, OK, some of that lofty language might still reek of the very pretensions of which I so often complain but, reduced to brass tacks, it seems like a simple enough idea on which to found a dance-theatre work. And perhaps the term dance-theatre is the key here. Better to be upfront about drawing on other aspects of performance art besides dance, to enhance dance; to give one’s company licence, right off the bat, to indulge more than ‘pure’ dance. After all, what dance isn’t staged without reference to theatre, more generally? Whether it be through ideas as to what will bring drama or other emotion-stirring tools to a work (which might be down to something as fundamental as facial expressions), musical composition, sound and lighting design, costumes, sets, or props.

Here, theatre was brought to bear via the inclusion of an actor and spoken word: Annabel Giles dispassionately recites, or reels off, sundry arcane facts about the body; anatomical, physiological and biochemical details that would put a doctor to sleep. It was far to dense to apprehend fully, but that’s just the point, really; a comical pointer to the relative uselessness of theoretical knowledge, versus experience (even Einstein proclaimed imagination is more important than knowledge).

It was the actual, tangible, carnal, sensual, painful, exuberant, variable experience of the body to which we were led, by way of Stewart’s very distinctive, collaborative choreography (the dancers are co-devisors), which couldn’t be more demonstrably physical, in terms of showing of just what a tip-top body might be capable; then nudging the boundaries a little further, to the point where the impressive surrenders to the extraordinary. Effecting this were nine exceptional athlete-artistes, arguably presided over, charismatically and otherwise, by Kimball Wong, which is to take nothing from the particular strengths of Jess Hesketh, Kyle Page, Tara Soh, Scott Ewen, Kialea-Nadine Williams, Paul White, Zoe Dunwoodie or Amber Haines.

Diller, Scofidio and Renfro’s set design is key to the expression of ideas, such as when dancers emerge from an art-directed form of primordial soup, contorting limbs and torsos into strangely sculptural, visually dismembered shapes and positions. Brendan Woithe’s sound and Damien Cooper’s lighting are also responsible for and responsive too much of the dynamics and drama implicit to the work. Finally, there is a weird, wonky wit and striking originality underlying Gaelle Mellis’ costumes.

Be Your Self is laudable for exemplifying, once again, ADT’s determination to be itself, its whole self and nothing but itself. There is no dance, theatre or dance-theatre company quite like it, anywhere, to the very best of my knowledge. It presses buttons, provokes responses and nudges borders others don’t, through visceral choreography that’s free from self-conscious concerns related to arbitrary and questionable convictions about line, elegance and sophistication.

ADT draws its own lens, on its own fresh page.

The details: Be Your Self played the Sydney Theatre from May 31 to June 3.

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