FORM Dance Projects and Riverside Theatres, Parramatta are the courageous, collaborating, visionary forces that brought the short season of Tess de Quincey’s Framed, as part of Dance Bites 2012, to Sydney’s west. Let’s hope it transcends those geographical boundaries, as it deserves.

The hype that attends the work describes it as “illuminating our inner life”. This is, as it turns out, a reasonable summation of de Quincey’s concept. “Two women are literally framed: at the intersection of visual art, theatre, dance, music and installation.” The lights come up out of pitch black, to reveal performers Tess de Quincey (who also directs) and Maori dancer Victoria Hunt caught in a picture-frame.

It immediately communicates as visual art as, for all intents and purposes, we’re looking at a painting, albeit one in which the subjects haven’t been rendered with watercolours, oils, or any other such media, but render themselves, as it were, body, mind and soul, for our viewing pleasure (and pain).

Framed takes the cinematic murder-mystery cliche of the winking Mona Lisa, or eyes in a generic portrait that follow you ’round the room, one small step, one giant leap, further.

Ever so slowly, the subjects move, taking us through a 40-minute exposition of human emotion that is profound and poignant. Of course, it raises all sorts of interesting questions about what constitutes visual, versus performing, art. It also converges traditional with digital forms of visual art, in its old world presentation (their vivacity and expressiveness of their live presence brings to mind the finest Renaissance painters and paintings) which is subverted by movement (giving it more affinity with, say, a digital photo-frame, or other electronic imagery).

Is this dance? It’s certainly movement. It’s certainly carefully choreographed. So, yes, I’d say so, but not in any conventional sense of the term. Even the musical composition treads a fine line between such and ‘mere’ sound design; being composed, entirely, of and from an orchestra of metronomes. All in all, it’s arguably more installation than anything. In fact, in many respects, a theatre space is wasted on it; it may well have a better future in, say, galleries, where its theatricality would have greater impact amidst so much stillness.

Given the deliberately dawdling evolution of movement, which charts a veritable lifetime of emotional experience, Framed proves remarkably engrossing, and intense. One also has a sense of oneself as voyeur, since the relationship described, between two women, affords such apparent betrayal of confidences and intimacies. Speculating on the nature of the relationship these women share is part of the fascination; part of the exposition, which belongs as much in the minds and experience of the audience as in the intentions of the performers. Through minutiae (chiefly facial expression) the vastness of that territory we refer to as the human spirit is explored. It strikes one as being a kind of inversion of the fabled near-death experience, in which one’s life flashes before one’s eyes, at blinding speed, yet which is thoroughly comprehended. Movement is minimal. Provocation of thought and feeling is maximal.

There’s a rather pretentious backstory, inasmuch as the work supposedly traverses the eight emotional states of the Natya Shastra, the conerstone of traditional Indian arts. Certainly, there’s affinity insofar as that work, also, circumnavigated theatre, dance and music. Taking the idea beyond that is more problematic, methinks. Bharata (the ancient sage to whom the book is attributed) distinguishes between bhavas (faux emotions actors perform) and rasas (emotional responses) they inspire, or are intended to inspire, in the audience. His eight principal rasas are love, pity, anger, disgust, heroism, awe, terror and comedy. He asserts plays should provoke numerous rasas, but be overwhelming focussed on but one.

The relationships and interplay between bhavas and rasas gets quite technical. Suffice to say, just as The Bible may be said to be divinely inspired, rather than divine, Framed may be said to be inspired by the Natya Shastra, but strict conformity to Bharata’s doctrine isn’t really in evidence and, frankly, is hardly worth mentioning, since only those versed in such will have any real inkling it’s in play.

In any case, Framed doesn’t need to draw upon esoterica. It stands, sturdily, on its own two feet. Erth’s set design (Russell Emerson and Steve Howarth) is stunningly well-executed: the performers really look as if they’re disembodied and framed. Simple. Elegant. Ingenious. Emma Lockhart-Wilson’s lighting is entirely empathic to their vision. Michael Toisuta’s metronomic symphony raises the bar in composition in sound design, too. A trickle of veritable tap-dripping builds to an almost thunderous crescendo, before resolving, just as it began. As the perspicacious publicist for the production, Geoff Sirmai, pointed out it sounds like the aural trajectory of popping corn.

Framed, as its promotion would have it, “provides a beautiful and compelling illumination of the moments that shape our lives”. The final vindication for this brave new work is, perhaps, provided by an onslaught of highschoolers, at the matinee I attended. For a generation acculturated to constant stimuli, they sat, on the whole, very quietly and very still.

The details: Framed played the Riverside Theatres in Parramatta on August 8-11.

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