The Keir Choreographic Award: Alison Croggon reviews A Caltex Spectrum, Personal Effigies, Post Reality Vision
Caltex. Founded in 1936. Originally the Californian Texas Oil Company, a division of the gigantic multinational energy company Chevron. The world’s third largest oil exporter.
I’m just old enough to remember the old petrol bowsers with the red Caltex star. For me they were redolent of the romance of road travel, as memorialised in a thousand Hollywood movies: pulling into a petrol station in the middle of nowhere to be met with a weathered attendant in a branded coverall, the adults stubbing out their cigarettes in the car’s ashtray.
Whether we like it or not, the culture of oil is an indelible part of the western imaginary, a symbol of the 20th century dream of domination and its toxic 21st century unravelling. It enters the minutiae of all our private lives – teenage erotic fumbling in a car, the throbbing charge of a motorbike, the smell of petrol – and opens out into burning oil wells in Iraq… They’re full of toxic nostalgias that, like the image of the open road, signify both freedom and the drive to dominate landscapes, environments, experience.
And now, as climate change rips our weather patterns to pieces, they’re the pervasive symbol par excellence of the capitalist drive to orgasmic apocalypse.
In A Caltex Spectrum, Bundjulung/Ngapuhi choreographer Amrita Hepi powerfully takes on this semantic complexity. Hepi employs dynamic, rigorous movement that endows her three dancers – Jahra Rager, Tyrone Robinson and Sarah Vai – with an staggering range of allusiveness and expression.
It opens in darkness with a visceral score by Daniel Von Jenatsch and Sarah Scott that pulses through your gut. An ominous flash of sheet lightning briefly reveals three human silhouettes and a motorbike: and then we are back in darkness.
Tiny flashing lights move in the edgeless space, pinpoints of bright colour. We know they’re attached to dancers, we sense them even in the dark, but we can’t see the edges of their bodies. They’re not quite human: star-stuff embodied as corporeal presence, tech and flesh, ambiguous, threatened and threatening. It’s a disorientating beginning that shifts as the lights lift to a series of videos that play behind the dancers – stormy Mad Max desertscapes, deep-sea oil rigs, atomic explosions of flame climbing into the sky. Everything is burning.
The dancers move through a series of erotically charged tableaux in which colonised landscapes become colonised bodies, bodies become landscapes of desire. Everything is fluid and permeable: the dancers open their mouths and flashing lights disconcertingly illuminate their interiors: they twist and writhe, in pain or in ecstasy, impelled by immersive electronic sound.
Sometimes the dancers vocalise: at one point there’s a chorus of “fuck”, the word, like the dance, transforming through iterations from bare sound to multiple meanings. The movement is sharp, focused and kinetic, shifting from solos to duos to trios, sometimes abrasive, sometimes lyrical, always sensual.
A moment where a dancer stops still, and we hear her panting: her face is vulnerable, open, perhaps afraid of this cycle of destruction that is so fast and exciting. The panting amplifies: she is suddenly the object of a desire that is obscene and mocking: but interestingly, the desire demeans the man, not the woman. The dancers step past this moment, for nothing remains constant, flickering along the spectrums of desire between death and life, catastrophe and survival.
The motorbike is a constant focus of the dancers’ attention. They ride it like lovers, kiss it, caress it, or use it as a weapon to run into each other’s prone bodies. It’s empowerment and disempowerment, lubricious and unyielding. The motorbike is never actually started: it’s pushed around the stage by the dancers. One dancer steps off it and kisses her biceps, her hands, all up her arms. She knows that the only real power of this machine is her own strength.
In the context of the Keir Choreographic Award, with its focus on experimental choreography, it’s interesting to see a piece that explicitly harks back to one of the most ancient functions of dance. Javanese-Australian Melanie Lane’s Personal Effigies is a ritualised work that draws heavily on the notions of dance as ritual and invocation.
This solo work demonstrates both the rewards and difficulties of this kind of exploration. As its title suggests, it’s a personal piece that clearly draws on Lane’s Javanese heritage, and it generates some of its most powerful moments from alluding to Asian dance traditions. But there’s something in the appropriation that remains discomforting: a sense that the various elements gathered together are not quite integrated, so that sometimes the effect is more of decoration rather than embodied meaning.
Perhaps the problem exists in the ways these movements are alienated from any context except the dance itself. Lane says that she is drawing from “imaginary archetypes”, synthesising “constructed bodies” for “a particular body”. This particular body – Lane’s – goes through various transformations throughout the dance. The movement, a fusion of balletic, contemporary and Asian choreography, is accompanied by Chris Clark’s cello, played live with an electronic score.
When Lane begins she already has a suggestion of mask, a gilt layer of makeup over her upper face. Various props – a mirror, two conch shells, a bundle of costumes – are laid out on the stage, and Lane serially interacts with each of them. In the most successful sequence she seems to be channelling the avatar of a trickster god: she plays with the mirror, a chunky rectangular piece of glass or perspex which she can pick up and manipulate to reflect her body in different ways. It’s thick enough to stand up by itself, and she uses it to create a series of charming illusions: at one point she seems to be flying, at others she has three legs or three arms or no head.
She then strips down to a see-through body costume, both naked and not-naked, and picks up the conches. They become erotically charged objects she sucks and blows, extensions of her feminised body. Finally she ceremonially unfolds the bundle and puts on a spectacular silk costume, her face obscured by a huge golden mask that seems to be abstracted from traditional Javanese masks.
This sequence was for me where the balance tipped: I didn’t know how to read it. Masks are powerful and complex, and used in multiple ways through all cultural traditions: they are always a mode of transformation. Was this mask an invocation of a god, and if so, which one? A personal god, an effigy? Was the entire dance the creation of a fetish, in which the inanimate is infused with the power of a spirit? Somehow this image was already too over-determined: unlike the earlier sequences, it wasn’t sufficiently abstracted out of its cultural or historical weight to bear lightly on the performance. I felt that it was only dress-ups: that the ritual demanded a god, and the god was absent.
Nana Biluš Abaffy’s Post Reality Vision, on the other hand, clearly has no truck with gods. Out of the whole program, this is probably the work that skews most to theatre: it employs techniques of performance that I’ve seen in shows by the Daniel Schlusser Ensemble or The Rabble, and in many ways reminded me of The Rabble’s early work.
Abaffy’s statement says Post Reality Vision stems from two sources: the dance marathons that were common in the Great Depression, which often went for days and in which the contestants, desperate for the prize, sometimes literally danced themselves to death; and Michelangelo’s self-portrait, the flayed skin of St Bartholomew that figures in The Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel.
Both these things are, in drastically differing ways, fairly compelling images of the destructive nature of art. It’s difficult not to read Michelangelo’s image of himself as, at least in part, a humorous complaint about the physical punishment of painting the fresco. And many contemporary artists facing the scrabble for survival in the internet will feel a pang of empathy for the deadliness of the dance marathons, for the necessity to keep going past their limits.
Reading the explanation after seeing the dance, it was difficult to read these themes into the performance. The only reference to marathons, aside from the obvious context that this dance is itself part of a competition, is an illuminated sign placed front stage that warns the audience not to touch the contestants and many prop lights that are never turned on. The physical presences of the three dancers (Abaffy, Milo Love and Geoffrey Watson) seem languid rather than exhausted.
There are, on the other hand, many references to classical art: broken plaster heads, like the remains of Renaissance statuary; a gold-framed reproduction of Michelangelo’s portrait. There are so many props that the stage took a while to set up: it’s a melange of lights, broken plaster statues, chairs, a tv screen, microphones. The performers moved among them enacting various scenarios – fucking the statue, posing like women in classical paintings, filming each other.
For me, the performance remained mostly impenetrable. Some gestures – such as Milo Love knocking the painting out of its gilded frame, or the performers posing like classical paintings – seem to be an argument about artistic canons. I was never quite sure why Watson was nude from the waist down; perhaps it was a sardonic comment about the gratuitous nakedness of the female nude? Certainly there’s some subtext about binary gendering: each performer is ambiguously gendered, in costuming and gesture. But somehow all the movement slid past me, never quite coalescing into the moment.
As in Schlusser’s work, the performers sometimes mutter things that can’t quite be heard by the audience; but the sense of “overheardness” is lost, because they are talking to themselves rather than to each other. And it lacks the rhythmic dramaturgy that can judge the exact point when the audience’s attention begins to falter. This kind of work walks a very fine line, and I felt that Post Reality Vision often stumbled off it.
It’s among the least focused of the eight works, although it contains powerful moments, many of them around the undeniable stage presence of Abaffy herself. But maybe in the end it was one of those works where the audience feels irrelevant: we’re present, but, as with the sign at the front of the stage, we aren’t permitted to touch it.
A Caltex Spectrum, choreographed by Amrita Hepi, set designed by Alice Joel, music by Daniel von Jenatsch and Sarah Scott, with Jahra Rager, Tyrone Robinson and Sarah Vai. Program 2.
Personal Effigies, concept and choreography by Melanie Lane. Music by Chris Clark, costume design by Paula Levis. Performed by Melanie Lane and Chris Clark. Program 2.
Post Reality Vision, concept and choreography by Nana Biluš Abaffy. Performed by Nana Biluš Abaffy, Milo Love and Geoffrey Watson. Program 1.
Witness is covering all the semi-finalists in the Keir Choreographic Awards as part of their critical collaboration with Dancehouse’s Public Program
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