Robert Reid encounters an exuberant masculinity in Between Tiny Cities
We stand in a circle. A wide, broken white outline drawn on the floor delineates the performance space from the audience. The inside of the theatre is industrial and bare and, coupled with the title, it makes me imagine the coming contest as occurring at the outskirts of a post-apocalyptic city, territorial clashes on the border between two blasted landscapes. A wide pool of light (lighting design by Bosco Shaw) illuminates the circle and bounces back up into our faces.
Jack Prest’s sound begins to fill the space: industrial noises, distant grinding, hollow sounds of wind, and then a beat that grows to become regular, accented by syncopation. The audience is so still; I can’t understand people who don’t need to move when they hear rhythm, even just a little. It moves me. Even as I try to contain it, I can’t stop my head from nodding along.
‘They move like wary animals, making little gestures back and forth with their bodies, testing the waters to establish who has dominance’
Two young men enter through the circled audience. Both are in sneakers and skinny black jeans, one in a grey t-shirt, one in black, one shorter and the other… well, taller. Obvs.
Choreographed by Nick Power, Between Tiny Cities is the result of a four year dance exchange programme between Darwin based D*City Rockers and Cambodian youth project Tiny Toones. Since premiering at ArtsHouse for Dance Massive in 2017, the work has toured to 20 destinations, ranging from remote NT communities, to Phnom Penh and Europe.
The two dancers (Erak Mith from Phnom Penh and Aaron Lim from Darwin) prowl around the circle at first, never taking their eyes off each other, watchful, maybe suspicious. They’re certainly territorial. They move like wary animals, making little gestures back and forth with their bodies, testing the waters to establish who has dominance. The head shakes, shoulder ruffles and hip begin to include more recognisable hip hop moves. They flip onto their heads, legs flailing up into the air and then freeze, upended, caught in the moment of a spin or a flip.
These gestures become bolder as they move around each other, circling in the circle, keeping their distance, until the smaller dancer (Mith, I think) suddenly rushes across the space directly at the other (Lim, I surmise), then back again. It’s clear that this is meant to be a challenge, but the taller dancer remains stoic and unmoved.
The little one, emboldened, begins to make bigger movements. There are several aerial moves: he launches himself into the air, vaulting and summersaulting, throwing his feet over his head and then landing. The spins and turns become more complicated and, I feel, more death defying. If I tried anything even remotely like this I’d break my neck.
They still circle each other, making subtle impress me/I’m not impressed gestures. Their faces register this as much as their bodies doo. The contest is coming for real. At one point they stop circling and stand to regard each other. The big one stops right in front of me and the person next to me, the little one directly across. A fleeting feeling of being the big one’s crew, his back up, aligned against the little one, flutters through this moment,
The little one seems to already be establishing that he is either older or stronger, the one who own this territory, and that the big one is the interloper. The confidence of the little one, the hint of a grin that begins to form on his face, the frank assessment he seems to be making of the big one, are all tiny flickers of body language that say clearly who is the dominant one.
‘They come apart to dance in synch with each other, both sharing the same choreography briefly, smiling more freely, enjoying the movement of each other together’
Then the circle disappears and is replaces by a straight band of light, in which they dance back and forth at ech other. The physical language of the hip hop dance battle is clear now: they echo and mirror each other, throw shapes back and forth. Can you do this? Yeah, can you do this? This posturing becomes more aggressive and almost chest bumping, two young stags clashing antlers. What are you gonna do, yeah, come on, what, what are you gonna do?
They both become more frenetic and exaggerated as they battle but at an unspoken signal seem to reach an agreement. They’ve both demonstrated sufficient strength and proficiency to earn the other’s respect. They’ve established a kind of pecking order, and now they can relax into each other’s presence. The music stops. The light contracts, becoming a spot on the two together, and they stand, breathing heavily in silence, bathed in sweat. It drips off them. No wonder, it’s been so very physical.
The big one leaves the circle momentarily to get two bottles of water, offering to share with the little one, who is now stretched out on the floor, still catching his breath. The bottle is accepted and they empty them with alacrity, draining them to the bottom. The little one takes off his shirt and uses it to wipe the sweat from his face, then hands the empty bottles and the shirt to a young woman in the audience. She takes them, a little confronted, I think, by the soaking t shirt, and puts them quickly down on the floor at her feet.
The little one begins to sing (in what sounds like Cambodian to me, which is how I arrive at the conclusion that this might be Mith) a rhythmical chant, dancing to match its rhythm. These are still hip hop styles, but are mixed with more abstract contemporary dance moves. Jerky arm and leg extensions, sudden angular repetitions. He sings again and it becomes clear that the big one needs to dance to the song now too.
The little one calls the rhythm and speed and the big one’s hands and feet hit the ground in time to it. The little one does have authority here: this ritual says, prove yourself to me. When it finishes, the little one makes a “so so” gesture. But it’s a playful judgement, the kind that masculine cultures often employ to ensure no one gets too big for their boots. Limited praise. The big one isn’t threatened and just rolls his eyes; yeah yeah, he seems to say.
This established, they move into a new phase of the relationship, locking arms together and moving as one. They seem to become one body made of two bodies, one machine working together, moving around the space, rolling around each other, over each other’s bodies, linked by a series of complicated hand patterns. The world’s most elaborate dude-bro handshake.
They come apart to dance in synch with each other, both sharing the same choreography briefly, smiling more freely, enjoying the movement of each other together. I’m reminded of the tap duets of Astaire, Rogers and Kelly, but only fleetingly. The synchronised movement next to each other, passed back and forth between each other, is of course also a staple of street dance battles, hip hop and even break dance (the way they throw themselves in the air and bounce off the floor, you can almost imaging the battered cardboard beneath them. At one point I think the big one might even do the worm. There are chuckles through the audience occasionally, maybe catching dance references that I don’t recognise, but also just responding to the playful and almost cheeky energy that these two now share.
Eventually the light that spills into the circle begins to fade, down to an evening purple and then to darkness. They dance on as the light disappears, and even in the dark, lit only by the exit light, they keep dancing for a moment. And then it’s over. They stand and take their bows and everyone applauds.
The exuberance of these abstracted rituals of masculine intimacy, the territoriality and confrontation, is handled lightly but clearly, so there’s something joyous, even uplifting, about it. The demonstration of the physical skill and strength is free from the toxic feeling that these contests so often imply. Instead, we see initial hesitation overcome by mutual admiration that settles eventually into friendship, and that feels uncommonly lovely. I can’t stop smiling.
Between Tiny Cities, choreography by Nick Power, Sound Design by Jack Prest, Lighting Design by Bosco Shaw, Dramaturgy by Lee Wilson, Performed by Aaron Lim and Erak Mith. Presented at the Lion Arts Factory as part of Adelaide Festival. Closed.