Alison Croggon on watching two extraordinary bodies in Narelle Benjamin and Paul White’s Cella
Duets always have an undertow of eroticism. Sometimes the choreography consciously works against this current, sometimes it’s the full-on romanticism of balletic love stories. But it’s seldom as overt as Narelle Benjamin and Paul White’s collaboration Cella, which at times makes you feel as if you’re watching some kind of Tantric ritual.
Both of these dancers are extraordinarily accomplished artists, veterans of the Australian dance scene who have danced and choreographed work for many major Australian and international companies. For the 65 minutes of Cella, we get to watch a couple of the most extraordinary bodies in the world.
Cella is Latin for “cell”, one of the basic building blocks of life. This dance is a physical exploration of how the human body can transform, evolving in the imagination to recreate the patterns of life itself.
It begins with the kind of breathtaking elegance you expect from these artists. They are already on the floor as the audience enters, dimly lit bodies in a huge, edgeless space that are making articulated rolling motions around the darkened stage. There’s no point that signals that the show begins: people sit chattering until, in one of those magical flocking moments that occur in audiences – prompted I think by an almost imperceptible shift in Karen Norris’ subtle lighting – a simultaneous silence falls, and everyone is watching the show.
The movement stays floor-based for perhaps the first 10 minutes, before the two dancers begin to drag themselves into the vertical plane. There’s a palpable sense of gravity at work, of bodies pushing against their own weight. After this, the dance moves through several interconnected sequences, signalled by changes in the score (by Huey Benjamin with additional music from The Necks and Colleen), that suggest reproductive cycles, life collapsing into entropy and rebirthing itself.
We are aware from the beginning that these are gendered bodies, male and female, but this is a differentiation that evolves, becoming more distinct through the show. Initially, the costumes are complementary: he’s in grey pants and black top, she’s in black pants and grey top. When they’re on the floor, they remain distant from each other, never touching – perhaps they are cells reproducing through a form of parthenogenesis – but as they rise from the floor, the two dancers begin to touch.
There’s some breathtaking dance in this show. The choreography draws heavily from yoga, which is a recognisably articulated in the dance through movements from classical ballet – the extended feet and hands, the graceful arc of an arm – sieved through a concept that is all contemporary dance. This choreography emerges constantly from symmetries: the two dancers mirror each other and then individuate into differing sequences of movement that become longer as the evening progresses.
It’s mesmerising to watch the variations these two dancers are able to draw out of their bodies. There are times when you’re not sure whether a foot is actually a hand, when you don’t know which legs belong to which dancer. Among the more stunning parts of this dance are those where Benjamin and White seem to summon the shimmering variousness of organic life.
Hands and fingers become cilia or perhaps maxillipeds, the mouthparts of crustaceans that push food to mandibles, or perhaps the polyps of coral; before our eyes they turn into fabulous beasts, centaurs, mammals with six legs, undersea creatures with no limbs. But simultaneously, we’re also always aware that these are two human beings: when he lowers his mouth on hers and they kiss, when she pushes herself against him.
These sequences also strongly suggest the fragmentation of bodily sense that occurs in love making, the loss of the singular self in an ecstatic sensuality. As the dance progresses, the gendering of bodies becomes explicit, moving further into states of difference, rather than similitude. It’s a polymorphous sense of difference, all the same: at one point White scoops Benjamin into his t-shirt, so he appears to be pregnant with her body, and births her onto the ground.
Late in the show each dancer paints the other, drawing lines in black ink over the other’s naked skin. It was striking to me that when White painted Benjamin, There was a sense of possession in his marking, a sense of feminine passivity, which was in marked contrast to earlier sequences in the dance. When Benjamin painted White, he was standing on a large box, a prop that’s pushed forward out of the darkness, and it seemed more an act of supplication.
Despite all the choreographic inventiveness on show, Cella begins to sag about 20 minutes before the end; I really think it would be much stronger with a little dramaturgical pruning. There are moments when the dance seems merely a remarkable display of the capacities of two virtuosic bodies.
I wondered too if the introduction of the box, which is pushed on stage at about that time, fractured my deep engagement with the dancers. That box did, however, provide one of the most striking images of the evening: White standing on top of the box, with Benjamin standing on her head beneath it, their feet touching, perfect negative reflections of each other.
Cella, choreographed and performed by Narelle Benjamin and Paul White. Concept by Narelle Benjamin, music by Huey Benjamin with additional music from The Necks and Colleen, lighting design by Karen Norris, costumes by Justine Shih Person. Arts House as part of Dance Massive. Until March 16. Bookings