‘The space is contested but the dynamics of power are fluid’: Andrew Fuhrmann on Anouk van Dijk’s final Chunky Move work, Common Ground
Anouk Van Dijk premiered her first work as Chunky Move artistic director on 17 October 2012 in a smoke-filled glasshouse on the stage of the Sidney Myer Music Bowl. An Act of Now was the third in a series of site-specific projects begun in The Netherlands exploring different kinds of built environments. It was a terrific success, garnering rave reviews and winning The Age Critics Award for best major new show at the Melbourne Festival.
Six years later, at the end of 2018, Van Dijk officially stepped down as head of the company. This current remount of Common Ground, which premiered in April last year, is thus a sort of farewell. It’s also the most compelling thing she’s done in Australia since An Act of Now, leaving me with mixed feelings about her departure.
It’s mixed because, with the notable exception of Depth of Field (2016), another site-specific work that used headphones, Van Dijk’s Australian works since An Act of Now have been underwhelming. The work has been extravagantly busy and energetic – but to what end? The hustle and complexity of her ensemble compositions can too often seem like empty spectacle. And there has been an over-reliance on props and stage effects, as well as too many prosaic soliloquies by dancers and actors and too many screens and cameras used in uninspired ways.
Still, whatever else she’s done, Van Dijk has generated some remarkable individual performances. There have been riveting displays by James Batchelor in Anti-Gravity, Lauren Langlois in Complexity of Belonging and James Vu Anh Pham and Tara Jade Samaya in Depth of Field. When given space, her off-kilter lyricism can, without any corniness, make the heart swell with emotion.
And perhaps that’s why Common Ground is such a great success, because there is so much space for the individual performers.
This is an expansive and uncluttered production. The stage imagery is simple but powerful. And although there’s a vast amount of material here, it never, or almost never, feels overextended. Yes, there are plenty of Van Dijk’s trademark spiralling forms and wrenching changes of direction, but there’s altogether less flurry and commotion for its own sake. The theme is large, but the overall composition is restrained and as a result the show has a kind of intimacy and simmering intensity that earlier works lacked.
It helps that Common Ground is a duet, and that Tara Jade Samaya and Richard Cilli are two remarkable dancers. They give every lilting phrase and every grunting collision, every complicated whirl of counterbalanced limbs, an air of easeful confidence, creating back-and-forward rhythms of extraordinary delicacy. Both dancers have similar contemporary dance backgrounds: Cilli has recently been with the Sydney Dance Company, while Samaya joined Chunky Move in 2012. (This may also be one of Samaya’s last performances with the company, at least for a while. According to the biographical note in the program she will be joining Sasha Waltz at the Staatballett Berlin this year.) And together they have an attractive rapport.
The common ground of the title is a large white square. The dancers begin by pacing the perimeter, each on an opposite side, accompanied by a looped section from one of Bach’s Partitas for solo violin. It’s a graceful opening, a courtly introduction of the dancers and the space. They walk slowly. Then Cilli rushes to catch up with Samaya, falling in step behind her. The introduction complete, they stop and hold hands, turn to look at one another, almost smiling. Then they leap into the square. Their entry is attended by an ominous concussive rumble.
The initial duet, however, is not ominous. It is calm, though it still has something of the scrappiness and tenderness that make Van Dijk’s solos and duets so memorable. They bob and weave as they circle about. Samaya leans forward. The head plunges below the pelvis in a deep bend, then whips back. She looks up as if tasting the air. Here, as so often before, Van Dijk makes it seem as if her dancers are soaring without using any leaps, just this gliding undulation.
Jethro Woodward’s sound design and composition uses looped samples and remixes of classical music. There’s also crowd noise and Charlie Chaplain’s final speech in The Last Dictator in which he calls for the people of the world to unite in the name of democracy. For the most part, like the work as a whole, it’s a rather spare but nonetheless affecting composition.
After a costume change, swapping designer Marg Horwell’s simple white tunics for black, Cilli and Samaya’s interactions become more complex and more theatrical. They grapple and tumble together, their bodies rigid. They employ unconventional holds and lifts, using knees and thighs. They block each other from entering the space, like netball goal keepers. The theme of a game of chess is asserted, not only in the combinations of black and white but in the forms and trajectories. Bouncing and spinning, heads held high, the two dancers trace long diagonals across the space, like bishops moving from one end of the board to the other.
The space is contested but the dynamics of power are fluid. Often the two face off in open opposition; but then, in a subtle and almost unnoticed transition, they end up side by side in unison. It is often beautiful, but they also show us their grittier side. They flail and scramble. We see them drinking and wiping themselves down in the shadows outside the perimeter of the square. Stripping off, they recreate their first entry; now, however, it looks like two kids leaping joyfully into a pool.
Paul Jackson’s lighting creates lurid ambient effects. An illuminated red line around the square, separating the black shadows from white stage space, suggests the possibility of violence. The line transforms to blue and the mood transforms, too. Then there are great washes of mauve and red and orange.
As noted above, I still feel like there’s some bloating. At times it can feel like a catalogue of contemporary dance standards. Do we need the game of tag where Samaya and Cilli seem to pass juddering convulsions back and forth? Or the section where they scream at the audience and each other?
Van Dijk’s work in Australia has attempted to push our ideas about what we might call dance; but I feel as if the attempt has too often lacked focus, particularly in her larger works. Of course, the shows she has made here represent only a fraction of her oeuvre. And it doesn’t help that three of her Australian works have premiered in the large and unforgiving barn-like space of the Merlyn Theatre. But it seems to me as if her pieces have lacked selectivity, resulting in overblown Tanztheater spectacle.
Common Ground, however, is better. She seems less concerned with trying to be edgy, and has wound up making something far more engaging and provoking.
Which is not to say that Common Ground does not have its spectacular element. The big finale, in which the dancers tear up the white matting to reveal its black underside, is as dramatic and eye-catching as you could wish. It also feels necessary. Draped in these enormous sheets, the two dancers conjure images of war and empires clashing on disputed territory. The shiny black rubber of the matting suggests a fascist aesthetic. Or they could be draped in national flags.
This striking image of conflict, however, resolves into something more delicate. As the lights come up and the dancers step away from the stage, the two pieces of matting look like nothing more threatening than oversized decorative napkin roses. Again, we hear one of Bach’s partitas for violin. Grace and ceremony are reaffirmed.
It’s not as if I’ve unequivocally disliked Van Dijk’s proscenium performances; indeed, the few reviews I’ve written have been cautiously qualified but basically positive. It just seems to me that the site-specific stuff has had a keener energy and clearer purpose. Maybe it helps to think about Common Ground as if it, too, were site specific? After all, it does try to peel back the layers – literally – of a particular space, making us rethink our own relationship to it.
Further reading: Robert Reid on the premiere season of Common Ground
Common Ground, created by Anouk van Dijk with performers Richard Cilli and Tara Jade Samaya. Lighting design by Paul Jackson, set and costume design by Marg Horwell, sound design by Jethro Woodward, and dramaturgical advice from Jerry Remkes. Presented by Malthouse Theatre as part of Dance Massive 2019. Closed
Wheelchair access, companion card, hearing loop