‘The dances communicate an understated sensuality and tenderness’: Andrew Fuhrmann on Russell Dumas’ retrospective show, Cultural Residues 2020
Russell Dumas is the great hedgehog of Australian contemporary dance. While others around him have chased after relevance, followed fashions and explored emerging trends, Dumas has cleaved to the one big thing he understands – or wants to understand. For almost 50 years, he has obsessed over the experience of gravity through the bones, muscles, joints and organs of the human body.
Glance at any review of Dumas’s work from the mid-1970s – say, this one by Jennifer Dunning from 1977 – and the descriptions push their way into the present:
“… reducing dance to its elements … exploration of the problems of balance … danced in silence in a pristine studio … it is self-absorbed abstraction, but it is also a luminous dance that stands on its own …”
This could, at a pinch, be made to fit almost any of the pieces in Cultural Residues 2020, an anthology of duets and trios selected and refined by Dumas from across his long career and performed by a company of nine dancers.
This is not a complaint. The works do still stand up. His experiments with falling, deflection and momentum, with rolling, short lifts and supported partnering, still fascinate. And the dances are still, as Dunning says, luminous in the sense that they seem to communicate an understated sensuality and tenderness, without ever trespassing into sentimentality.
The pieces in this show are concise but individually memorable. The concision is refreshing in the context of a festival where too often choreographers struggle to fill out an hour with limited material; but it’s the unfussy elegance of the performances, the easy fluidity, and the imagination and invention in the linked phrases and arrangements that is so striking.
The studio is not quite pristine – not this time. A large beige panel reminiscent of a traditional Japanese shoji sits on the raised stage area of the Sylvia Staehli Theatre. As the performance begins, also on the stage, next to the screen, a recording of a duet with Nick Sabel and Josephine McKendry begins to play. Sabel and McKendry danced with Dumas’s Dance Exchange from the late 1980s, appearing in works such as Blue Palm/White Lies (1989), Approaching Sleipner Junction (1990), Rescued Estates (1991) and many more. The recording seems to be from that period. This screen, however, is the only stage décor. And, of course, there is silence, except for the sound of the dancers, and muted noises from outside the theatre.
Dumas makes the most of the performance area, using not only the raised stage, but the depth and width of the floor, bringing the different pairings into focus or pushing them further away. An intimate duet between experienced Dance Exchange dancers Stuart Shrugg and Jonathan Sinatra – bodies coming together, smoothly locking, turning, then carrying softly into new phrases – is placed at the audience’s feet. A more conceptual piece, with Rhys Ryan and Tom Woodman counting out individual poses, is positioned deeper up stage.
(At this point I should note that it was hard work trying to identify the dancers in each piece because of the tricky lighting, the positioning on the stage, the uniform black costumes and the lack of any curtain call. So apologies in advance for any misidentifications in this review. Corrections welcome.)
Something about Cultural Residues 2020, with its shadowy lighting and the emptiness of the space, reminded me of peering at paintings in old Italian churches. Perhaps it’s the lack of underscore; we can hear the cars and foot traffic outside, as if on the Via del Salvatore. Does the work of Dumas suggest Renaissance art? Well, there’s the upright but natural carriage of his dancers, the supple lines and a kind of graceful softness of his pairings. It’s like choreographic sfumato. There are so few jarring impacts and collisions. Bodies tend rather to melt into one another as momentum is absorbed and redirected.
More than that, he has the happy knack of creating compelling tableaux vivants, such as the final piece of the night, where three men (or was it four?), all topless, appear on the dimly lit stage next to the screen. Is this a reworked version of the last section of A Tree from Any Direction (1994)? The dark background envelops the trio, but in the fleeting moments of silvery illumination they seem like figures in an allegorical painting on an obscure theme.
And then, of course, there’s his humanist emphasis on the natural capacities of the body and his fascination with anatomy, albeit via Ideokinesis. There’s the attention to modelling and the contours of the human form in the way he pairs his dancers and brings them together. And there’s the thoughtfully restrained treatment of space and proportion in his compositions.
You recognise something about the structure of the human body. We see, for example, one dancer’s leg settle along the spine of the other kneeling before him. The slightly bent leg sits naturally along the curve of the back. There’s nothing mechanistic or robotic in the way the parts come together. This is perhaps why Dumas is able to create such a strong kinaesthetic responses in his audience: his work has universal appeal. It’s not that we can do what his dancers are doing; but we all feel how they’re doing it in our own bodies.
This invocation of the old masters of the West and their paintings has its limits. Through Russell Dumas’s connection to and deep love of American postmodern dance, we might just as easily identify eastern affinities and likenesses. Moreover, there are always surprises and innovations that have no reference except Dumas’s own subtle exploration of the attraction of gravity: the unusual lifts without arms, the novel counterbalancing with arms crossed that lead into corkscrew turns and the unexpected body contact.
The unusual body contact also creates humour. There’s the moment where Shrugg and Sinatra seem to link their feet as if they were hooks. There are curious ballroom poses in the first piece. And there’s a duet between Alexandra Patrarca and Megan Payne involving soft running where they lightly try to push each other off balance. And yet overall there’s a meditative aura and an ambience of refined intimacy in the preference for plain movement and austere presentation.
My own first-hand experiences of Russell Dumas’s work are limited; so it was a delight to hear the reflections and reminiscences of those who had danced with his company or attended his workshops, and of those who had seen the earliest Dance Exchange shows, could recognise the material and see where it had been reshaped.
Dumas rehearsed with Rambert and de Valois, worked with The Royal Ballet and was a member of the companies of Trisha Brown and Twyla Tharp among many others. He has spoken publicly about the onus he feels to communicate this privileged embodied knowledge to future artists.
Of course, preserving these lineages is important for artists and for the future of dance as an autonomous art form. It’s also important, however, that audiences have the opportunity to reflect on Dumas’s development, influence and achievement as a choreographer. Events like Cultural Residues 2020 are therefore vital; but I also wonder if there isn’t now an opportunity for a more substantial retrospective – ideally in illustrated book form – that brings together and makes accessible all those varied perspectives on his work, that might otherwise have no circulation beyond the foyer.
Cultural Residues 2020, choreographed by Russell Dumas, performed by Jonathan Sinatra, Stuart Shugg, Alexandra Petrarca, David Huggins, Rachel Doust, Megan Payne, Tom Woodman, Chloe Arnott, Rhys Ryan. Designer, Simon Lloyd. Sound designer, Ion Pearce. Presented by Dancehouse as part of Dance Massive at Dancehouse, Sylvia Staehli Theatre. Closed.