‘A signal arising out of noise’: Robert Reid on Alice Will Caroline’s Lady Example
Alice Will Caroline describe their work in the Arts House program, as “an intentionally undefined, expansive horde of stimulus … ground down, knitted into a fine weave, over a slow process guided strongly by our intuition, and our personal baggage. We offer up a semiotic field for our audiences to wander through…”
The note reminds me of Andrew C Bulhack’s 1996 Post Modernism generator website: a collision of evocative words that grope towards description but not clarity. It feels, and probably is, ungenerous to critique the program notes, but I offer it here because I think the construction of that sentence is an apt capsule of how I experienced the show – a hyper-dense, non-indexically related multi-channel post-modern performance in which a lot happens.
I struggled to connect many of the moments offered by this work. I failed to connect to them personally, but also struggled to make sense of them together.
When the first three dancers appear, two begin a self-contained routine that is exaggerated or parodied by the third. There are similarities between all three movements, but the third dancer swings wide and over-extends some of the movements; the energies are wilder, feeling untrained, untamed. This is replaced by the first two dancers, one performing a new routine alone with the second following, seemingly attempting to learn the steps, again over-exaggerating, untrained wild movements, jerking away from the contained and controlled original.
In the same program the company describes this work, Lady Example specifically, as having arisen from within the broad theme of “women”. “We found patterns emerging around performativity, role playing, teaching and learning inherited behaviour and expectations”. I think we see this most clearly at the beginning, here in these first few moments of imitation and emulation. The intuition-guided semiotic field we’re asked to wander afterwards seems to take the work further and further from its mooring in theme and theory.
The three address us from the front, introduce themselves and ordering us to look at them (which we’re already doing, of course). They get us to click along with them while they move. The lights are brought up on the audience, I think maybe just on the back few rows (where I am) but I might be mistaken. Looking back on it now, I struggle to remember the order of things. I know I notice early on that two of the performers are holding silver swans or ducks. Swans, I think, because of the long necks, but it’s hard to tell. The performers end up in a clump of bodies at one point and the birds reappear, their beaks, or bills, being used to tap out a rhythm on the floor.
And then there are more performers. In a section that recalls Swan Lake, there are several new dancers racing around the floor describing wide parabolas, leaping through grand jetes and flapping arms like stiff wings. I think I remember a routine where several dancers wings flap sadly, blue and dying, a lake full of swans that are at least depressed or perhaps actually starting to die.
The experience seems almost hallucinatory as I attempt to recall and make sense of it. It slips away from me, resisting definition. I also have some difficulty with the language, hearing what they’re saying to each other over the sound track and in the prerecorded text. What I do catch of that dialogue gives me no hint of clarification either.
There’s a long section of dialogue between a woman in red and a man in a white shirt. They seem to be discussing friends, or maybe their plans for the future, or perhaps colonising a nation. The dialogue begins behind bright orange-pink plastic screens, tinting the scene a lurid puce. She reclines on a chez lounge while he stalks around her, gesticulating and asserting. I can read their movements more than their conversation, which is fine, but does make me wonder what the conversation added.
I will say that there is a great deal of laughter from the audience throughout, knowing laughter that signals a shared joke. I don’t necessarily follow the humour but I recognise the transaction, and it makes me think they’re being witty about dance.
More dancers join the work, just at the point when I am comfortable that we’ve seen the whole of the company. It defies familiar dramaturgical progression and timing, and so the logic of the work’s progression is obscure. How one thing flows into another, or shares the space with many other things, is never resolved: people run on and join in, or do something different, something seemingly self-contained from the rest of the movement.
A collection of porcelain and glass swans or ducks that have been sitting on stairs at the back of the space is gradually spread out at an angle across the stage, between some of the performers. Two people are still dancing as the lights fade.
While we are watching one thing, two or three other things are happening that we don’t focus on. Things connect occasionally but maybe randomly, the way a stopped clock is right twice a day. Postmodern suspicions of narrative, singularity and framing struggle here to be squeezed through the broadcast lenses of antiquity. The few speaking to the many demands a focal point to speak through in order for the many to make sense of it. A diffuse network of possible knowledges, as the post-modernist prefers it, benefits most from a multiplicity of interrogations that are driven by individual agencies.
The temptation is to see something simple here, like the story of the Ugly Duckling, but I think that’s just a signal arising out of noise.
Lady Example by Alice Dixon, Caroline Meaden and William McBride. Lighting design by Jenny Hector, sound design by Emah Fox, set and costume design by Matilda Woodroofe. Performed by Alice Dixon, Caroline Meaden, William McBride, Jo White, Fleur Conlon, Hannah Monson, Patrick Durnan-Silva, Emma Riches, Scott Elstermann. At the Meat Market as a part of Dance Massive. Closed.
Further reading: Alison Croggon on Lady Example at Next Wave