‘A swirling, restless piece, a busy but visually appealing spectacle that fills the eye’: Andrew Fuhrmann on Lucy Guerin’s Make Your Own World
The young artist yearns for something different. Australia is limiting. It’s insular. It doesn’t give her what she needs. It lacks excitement. Its people are unsympathetic. She longs to be somewhere else, to be with her elsewhere community.
So she leaves. She travels to the centre of an imagined world, to the place where what she values is also valued by all. And when she gets there she works. She watches. She becomes a part of that longed for community.
Eventually, however, she decides she must return home. Yes, she has learned much and experienced a new way of relating to her art, but something vital to her practice is missing. So she goes back. And there, at home, whatever was lost is found again.
It’s the story of the return of the prodigal artist, and it’s an Australian favourite. Perhaps it didn’t quite happen that way for Lucy Guerin, but the parallels are suggestive. At the age of 28, Guerin left Australia for New York in search of new artistic encounters. She danced with Tere O’Connor Dance, the Bebe Miller Company and Sara Rudner. And it was in New York that she began working seriously as a choreographer. In 1997, Two Lies won a New York Dance Award, a prize that measures what or who has currency in the international dance scene. It’s a vote of acceptance.
And yet, by that time, Guerin had already returned to the periphery – to Australia.
And in Australia she has flourished. Make Your Own World is – by my rough count – Guerin’s twenty-sixth concert-length dance work, and there have been many other collaborations and shorter works besides. Her most recent production, Split (2017), after impressing critics in New York, is still touring and will feature later this year at the Colours International Dance Festival in Stuttgart.
When Guerin moved to Melbourne from New York, she didn’t only create new work. She helped create a community. She started a company, found a home for it, and placed herself at the heart of an emerging creative network. Her studio is not only a rehearsal space for the company: it also hosts classes and workshops, showings by emerging choreographers and other special events.
Her work tours the world, and the work of current and former members of her company tours the world. In 2017, for instance, Alisdair Macindoe and Antony Hamilton won their own New York Dance Award for Meeting. Guerin left one imagined centre and made her own pivot, around which whole worlds turn.
This new work for six dancers is inspired by processes of creating new networks and social groups. It’s a swirling, restless piece, a busy but visually appealing spectacle that fills the eye with an ensemble endlessly dividing, reconnecting and re-dividing. There are patterns of expansion and contraction, fragmentation and integration. There are striking theatrical images. And there’s an atmosphere of urgency, a kind of bustling nervous excitement.
It’s a work that contrasts passages of carefully prepared choreography with moments of free improvisation. We see, for example, a trio performing tight spirals stage right, holding space, while the other three dancers dash back and across the stage, each apparently following his or her own initiative. Or we find a single dancer, Tra Mi Dinh, feet anchored, pelvis gently pulsing, hands behind her head, staring blankly into space while all the rest explore the world around her, each in his or her own way.
There are moments when all the dancers – Rebecca Jensen, Lilian Steiner, Tra Mi Dinh, Benjamin Hancock, Jessie Oshodi and Alisdair Macindoe – lock together, in a procession or human pyramid, and then there are moments of complete visual confusion or decomposition as they all fall into separate and distinct movement preferences. And all of it is hurried along, pushed from scene to scene by Daniel Jenatsch’s bristling, crick-crackle underscore.
The gaze of the dancer is our best indicator of the difference between the spontaneous and the formal or set choreographies. During improvised passages, the eyes of the dancers dart this way and that, watching themselves, watching each other and how they make something new. During the learned steps, however, their eyes glaze over. They settle into themselves, projecting a kind of larval blankness. They submerge themselves in the choreographic world of someone else. This difference is suggestive in the context of a work about communities and ways of relating to others.
Despite its restless ebb and flow, Make Your Own World does not ramble or sprawl. It has the form of a narrative, but has no narrative content. There are crescendos and diminuendos. A roar like thunder sends the dancers tumbling and it seems to mark a transition, the end of act one. The stakes, whatever they are, increase. The mood becomes more urgent. Paul Lim’s dramatic lighting intensifies the contrast in movement styles.
Lilian Steiner separates from the ensemble, drifting downstage, carriage erect, steps delicate. Suddenly a new colour is added: a rich orangey-yellow picks out Steiner in her corner of the stage. Meanwhile a low spotlight sends tall shadows leaping against the back curtain as the dancers reel and skip. Their bubbling silhouettes exaggerate the impression of an unprompted eruption.
The work is not entirely abstract; there are some pantomimic phrases, such as dancers threatening each other with guns. And there’s a longish movement where the whole ensemble mimes the words to a pop song. My lipreading skills aren’t good enough to identify the song, but it’s a scene reminiscent of the moment in Lucy Guerin’s Aether, from 2005, when Byron Perry and Kirstie McCracken perform all of “Baby Got Back” in a bare whisper. And it’s just as baffling.
There are many of Guerin’s trademarks, like the isolation of movement in individual body parts, often in an arm or hand; or those sinister moments when the dancers daintily applaud one another. And there’s also the interest in communication in a postmodern world, in how we sense through to one another, or fail to but try and try again – a sustained theme across her entire body of work.
Finally, the dancers gather together, drawn to the centre of the stage, huddling in a tight circle, facing inwards, crouching, heads bowed. The lights slowly fade down. Then one dancer, Tra Mi Dinh, disengages. In the dying light, she inches herself toward the audience, looking expectantly up into the darkness, where something new might be made.
Make Your Own World, choreography by Lucy Guerin, composition by Daniel Jenatsch, lighting design by Paul Lim and costume design by Andrew Treloar. Performed by Tra Mi Dinh, Benjamin Hancock, Rebecca Jensen, Alisdair Macindoe, Jessie Oshodi, Lilian Steiner. presented by Lucy Guerin Inc and Arts House as part of Dance Massive. North Melbourne Town Hall until March 16. Bookings