‘A beautiful opening of the self’: Alison Croggon on Public Actions from Luke George and Collaborators
What is dance? Is it embodied thinking? Dynamic representation? A temporal narrative? A series of social interactions between performers and performers, performers and audiences? All of the above? None of them? Something else?
Luke George’s Public Actions, at the North Melbourne Town Hall, raises these questions and leaves you with them. It’s a fascinating, multifaceted work that is an ambitious attempt to think about how performance might intersect with its audience, amplifying this experiment to the larger questions of how human beings conduct themselves in public space.
At the end of the opening night performance (I’m not sure whether this happens every night) Luke George gave a short speech and then copies of an essay by dramaturg Daniel Kok, People Watching People: “Public Actions” as Social Choreography, were distributed as we left. As a reader who only reads introductions after I’ve read the book, I think this is the correct order: ideally critiques follow the work, deepening and illuminating our engagement, rather than pre-shaping our responses.
But of course, nothing is ever that pure: critique always pre-shapes work in one way or another, acting as a springboard from which particular works might take flight. There are, of course, many other springboards that impel any particular work: other artworks, social and individual experiences, perceived traditions, the environments in which an artwork is made or is witnessed, the random occurrences of life.
One thing that certainly impels Public Actions is a sense of public crisis. The whole of the first part of this three act work is an articulation of aftermath, a slow-motion enactment of the kinetic energy released after some kind of massive blow – perhaps a plane crash – sends bodies tumbling down and across the theatre.
When we enter the theatre, we find ourselves facing a life-size video of an audience projected onto a white curtain. Only it’s not a video of us: it’s another audience, filmed at another time. There are ripples of movements, hands fluttering to faces, people shifting in their seats. We watch them. The ghosts of another time watch us. When the dancers appear, I recognise some of them in the video.
Then the first dancer walks casually up the rostrum on which we’re all seated and begins. I turn around to see what they’re doing, but not everybody does at first: a lot of people still stare resolutely ahead, waiting for something to happen on the stage in front of them. The dancer lies down over a chair, quietly asking a member of the audience to move out of the way. Another dancer joins in.
What follows is a slow avalanche of dancers falling down through the auditorium, gathering chairs as they go, cutting a swathe through the audience members, who move away as their chairs get gathered up by the dancers into a strange, slow tangled pile of dancers and chairs. I’m so fascinated by the dancers and the reactions of the audience that I don’t notice when most of the dancers appear: they just seem to propagate by magic. It begins with one, and then, somehow, there are seven of them.
By the time they reach the stage floor, the audience is transformed. Many people are watching from the stage, others from the side of the auditorium. The videoed audience before us has barely moved, aside from a short period in brace position, but in the room itself, the whole convention of audience-ness has been radically disrupted.
As the human-chair tangle rolls across the stage to the curtain, which is now blank of video, many people return to their seats; but there’s now a sense of collectivity that wasn’t there before. Is it too much to call it trust? It feels a little like it. They roll through the curtain, which falls into place behind them. And now we’re in Part 2: Group Actions. The curtain is drawn aside, revealing Nick Roux, the sound artist, on the stage at the back of the Town Hall. He’s in a powder-blue costume holding a laptop, positioned behind a huge, absurd trumpet, and a loud, pulsing noise signals the next movements.
Now we get to look at the seven dancers. They are consciously various, in age, colour, sex, gender: no one body type dominates. They march, a lot of marching of different kinds, up and down and around, arms up, arms swinging, goose stepping, always in perfect unison, although occasionally a sub group breaks away and does another kind of marching. Its echoes of militarism make it faintly sinister, but it also heightens my sense of the individuality of each dancer. Then one dancer breaks away and whispers to some people in the front row. They all get up and seat themselves in a flotilla of chairs on the stage. Now a real audience is watching us and watching the dancers.
Gradually the unison breaks down into individual movements. There’s a sequence where all the cast is dancing wildly, rushing around the stage, coming into the audience, and the sense of anarchy is at once exhilarating and vaguely threatening. But now audience members are being approached by dancers and asked to go on stage. We can’t hear what is asked of anyone else, but I and some others are invited to go on stage whenever we feel like it and change something. We can take a chair if we want, we can enter the back stage spaces if we want, we can use objects or not as we wish.
Almost everybody takes up the invitation. Now most of the audience is on stage. The sense of delight around this invitation is palpable: people are sitting, playing, lying down, moving. The poet Michael Farrell has found some bright orange industrial mops and is pushing them over the stage floor. It’s almost impossible to differentiate between the performers and the audience members.
It feels very gentle, so when a woman takes off her shoes and throws them across the stage it strikes me as a jarring note, an aggressiveness that hasn’t emerged from what has happened before. But this act is somehow absorbed into the greater event: it occurs and is closed over, like ripples stilling in a pond after a stone is thrown into it.
The final sequence was object-related performance, where the dancers responded to various things in their immediate environment. Some were pulled out from under the stage or the rostrum. I couldn’t recognise what any of them were, aside from a pile of roughly-cut wooden squares. This wasn’t quite so successful: it felt like a repetition of something, rather than something new; perhaps it was simply too internal, no matter how the dancers attempted to involve the audience with their explorations. But maybe it was because we were now back being audience members, with most of us just watching. Then I noticed the dancers were leaving, one by one. The show finished when the last one left.
I enjoyed the bows, because the dancers were scattered across the auditorium and were bowing in all sorts of different directions. But this still wasn’t the end: Part 3, across the hall, is an exhibition of photographs and video of other Luke George explorations of public actions. And of course I went home and thought about what I’d seen. I read Daniel Kok’s essay, which I highly recommend as a deeply interesting critical situating of this artwork, drawing on the work of thinkers such as Jacques Ranciere, Chantal Mouffe and bell hooks.
Maybe what interested me most in the essay was its critique of “safe spaces”, drawing from bell hooks’ comment that what she actually wants is “for people to feel comfortable in the circumstance of risk”. “I’m very interested in what it means for us to cultivate together a community that allows for risk, the risk of knowing someone outside your own boundaries, the risk that is love – there is no love that doesn’t not involve risk….learning takes place in a harmonious space.” hooks is of course correct: as with the notion of civility, “safe spaces” often acts as code for an oppressive refusal by dominant classes of the discomfort of dissent, a refusal of self critique and self change.
But it’s also notable that many of those who reject notions of safety aren’t interested in listening either. Mocking “safe spaces” is a favourite activity of the so-called alt-right, for instance. What matters in these questions is mutuality – mutual trust, mutual listening – and that is a quality that can be too easily disrupted and undermined by people whose bad faith is a means of demonstrating, preserving and consolidating their own power.
In the safe space of the Town Hall, however, George succeeded in generating precisely this feeling of trust. He and his collaborators created something that was harmonious rather than “safe”, a space where people could collectively feel that each were present in all their own individual agencies. It’s notable that it never felt unsafe: perhaps part of that quality emerged from the variousness of the performers, in that there was little to no sense of a dominant group.
The risk of venturing oneself into relationships with others, especially with strangers, is delicate and complex: when something succeeds in disrupting our imposed boundaries (I won’t say hierarchy, there was still a hierarchy in the room because we never quite forgot who were performers and who were not) there’s a lightness and freedom that registers in how your body exists in space, in relationship to everything and everybody else. And that is a beautiful opening of the self, that perhaps we can carry out into the world, into our other relationships: the faith that such a thing is possible, and that we can make it.
Public Actions, lead artist, concept and choreography by Luke George, sound and video by Nick Roux, lighting design by Matthew Adey for Beizj Studio, dramaturgy by Daniel Kok, Nicola Gunn. Performed by Brooke Powers, Latai Taumoepeau, Leah Landau, Luke George, Melanie Lane, Nick Roux, Russell Walsh and Timothy Harvey. Luke George and Collaborators at Arts House Melbourne, as part of Dance Massive. Until March 16. Bookings