Andrew Fuhrmann on the intense minimalism of Myriam Gourfink and Hellen Sky’s Quake
In Quake, choreographers Myriam Gourfink and Hellen Sky – respectively Polish-French and Australian– have created a concentrated hour-long slow-motion performance in which the spectacle of almost-immobility approaching but never quite achieving actual immobility is raised to the level of cosmic drama.
The work is performed against an enveloping soundscape of distortion and sporadic fremescence created by Australian composer and double bassist Mark Cauvin and Polish-French composer Kasper Toeplitz, Goufink’s long-time collaborator. The pair use a combination of live instrumentation and heavy digital processing to create a sort of densely unmusical fugue. It’s an extreme sonic experience, composed in real time, but the effect is somehow ethereal. This is the roar of the jet stream, not the sandblaster.
Gourfink, currently based in Paris, is well-known for the intensity of her minimalist performances. This show has similarities to her Breathing Monster, a solo work which has toured extensively and was performed at Dancehouse in 2013, but here the presentation is more theatrical, with a more immersive visual aesthetic.
Quake is both a performance and an installation. It’s a total environment, a cohesive atmosphere of fascination. The back room in the Magdalene Laundries at the Abbotsford Convent is already a moody space, with its peeling green paint and heavy rafters, but Niklas Pajanti’s artful lighting creates a relaxed, almost romantic ambience. The performance space at the centre of the room is surrounded by piles of cushions and suggestive heaps of white and black plastic, with only a few chairs against the walls.
In one corner of the stage there are columns of feathers strung from the rafters, as if tumbling from the sky. Some are dark brown, others are banded brown and white, like hawk feathers. There are pink flamingo feathers and a column of white feathers, each stamped with the same motto in red: “I am the Cosmos”.
There’s also a single strand of conductive thread glowing neon blue. Like the feathers, this thread reaches from the floor to the rafters; it’s an evocative detail, suggesting the thinnest sliver of blue sky running between the earth and the outer reaches of wherever.
As the performance begins, the thinness of this glowing thread is matched by a thin high-pitched whine, as Toeplitz and Cauvin cautiously worry at their instruments. Seen from across the room, the movement of the two dancers is at first all but imperceptible; soon, however, a kind of barely pulsing quiver can be detected. As the minutes pass and the accompaniment becomes louder and more layered, a lateral twisting and rising intention emerges, but so slowly that it’s difficult to visualise the trajectory. It’s difficult even to know if the two are performing in unison or following their own patterns.
From where I’m sitting, I can see both the screen which Toeplitz is using and a monitor on the floor near the dancers. A digital timer is clearly visible on both screens, and I imagine that most people in the audience can also see it. This adds a discordant narrative element to the performance. The clocks create an expectation and a concomitant anxiety. We know that the show is only an hour long, but the performers, both the dancers and musicians, are slow and painstaking in their composition. Will Quake fit into an hour?
Without the clocks, it would be easy to slip into quasi-religious bombast when describing this performance, or at least to invoke ideas of the sublime or the numinous or the mythic. But the constant reminder of seconds and minutes passing creates an effect of containment or constraint. As the performance swells to its climax of maximal volume and minimal movement, it almost feels as though a boundary were being tested, as if the show were pressing against the limits of its allotted time. That limit, of course, does not give way; and the final fifteen minutes of Quake feel something like an ebb tide as it recedes into itself.
This is nonetheless a powerfully allusive performance. As in earlier pieces by Gourfink and Toeplitz, there’s an impression of near weightlessness as the dancers fluidly orchestrate their gestural minims. The details of the installation, however, seem to link this weightlessness to images of flight. One thinks of those hawks, for instance, rising on a thin line of sky, gripped by narrow currents of air. It’s an image of controlled bodies, tensed, all but motionless – soaring.
Quake, choreography and performance by Hellen Sky and Myriam Gourfink, sound design and performance by Mark Cauvin and Kasper T. Toeplitz, lighting design by Nik Pajanti. Presented by Dancehouse as part of Dance Massive at Abbotsford Convent, Magdalen Laundries, 1 St Heliers Street, Abbotsford. Closed.