‘We all vanish, but the traces of our passing – ephemeral, glittering – remain in our wake’: Alison Croggon on Stephanie Lake’s Skeleton Tree
Last year, Stephanie Lake’s Colossus was the hit of the Fringe Festival. It was epic in every sense: 50 dancers on a single stage, traversing a entire spectrum of human experience, from the sacred to the profane, from the individual to the social.
For her follow-up work, now on at Malthouse as part of its Dance Massive program, Lake has characteristically gone to the other extreme. Skeleton Tree: 13 Meditations on Death and Loss is the very reverse of epic. It’s more like a slim collection of poems carefully arranged around a focused theme. But that doesn’t make it any less ambitious.
As with a collection of poems, each work is autonomous, distinct from the others. The major framing element is the soundtrack, brilliantly wrangled by Robin Fox, which embeds an eclectic range of music into a “funeral playlist”, each track cleanly punctuated by darkness, a kind of black noise.
The work’s title is appropriated from an album by Nick Cave written after the death of his son, but includes only one track from Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Distant Sky. Like the dance itself, the sound works on contrast. Bach’s Sonata No. 1 in G Minor or Camille Saint-Saën’s The Dying Swan abut against Paula Temple’s electronic beats in Deathvox or Fox’s contemporary electronic compositions. One dance is performed in silence.
To bring such range into a single coherent work requires a steely focus. Lake’s materials are consciously austere: a bare stage shaped by a narrow but dramatically focused lighting palette by Niklas Pajanti, three dancers – Marlo Benjamin, Nicola Leahey and James O’Hara – in simple loose costumes.
This anthology of dance opens with the mortality of performance itself: the three dancers stand on stage taking their bows, to the recorded sound of rapturous applause. Sometimes I find this moment among the most moving moments of a show: it’s when performers relax the focus that has driven them through whatever act they have just committed and stand before us stripped of their discipline, nakedly themselves, pleased, always somehow vulnerable, sometimes only exhausted. I think more often than is reasonable of Prospero’s final speech in The Tempest:
…release me from my bands
With the help of your good hands:
Gentle breath of yours my sails
Must fill, or else my project fails,
Which was to please…
The dancers each take their formal bows, smiling, moving forwards and backwards. We are not applauding, but the sound of clapping and cheering fills the room. It’s strangely alienated: this is the end of a performance we haven’t seen, a performance that hasn’t yet existed, the end of every performance, embedded in its beginning.
The stage darkens. And suddenly, startlingly, Joan Baez’s wild lament Babe I’m Going to Leave You thrills out into the auditorium and we are watching two dancers, James O’Hara and Nicola Leahey, enacting the end of a romantic relationship, the rhythms of togetherness, lying and fucking, the rhythms of apartness, the double movement of staying and parting, the nostalgia and reluctance that prefaces breakage.
And then darkness, and we segue immediately into Crystalline, a work by Robin Fox, a percussive piece created with chitinous sound, a kind of amplified insectile scraping. It’s the soundtrack to a trio called Skeleton Tree, a strangely sinister work in which the three dancers climb on top of each other, or lie connected, a long centipede, each body writhing into the next, bodies perhaps decomposing and becoming bone, becoming tree, becoming other life. And then darkness…
The dance shifts between trios, duets and solos, and each dance is formally distinct, emerging from a particular idea. Despite the variousness of the dances, each has a distinct sense of Lake’s choreography. It’s hard to say why: perhaps it’s the detailed inventiveness Lake invests in every gesture, perhaps it’s a sense of lyricism that underpins the work, even at its most swift or percussive.
None of the dances “follow” each other as such, although Matthew Lutton’s dramaturgy moves the work steadily from the mortality embedded in temporal existence towards enactments of death and mourning. The shortness of each dance, and the abrupt blackouts that punctuate them, often give a sense that we’re glimpsing something that is already in progress, and that continues after we’ve stopped watching: a process, or a series of processes, that are continuous and unfinished.
In one of the most powerful pieces, Marlo Benjamin and O’Hara, now dressed in black, lave a prone, deadweight body between them, preparing her for burial. They lift her arms and legs, as if they’re trying to invest them with a semblance of life, as they’re calling back the dead. In another, solitary man enacts a work that articulates brokenness and grief; in another, the three dancers arc their bodies, rolling apart in isolated attitudes of loss, their mouth open in silent wails. The emotional resonance of Skeleton Tree is cumulative and powerful.
It finishes with Release, to Saint-Saën’s The Dying Swan, cheekily re-choreographed from one of the most famous solos in classical ballet. It’s breathtaking: a dancer appears, her upper torso covered in layers of gold leaf. As she spirals across the stage, the leaf detaches and scatters, leaving a pathway of gold fragments behind, the trace of where she has been that remains on the stage after her body has moved on elsewhere. We all vanish, but the traces of our passing – ephemeral, glittering – remain in our wake.
Skeleton Tree, choreographed by Stephanie Lake. Sound design by Robin Fox, costume design by Paula Levis, lighting design by Niklas Pajanti, dramaturgy by Matthew Lutton. Performed by James O’Hara, Nicola Leahey and Marlo Benjamin. Stephanie Lake Company at Malthouse Theatre as part of Dance Massive. Until March 23. Bookings
Wheelchair access. Hearing assistance.