A purely conceptual dramaturgy lets down the strong work of the performers in The Difficult Comedown, says First Nations Emerging Critic Jacob Boehme
Disclaimer: the following may be tainted by the pungent smell of feet. Ripe, toe-jammy, blue-cheese-encrusted feet.
The audience is chaperoned down a red carpet-lined hallway, arriving at the entrance of a makeshift theatre within the giant hall of the Meat Market. We are told to remove our shoes. “Oh crap, what socks am I wearing?” I search through the day, back to when I first dressed in the morning, and give myself the all clear. We park our shoes and enter the theatre. The request is functional: we walk straight onto the dance floor across black tarkett flooring covered in giant pieces of shining confetti.
Bosco Shaw’s intriguing lighting rig is suspended above Anna Tregloan’s set, a series of arches that stretch the length of the space. I’m in the belly of the whale. More precisely, under the intergalactic ribs of a super-cyber whale. The arches are marked with ancient geometric designs that appear futuristic. The final trail of audience members files in, sits. Cue blackout.
From behind us emerge two women (co-creators and performers Paea Leach and Alexandra Harrison), walking the periphery of the space, one holding the other. She stops. They stand. They swap. Now the other woman carries the first. They stop. They swap. Continually circling the room, the two women momentarily vanish from our vision, walking behind us, carrying each other, on backs, over shoulders, around waists. We hear their breath, the labour of this work. It takes me a while to realise that there are in fact no birds nesting above us in the roof of the Meat Market. An evocative, rhythmic and at times arresting sound design (Marco Cher-Gibard) toys with and tricks us for the next hour.
And then it begins.
It is deceptive and moves slowly. Like heat, it creeps and one can’t quite locate its origin. But it persists and rises: the undeniable, deathly stench of feet. The woman sitting next to me perceives it too. It is unrelenting and will not go away. We try to catch the culprit, mid-whiff. It is thick. It is hot. It is dripping with fermented cheese. The woman next to me reacts as if she’s just been hit across the face; her fingers clamp her nostrils shut. She stays like that for 60 minutes, save the one or two attempts at respite when she unclamps and comes up for air, only to be smacked with it again.
Other than my neighbour, everyone else is excruciatingly nonchalant. An inherited foreign theatre etiquette we abide by here in Australia dictates that we grin and bear-it-to-the-end. The olfactory assault is real and we can see the exit, but we remain compliant. Good Aussie battler theatregoers: say nothing, remain still, endure.
For the next hour, we observe movements and moments (choices) that seem unrelated: two women in orange dresses, originally suspended upstage, one in front of us with a long cream rope fringe which develops a mesmerising independent rhythm, the other behind us, trailing a long red rope that gets pulled and flicked as she paces behind the back row. The thought is birthed, it happens, it stops. We move on.
A second costume piece is revealed from the upstage installation: pants, reminiscent of those worn by Oompa Loompas in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. They are worn, they are removed, they are swung in circles above bodies scattering giant confetti at their feet, confetti dancing across the floor. It happens, it stops, we move on. In an attempt to create meaning, to connect one thing to the next, to make story, I wonder if perhaps this is a stream of consciousness to which I need to surrender. But I struggle. Every moment presents a thought, interrupted and gone too quickly. I try to either rationalise or feel my way…
But, oh my god, these fucking feet! I copy my neighbour and raise my fingers to my nose. She leans in to me. We lean in to each other. We form an informal union, an unspoken camaraderie. “Mmm, do I detect perfume? God, I hope so!” We endeavour to persist, to stay present, to receive.
Two thoughts fill my consciousness through the performance. The first is a memory of being on Mornington Island sitting with Songman and Elder Uncle Cecil Goodman. We were discussing the dramaturgy of a new work we’d been commissioned to do. In order to deconstruct traditional dance, we first had to deconstruct story. On the porch of the rec hall, Uncle Cecil turned to me and said with absolute authority: “If you don’t have your story, you don’t have your dance.”
The program copy notes that “two women carry and haul, run, wait – and consider: what’s clearly necessary, right now?” Physically, the performance delivers consistently on this, with an undeniable confidence in the material delivered by two strong performers and performances: an accomplishment for a young work. Dance Massive is its world premiere.
The note goes on to say: “In duet the women age the body, expand it, injure it. They change. The dance dwells in an ecosystem of seasonality, a rhythm of work that allows the women to persist in unsentimental relationship to the earth. Meanwhile, they don’t have to take care of each other – but they do. The Difficult Comedown is interested in shared resilience and the labour of women. It considers a new epoch beyond the Anthropocene, past human predominance on earth. Borne of long-embodied knowledge, and compelled by wilfulness, this is performance from the ground up: an immersion in slow change.”
A consistent frustration with this work, on top of being distracted by the stench of cheesy feet, was that while the piece offered an abundance of interesting physical provocations and motifs, dramaturgically they felt unexplored and truncated. In the absence of a narrative arc, the presence of the two women – the “duet” – provided a constant thread. But maybe this desire to allow the women to persist “in unsentimental relationship to the earth” bled into the relationship, or lack of it, between the two performers onstage? Because there was distinct lack of emotional connection between the performers, beyond their physical proximity, that further interrupted my connection to the work.
The acts of pondering, considering and dwelling in a question, and then presenting these musings as a piece of art to an audience that is unaware of what the question actually is, results in the audience feeling exactly nothing.
The second thought, which stayed with me throughout the performance, took me back to the 2014 Australian Performing Arts Market and a comment from Robert Moses, the artistic director of US dance company Robert Moses’ Kin, after watching a selection of Australian dance. “Without causing offence, it seems (the sector here) is about 15 years behind,” he said. “Everything we’ve seen so far is purely conceptual. It needs to move from up here (he points to his head) to down here (he taps his heart).”
Comparing ourselves to US artists is probably about as useful as maintaining an obsession with Europe. It is precisely our remote geographic location and complex multi-racial history – including a 65,000-year-old dance lineage – that allows us to evolve artforms with independence and abandon. Live performance can be among the most exquisite rituals in which we can participate. We are pack animals. We need our mob. We seek to understand our place in the communities we belong to. We strive to connect. The balance between heart and intellect is always tricky to navigate – in life, let alone on stage. However, if we exist only in the cerebral, we risk alienating an audience that wants to make that connection.
The Difficult Comedown, Co-creators and performers, Paea Leach & Alexandra Harrison. lighting designer and production management, Bosco Shaw, designer, Anna Tregloan, sound designer, Marco Cher-Gibard, dramaturge, Cynthia Troup. The Meat Market, presented by Arts House as part of Dance Massive. Until 16 March. Bookings