‘I keep seeing the biological and mechanical, the visceral mechanics of biology, cells and atoms. The physics of life’: Robert Reid on Madeleine Krenek and Frankie Snowdon’s The Perception Experiment
Dressed in white gauze suits that cover them like hazmat wear, masks draped over their faces, the dancers take our hands and lead us out of the dark room. The masks hang forward over their heads, bulbous and alien, suggesting the shadows of faces and bodies beneath.
The meet us at the door, where we have been encouraged to remove our shoes, and usher us one at a time into the near darkness and chthonic roaring that fills the space. It’s as if we’re in the belly of a great metal leviathan that’s struggling under its own decrepitude: there are sounds that might be the groaning of tortured gods of whales, clicking rhythms of tearing ocean liners, the echoes of car crashes.
We are arranged facing in various directions. Some of us crane around to see what is happening behind us. More audience members are ushered in, one at a time. We stand and wait, eyes becoming accustomed to the dark. The light from outside silhouettes our hosts as they guide us into the room.
Madeleine Krenek and Frankie Snowdon’s The Perception Experiment was inspired by and developed on the Australian desert, specifically the land of the Arrernte people of Central Australia. It reflects the company’s musings on “the intangible, disappearing, particle theory and remnants of ephemeral actions”. As the work progresses, these reflections on physics and the structural engineering of ephemera take shape with more solidity and greater complexity: an evolution of imaginary organisms.
With the last of us in place, the door behind us closes. The room darkens and I can feel some of those around me shift back to where they were originally placed. Good audience. I hear someone next to me whisper to a friend, I think they say: “I don’t like this.” The dark? The waiting? Was she even saying she didn’t like it, or am I reading my own anxieties into the blanks? I don’t dislike the dark, but I don’t necessarily love it either. Is this the dancers speaking in the dark around us? Behind me a couple burst into bright orange flashes of laughter, surprised laughter. Again, dancers or audience?
No, there’s movement at my stockinged feet: I can feel a body resting against my ankle. This, I imagine, is what provoked the laughter: the surprise of being touched in the dark. I’m not sure I’m keen on that aspect. We weren’t warned we’d be touched while we were in the darkness. I wonder what we’re supposed to feel. Mystery? Surprise? Suspicion? I don’t mind playing along but I do like to be given some indication of the game we’re going to be playing.
In front of me, nearly a meter from where I am, I get a sense of bodies in the dark. I can almost see them moving over each other. White, hunched or crouched.
No, wait I can see them, the light above them is getting stronger. There’s four figures: our hosts in their white hazmat and gauze mask suits. A line of white powder falls in the light next to them, between them, on to their backs. Salt. I recognise it from the haze it creates around a falling body, as well as from the technical effects warnings outside the venue, and eventually the faintest taste of salt on my own lips. Or am I imagining that?
Lights come up on the seating banks too and it seems that we’re being encouraged to sit and become an audience. So we do.
In the corner, the four figures are stilled, hunched and barely swaying. Salt falls, piling between them. Gradually their swaying becomes movement, they fold and bend over and through each other, they take each other’s weight. One foot reaches up from the mass of bodies, leg stretching, body inverted, foot pointed toward the glowing salt. Salt the preservative, disinfectant, ceremonial offering, currency…seasoning.
This becomes a group shifting with increasing speed towards the other corner of the traverse stage (we’ve been divided into a seated traverse in the darkness). Another hanging bag of salt is suspended in front of the other side of the space, diagonally across from the first, which has stopped spilling its salt. The four are over taken as a group, arms windmilling around them, then juddering into paroxysms, energy bound into a rigidity that it abhors. Then darkness. They lie on the ground in front of us, we can hear the shifting of their feet, their limbs, their breathing, heavy, short sharp indigo intakes of breath. (I’m thinking a lot in colours during this one, maybe because we spend comparatively a lot of time in the dark.)
When the light returns it is a pale blue-white, from roped light squares strung around the ceiling. The figures move on the ground together in various configurations, some fluid and languid, some more machine like. They become more like dancers: their legs hook, their feet point, they roll over themselves, leaping and pushing and arching, then flow form organic to mechanical and back again. Their movement becomes more like anemones or invertebrates, shaping and reshaping, forming and reforming, splitting and multiplying, then collapsing back into one. There is an evolution of movement throughout, as the singular movements are repeated and shared, becoming increasingly interrelated and complex. Arms and legs interlock, swing and spin, like a kaleidoscope or the fractal unfolding of flowers and snowflakes.
Three leave in a blackout and only one remains, a bag of salt in each hand. Her face is revealed now, the mask gone. She spins, slowly at first, her arms by her sides. She makes a triangle on the ground with the salt that spills out of the bags. Her feet stop at roughly the same three points as she spins. The salt makes lines, parabolas somewhere between curved and straight, that become more acute at the three points her feet hit repeatedly. As her spinning speeds up, centripetal force lifts her arms and the bags of salt are flung wider, the lines become diffused into a radial gradient of salt that covers the floor. There’s something about it that’s like the model of a possibility cloud, neutrons circling the ever-vibrating strings of energy that are the nucleus of an atom passed the quantum level.
She’s joined by the other three, also now unmasked. Each with their own bag of salt. They spin and mark their circles, their quanta of salt, but also crouch to them, pushing tight circle patterns around them into the fallen salt cloud released by the first, which is still spinning, still spreading salt. They use their hands and feet to draw out jagged radials around the disks of the nearly clean floor they’ve cleared around their axis, each dragging their own body rhythm and balance into a mandala of salt and movement.
I’m reminded of the puffer fish that creates intricate circular patterns in the silt on the sea bed off the coast of Amami–Oshima Island. The result of a complex, almost neurotic, dance of aesthetic creation, that in the case of the fish is intended to attract a mate. A trace of a biological imperative expressed as an aesthetic.
I keep seeing the biological and mechanical, the visceral mechanics of biology, cells and atoms. The physics of life.
I’m also reminded of That Game Company’s Flow by Jenova Chen and Nicholas Clark. It’s a calm, meditative game of evolutionary tag, a beautifully rendered and intuitively simple game that I find I can get lost in for hours (which is a lot for me because I usually am finished with computer games within about 40 minutes). Flow lets you play as microscopic organisms that grow bigger and more complex as you eat littler organisms and get smaller as you yourself get munched on by glowing squiggles in the pale blue and green backgrounds.
The dancers hang their salt bags on hooks hanging into the space and leave. A light shines on the salt bag at the other end of the room. I can’t help thinking how salt is integral to life itself. Salt water, the ocean, blood.
This one doesn’t let any of its salt go.
The Perception Experiment, concept, direction and choreography by Madeleine Krenek and Frankie Snowdon. Original choreographic collaborators/performers Kelly Beneforti and Tara Samaya. Sound design by Darcy Davis, lighting design by Jen Hector, costume design by Frankie Snowdon and Liz Verstappen. Performed by Frankie Snowdon, Madeleine Krenek, Kelly Beneforti and Ashleigh Musk. GUTS Dance/Central Australia, at ArtsHouse as part of Dance Massive. Bookings
Prolonged periods of darkness, loud score, smoke effects and salt particles