Atlanta Eke’s The Tennis Piece demands too much intellectual labour from its audience, says Andrew Fuhrmann
Atlanta Eke’s Tennis Piece, which purports to be a choreographic deconstruction of the court dances of the late Renaissance, has been thrust into the world scarce half made up. Yes, it has been in development since 2017; but, no matter, this show is still – emphatically – not yet ready. It remains a darkly inchoate mess of contrary dramaturgical impulses and barely legible references.
And yet the framing of the thing, the setting, is so striking. A tennis court, perhaps three-quarter size, has been marked out in white tape on the floor of the ballroom in the Collingwood Town Hall. The connection between a tennis court and a royal court is instantly evoked. Indeed, we could be, as the program promises, at the royal indoor tennis court at Versailles, waiting for history to be made.
As the audience enters, the four dancers – Atlanta Eke, Ivey Wawn, Annabelle Balharry and Ellen Davies – are warming up on court, gently patting a few balls back and forth across a small beach tennis net. Once we’re settled, they remove the net; then they return to the court for a different sort of game.
Instead of tennis balls they now seem to be exchanging balletic combinations. This juxtaposition of tennis and ballet is a neat one; and tennis really could provide a source of critical energy through which to interrogate the Baroque world view. Tramlines and baselines and service boxes suggest the linear and geometrical patterns of court ballets. And there are tantalising historical connections between the two disciplines.
And then, of course, there’s the ghost of Nijinsky. (As a side note, Roslyn Sulcas – a guest this year at Dance Massive – once wrote a short blog post on the parallels between tennis and ballet with Claudia La Rocco – a guest at the last Dance Massive.)
But what are the rules of this little game of back and forth? Who is winning? Or are they still warming up? Why aren’t the dancers paying more attention to where they stand on the court? What principle determines where they run or the length of their skipping routines?
The game comes to an end. They leave the court. Then one dancer reappears in a corner of the court, shrouded in a black sheet. She portentously intones the scientific names of various muscles and membranes – some of which are specific to female anatomy – into a microphone. Supraspinatus. Soleus. Anconeus. Paraoophoron labium-majus hymen. That sort of thing. Meanwhile, a ball machine from off-stage, at the far end of the hall, lobs tennis balls at her.
I heard varying interpretations of this scene. Some thought the figure was supposed to represent a veiled woman praying. Others thought she was supposed to be a woman being stoned to death. It would be extraordinarily poor taste if it were meant to represent either of those things, but I don’t think it is. In fact, I think she’s meant to be a kind tennis witch casting a time-travelling spell, sending us back to the court of the late Valois or early Bourbon court. (Having recently been initiated into the mysteries of the Harry Potter universe, I’m sensitive to the probability that mumbled Latin signifies the casting of a spell.)
In any case, we do end up somewhere vaguely Renaissance. The four dancers now perform what I suppose are popular court dances of the 15th and 16th centuries. They move softly and slowly in an easy walking motion, seeming almost to slide their feet along the floor. To my inexpert eye, however, their movements lack grace. Where’s that sense of aristocratic restraint? The brittle elegance? The intense physical control? And where, I wonder, is the expert on Renaissance dance? No such expert is mentioned in the program.
No doubt Atlanta Eke is trying to recreate the historical past as a personal past, moving freely between the Baroque and the contemporary. (Such an approach is suggested by Mark Franko in his manifesto on the reconstruction of historical dance.) In this way, court dance has merged with childhood tennis lessons. That’s fine, but couldn’t the result be more dramatic than this tedious shuffling?
Eventually all this dismal largo gives way to tennis anarchy. The lights go down. Four ball machines send tennis balls flying and fluorescing under ultra-violet lamps. Eke tries to catch some of the balls while flourishing and capering. The racquets appear again. There’s face paint and much hurrying about. Is it the French Revolution? Or is Napoleon in power, waging cannon war with tennis balls? One could suppose anything.
Of course, it’s vital that the audience participates in the creation of imaginative links between what happens on stage and the world outside the theatre, but in Tennis Piece it feels as if we’re being asked to do a lot of extra intellectual labour, covering for a creative team that isn’t pulling its weight.
And it’s hard to feel generous towards this show because the production aesthetic is so hostile and negative. Daniel Jenatch’s sound design is particularly exasperating: it’s as if the Jesus and Mary Chain recorded an album of Renaissance elevator music. It’s nauseating and ponderous and pointlessly loud. Indeed, it’s so loud that the amplifiers are more or less permanently in the clip.
Really, it sounds just like a hangover feels.
Eke is a remarkable artist, and through works such as Monster Body and Body of Work she has already exerted a strong influence on contemporary performance in Australia. There is some promising material here; but what made those earlier works so memorable was their powerful stage imagery. Here, unfortunately, her compositions lack that same brilliantly weird polysemous intensity, despite the apt grandness of the venue.
The Tennis Piece, choreographed by Atlanta Eke, performed by Atlanta Eke, Ivey Wawn, Annabelle Balharry and Ellen Davies, music by Daniel Jenatsch, lighting design by Matthew Adey and Atlanta Eke, costume design by Atlanta Eke, video by RDYSTDY. Presented by Dancehouse at Collingwood Town Hall, 140 Hoddle Street, Collingwood. Until March 21. Bookings