‘There is vulnerability in dancing, but joy too: and joy overtakes us’: New Review critic Sumudu Samarawickrama on SPIN at Melbourne Fringe
We walk into a orange-lit darkened space where six white bodies are arranged on the ground in prone positions. As we file in and gather around them, the beat of the music pulses. Immediately there is sensory distortion – the music is loud and dance is the heartbeat
A pas de deux becomes a pas de troi, but instead of a love triangle it becomes a triangle of connection. The dancers are dancing about dancing: everyone to their own beat. Inside the music is an audio track that mimics the impersonal voice of a training video. The aesthetic is minimal ‘80s – white neon-accented head bands and parachute pants. Behind on a stage is the spiral-masked DJ, and two unobtrusive tech personnel are off to the side.
SPIN, an inclusive performance created by Deaf artists, begins. We are in a club and the EDM is very loud. I have earplugs in, as does everyone else. All I can hear is the deep baseline; all the other lines are smeared. In the foreground is a contemporary lovers’ dance, slow and full of yearning. Behind them, two men are talking in sign language about social difficulties due to Deafness which are translated by the flat voice. I find it difficult to hear, so I look more intently.
This dance is a double experience. SPIN is split into three main parts, and each is paired: a performance and then an interactive session. The dances are multimedia, with elements of skit, dance and voice performance set against the pounding EDM. But it is a double experience in that there is simultaneous aural and sensual sound.
I am overwhelmed with the distorted music and the bodies in front attract my attention as I easily understand every line that they dance. I find the visual, sensual conversation of two people dancing to be easier to follow. I begin to tune out everything else. But these two conversations are equal. My friend is moved by the stories being told by the two men, about how much effort it takes to interact with the hearing people in their lives, about how easily those people will dismiss their efforts to interact. About how hearing becomes its own exclusive club.
When I found it difficult to pay attention to the conversation, I disconnected. Ignoring it made it background. I had to confront how my able-bodied entitlement was at play here. It was all too easy to ignore experiences I couldn’t easily access.
The design of SPIN has built-in levels of disconnection for the audience, but the show emphasises how universal connection is, and how the experience of the body in dance and music is universal, no matter the different abilities of their bodies. Movement is a continuous thing, not discrete – nobody fails because, as SPIN shows us, all movement is equal. Dance is available to all of us.
We were told before the event that shoes and bags would not be allowed into the show, and that the music would be loud and everyone must use the mandatory earplugs. So we stood, anonymous and slightly cold in a concrete-floored foyer, waiting for the show to begin. It felt strange and vulnerable to be unburdened in that way but it makes pragmatic sense – dancing without shoes lets us hear the music through our feet.
SPIN works very hard to bring people into the space ready to be generous. It is perfectly inclusive and allows for people with many different types of ability to be part of the experience: it caters to all of us. At one point we are handed balloons with weights in them that hum and vibrate with the music. These amplify the feeling of “hearing” the music through our feet, conveying the sensation to people who may be Deaf.
There is vulnerability in dancing, but joy too: and joy overtakes us. We are divided into our pre-selected colour gangs – orange, blue and yellow. The three gangs are like a mash up of Westside Story and an aerobics class from the ‘80s. Each gang is taken into a corner of Studio 1, and our leader teaches us the dances. This is immense fun. Our leader is ebullient and expressive – we watch him and learn. We try and laugh as we fail. But in a short time we are all happily dancing as a troupe.
I can’t do all the moves well, but I can do them. Our group is mostly in sync, but we are together in a deeper sense. There is a palpable sense of support running through the space, and smiles are connecting across the room. Before the the show we were encouraged to let our self-consciousness go, and to pay attention to the experience rather than worrying about judgments. Inside the space, judgment is the last thing on my mind. The audience seems to skew towards those with dance backgrounds and perhaps this is what leavens the atmosphere; whatever it is, it’s remarkable.
While I am dancing I discover that a vulnerability in many ways only exists when something is endangered. In that room there was no vulnerability, because there was no one ready to attack.
The final group dance is ambitious – we gather once again in our corners and we dance, group facing group, running through the routine we’ve practised. We are showing off, we are confident, we are together. Through out this dancing we traverse through the other groups, in lines of oppositional movement. It feels beautiful. This section takes about 20 minutes and is the only time I am ever in danger if being out of breath – the brilliance of the choreography is that each person can modify it to their own ability and comfort level.
The show is coming to an end and the dancers (but aren’t we now all dancers?) place one hand on their hearts and raise the other in the air. The DJ descends from his stage and stands on a box in the centre of the room. We are asked to gather in the centre, as the music distills itself into a heartbeat rhythm. I fear that we are being called to worship at the feet of the spiral-faced DJ – SPIN has the elements of ecstasy that would make a great cult! Instead, we are directed to crouch down and, with one hand on our own hearts, tattoo the beat from our bodies into the body next to ours. I am near a woman in a wheelchair and although I don’t touch her, I tap my heart into her chair.
SPIN is a dance show that believes that dance is as basic to humans as heartbeats. It is a dance performance that wants to involve an audience instead of being watched. SPIN shows that dance is a story that changes with every different body which makes it.
The man who introduced the show told us that earlier audiences had left feeling like they were levitating. Although I understand the elation in the sentiment, I left feeling grounded and connected to all the people in that performance. I see SPIN as something that could go on indefinitely because there is something universal and important here, and I wish more people can see this show.
At the end, when the music is dying, we slowly stretch outward to rest and watch the ceiling roiling with smoke. The lights send threads of green and blue through the smoke, and I feel like we are underwater watching the sun.
After a while a dancer stands up, and the human movement wakes us and we live.
SPIN created by Anna Seymour. Starring DJ Callum Padgham, Deaf Hosts Anna Seymour, Luke King, Robbie Burrows and dance performers Anna Seymour, Amanda Lever, Jon Clarke and Benjamin Hoopmann. Northcote Town Hall Studio 1, as part of Melbourne Fringe.