The swiss.style program currently running at Dancehouse provides some of the most exciting dance seen recently in Melbourne. Andrew Fuhrmann reviews.
Launching less than two weeks after the close of the Melbourne Festival, the latest Dancehouse programme – swiss.style, running until November 10 – seems to have caught Melbourne audiences by surprise. And that’s a shame, because it’s at least as interesting as anything the Festival had to offer this year – if not more interesting.
The opening weekend included works by Belgian-born Cindy Van Acker and South African-born Rudi van der Merwe. (They’re both based in Geneva, if you’re wondering about the Swiss connection). There were also Orsola Valenti’s filmic responses to Van Acker’s work showing on the big screen at Federation Square.
Cindy Van Acker last performed in Australia in 2012 as part of the Melbourne Festival, appearing on a double bill with Matthew Day in which she performed five short studies with Tamara Bacci. It was a thrilling program; some people – myself included – regard it as one of the contemporary dance highlights of the last decade in Melbourne.
It was special because it proposed a genuinely international conversation about dance and minimalism. Both Day and Van Acker, following different conceptual trajectories, appeared to confront a similar problem. Is it possible to spotlight the moment immediately before a gesture come into expression?
And so we had these two peculiarly seductive divagations in slow motion, explorations of the threshold between the perceptible and the imperceptible, where the work emerges through the accumulation of small deviations, slippages and gradual variation.
It was a spectacle of tension, making a drama of the way in which the body is at all times, even in rest, trammelled and distorted by unseen lines of force. For an electric, all-too-brief moment, it felt as if the Melbourne Festival was a point of connection in some larger and more urgent artistic project.
Van Acker is classically trained and danced at the Royal Ballet of Flanders and the Grand Théâtre de Genève. Working as a choreographer since 1994, she has collaborated with the likes of Myriam Gourfink and legendary Finnish noisemakers Pan Sonic. She worked with director Romeo Castellucci on the wildly ambitious Divina Commedia trilogy (2008). And she later provided choreography for his productions of the operas Parsifal (2011) and Moises und Aron (2015).
On her return visit, we get four recent solo works. Three are taken from an unfinished sequence collectively known as Shadowpieces that she began in December 2018. The fourth is an extract from a longer piece called Knusa/Insert Coins from 2016, danced by Van Acker herself.
The first of the Shadowpieces, performed in the upstairs studio at Dancehouse, is called Puppet Boy (La Garçon enchante). It’s quiet, playful work and a demonstration of Van Acker’s precision, finesse and clarity of presentation.
Dancer Matthieu Chayrigues gradually works his way from the back corner of the stage toward the audience, moving through a series of eloquent poses focusing on the upper body and arms. There are marionette like gestures, where the head lolls and limbs seem to swing as if on strings. And there are more ambiguous images, arrangements of line that almost but never quite emerge from abstraction into mimesis.
The music, Morton Feldman’s sublime Rothko Chapel, seems to open a passage for Chayrigues’s movement through the space. Chiming celesta and plangent viola activate unique gestures; while quiet drum rolls guide his steps upstage. Is it the music that has brought this wooden figure to life? By the end of the piece, the enchanted puppet is waving his arms as if conducting.
Chayrigues is an extraordinary dancer with preternatural control. Indeed, all the dancers are distinguished by their control. The solos were written specifically for these performers – in fact, they chose the music themselves – and it shows how expertly Van Acker can work with a virtuoso body.
The second piece, also upstairs, was Les Éphémères. As in the first, the slowness gives one the impression of contemplation and self-reflection. Here the music is one of Fred Frith’s rackety guitar solos. Dancer Stephanie Bayle enters from behind the audience dressed in a large brown jacket with a mandarin collar. She meanders across the stage, waggling her index finger as if chasing an epiphany or some other ephemerality.
The final two solos are performed downstairs in the Sylvia Staehli Theatre and are less comic; darker and more theatrical. In Tangibles, dancer Laure Lescoffy comes on like an envoy of death in stark black and white. Her body twists into gothic statuesques. She arches her back and lifts her hands. The bare forearms appear slender and pale in the hard light; and then her body is crunched, from convex to concave in slow motion, yielding to unseen pressure from above.
The final piece, danced by Van Acker herself, continues in this eerie vein. With one arm she rips bicep curls with a clenched fist as if her muscles were triggered by the bass drum in Mika Vainio’s booming score. The other arm, held rigidly, palm extended and trembling, violently saws the air.
In the works we saw by Van Acker in 2012 it seemed as if she were attempting to deconstruct the figure of the dancer; to show choreography was an assemblage of vectors, intentions and distortion. Here, however, there appears to be a return to figuration. These four solos almost seem to be character pieces.
There’s the puppet, the wigged-out philosopher, the black angel baring her teeth, and the coin-operated cyborg with power tools for arms. They each have a particular relationship with the mood of the space. Upstairs is natural light from the windows, improvised seating and a more open dynamic with the audience. Downstairs, in the black box theatre, has a kind of hermetic intensity.
This interest in the figure and its environment is one point of connection to the Rudi van der Merwe piece, Trophy, which was performed outdoors at Quarries Park in Clifton Hill.
This is a work that leaves itself wide open to chance environmental interventions. The site in Quarries Park is a wide corridor of lawn between two thickly planted areas. It’s an area, say, 40 meters in width and 150 meters in length.
Of course, every time they do this show the landscape will be a little different; and then there’s the problem of marshalling such a large public space on a weekend. In short, it’s hard to keep everyone out for the duration of the work.
As the audience gathers under several portable gazebos at one end of the corridor, you can see Dancehouse staff asking dog walkers and families if they wouldn’t mind waiting. Not everyone gets the message.
At precisely the moment the work begins a figure in a motorised wheelchair suddenly appears in front of us, racing in from the side, with a dog trailing behind. They zigzag up the corridor, heading away from us. The wheelchair swaying and dipping on the uneven ground.
With the heavy overcast sky and that weird afternoon light which makes colours seem more vivid the scene feels almost like something from an early Aphex Twin video. Just before the dog and its owner disappear from view we see the three dancers emerge.
Everything about the composition of this scene is perfect. The unexpected solo figure with dog passes into the vanish point and re-emerges instantly in the form of three elaborately costumed performers. It’s the sort of thing you can’t plan for.
Drummer and composer Béatrice Graf, positioned alongside us in the tent, begins banging as the three dancers move down the corridor toward a white picket fence installed about twenty meters from where we stand.
The dancers (Claire-Marie Ricarte, József Trefeli and Rudi van der Merwe) look like ornate lampshades that have sprung to life and been released into the wild. They wear matching large hoop skirts in striking peacock blue and tight black jackets with gold brocade. Their faces are covered in white lace balaclavas.
When the reach the fence, all three begin ripping out individual pickets and rearranging them. It’s all very dramatic. They brandish the sticks like broadswords and, with over-the-top flourishes, plunge them into the ground as if into the heart of a mortal enemy.
The pickets, we soon realise, are being placed into a grid pattern that looks for all the world like an old military cemetery, with row upon row of white crosses, some of them elegiacally tilted. It all feels very allegorical. But precisely what is intended?
According to the program, the work explores links between the hunting of animals and colonial conquest. Gender politics is also thrown in because the three figures in skirts are supposed to represent trophy wives. Well, maybe; but this work is open to myriad interpretations.
It finishes with another aleatory intervention, this time by the weather. Just as the dancers finish re-arranging the pickets, the rain suddenly comes bucketing down. The three figures retreat back through the park, eventually disappearing behind swirling sheets of rain. Again, visually, the effect couldn’t have been planned any better.
The swiss.style festival continues this week, with performances by Perrine Valli and the Sunfast, Jozsef Trefeli and Gabor Vagra, and a new collaboration between Victoria Chiu, Trefeli and Van Der Merwe.
Solos by Cindy Van Acker. Performed by Laure Lescoffy, Matthieu Chayrigues, Stephanie Bayle, Cindy Van Acker. Featuring music by Carl Michael von Hausswolff and Eric Pauser, Morton Feldman, Fred Frith and Mika Vainio. Dancehouse and Pro Helvetia at Dancehouse. Closed.
Trophy by Rudi van der Merwe. Choreographed by Claire-Marie Ricarte, József Trefeli and Rudi van der Merwe. Composition and drumming by Béatrice Graf. Scenography by Victor Roy. Performed by Claire-Marie Ricarte, József Trefeli and Rudi van der Merwe. Dancehouse and Pro Helvetia at Quarries Park in Clifton Hill. Closed.
swiss.style continues until November 10. Program details and bookings