‘An excellent example of how critique can be embodied. How it can be physical and funny as well as scalpel sharp’: Robert Reid on Vicki Van Hout’s plenty serious TALK TALK
Honest to God: it’s shows like plenty serious TALK TALK that keep me coming back to the theatre, despite turgid Turgenevs, shocking Shakespeares and moribund Molières. This is the sort of show that tricks me into hoping they might all be good.
Presented at Arts House as part of Yirramboi festival, plenty serious TALK TALK is a solo dance work that defies simple categorisation. Creator and performer Vicki Van Hout blends traditional and classical dance, ironic self-awareness, spoken word, sketch comedy and drama in a fierce critique of the contemporary Indigenous dance scene and Australia’s ongoing failures in regard to its First Peoples.
I know there’s a lot I don’t get here. There are codes I see but can’t read, symbols and signifiers that I notice but am not literate enough to recognise. I know a lot is flying directly over my head, because I can hear people in the audience chuckling in a knowing way. That’s okay: it’s not all for me, and it doesn’t have to be.
Insider jokes about the dance world are coded into the choreography, nods to history and politics intersect the text and the movement. Some will only really be understood by the Indigenous audience, in the same way some will only be understood by the dancers. The show certainly doesn’t suffer from the need to explain itself to the whitefellas in the audience.
In the space, a large circular mat woven into a radiating starburst from recycled materials catches projections of films and the shifting lights. Oranges and yellows become lurid purples and greens, and pre-recorded sketches and dances bring the mat to life throughout the show. The light spills through to the wall behind, creating a repeated image, crisscrossed with the black shadows cast by the weaving.
It begins with a scene that seems to be backstage, maybe behind the scenes at a TV variety or talk show. Van Hout is the host, trailing her PA (Marian Abboud) and producer (Dominic O’Donnell) through the corridors. They argue about dancers who haven’t turned up, the comedian who has turned up, the troubles Uncle and Aunty are causing for the sake of the Welcome to Country.
The PA badgers her to sign documents and put on makeup for the show. It gets squirmingly uncomfortable as she desperately tries to avoid making any kind of comment about the host’s colour or culture, which she fails at almost immediately. Imagine a West Wing walk-and-talk, with a Ricky Gervais-like awkwardness.
Van Hout then emerges into the space, dancing what reads to me as an experience of meeting her fans. They seem to be white fans keen to demonstrate their woke-ness by introducing their children and respectfully asking disrespectful questions. She moves around the stage as though caught between handshaking and shoving while her recorded voice fills the space: “Savannah just learned about all that totem stuff in school. We love all that stuff and wanted to ask if can we have a totem, Savannah would just love to have her own totem…”
She slips out of this into an auction of traditional dance steps, sold off for combinations of classical dance. A foot stomp and a dirt flick for a pas de deux and the rights to your first major work. This is the sharp comedy and commentary at the core of plenty serious TALK TALK. It reminds me of Pina Bausch’s choreographed critiques of the European dance industry.
I may have the order of these mixed up. Van Hout talks fast, staring down the audience. She grins confidently at us as she shifts from character to character, from world to world, form to form.
In a phone interview with a friend or mentor she talks about her work. More recordings play while she dances, this time, I think, performing the choreography she’s interviewing her friend about. They discuss how her work is influenced by Martha Graham: Van Hout wants to know where the line is between quotation, appropriation and plagiarism. How much of someone else’s style can she use to reference and show it’s the same but different? How much of someone else’s routine can she work into her own, without being accused of straight up stealing it?
This theme of questioning the intertextuality of performance and culture recurs all through the work, alongside an interrogation of legitimacy. As she tells us towards the end, you have to be careful what you do, because there’s always someone watching.
It’s by turns cheeky and charming: but then shifts into darker material, as she dances what looks like being beaten by police. A rotating orange emergency light blares out from the woven mat while she’s kicked around the room and smashed into the table.
This is followed by another monologue during which Van Hout curls and shakes and twitches like a heroin or coke junkie, talking about dealing for the first time, a dusting of white paper colouring her nose and upper lip. The powder fills a baggy she clutches. But as she tells her story, it becomes clear that the drug she’s talking about is Indigenous dance movements and protocols. The coke in the baggy is maybe actually white clay.
Another video plays of her emerging from the deep darkness of an underground access tunnel, dressed as a construction worker or maybe a Telstra line worker, clutching what looks like hooked bones in either hand that claw out and rake at the air.
It’s barely an hour long and these are just the highlights that catch in my memory. There are other equally striking characters: Miss Light Tan, for instance, a critique of her past critiques and descriptions of her as a classical dancer, an Indigenous dancer and a light-skinned Aboriginal woman.
Finally there are projections of her setting up a tent in a roundabout amid traffic, as the soundtrack replays another phone call, during which she asks the price of things from a cup of coffee to a house. She asks what would be a good cash value for her Indigeneity. It’s doubly uncomfortable, because on screen, as she sets up her tent, we see a divvy van slowing down as it passes her. How long before they park and come back to move her on…? They don’t, and I’m surprised.
Plenty serious TALK TALK is an excellent example of how critique can be embodied. How it can be physical and funny as well as scalpel sharp. It’s also just damn good.
plenty serious TALK TALK, created, directed and performed by Vicki van Hout. Dramaturgy by Martin del Amo. Videography by Marian Abboud and Dominic O’Donnell. Sound Design by Phil Downing. Lighting Design by Karen Norris. At Arts House as part of Yirramboi Festival. Closed.