‘I know I felt purely happy’: Alison Croggon on the participatory dance One Infinity at the Malthouse
This review discusses elements of One Infinity that are particularly delightful if they are a surprise. If you’re planning to see it, I’d suggest reading this review afterwards. Tl;dr: I loved this show.
The night I saw One Infinity, I found myself embroiled, as I too often am, in a passionate discussion on Facebook. (I can guarantee that nobody finds this tic of mine as irritating as I do). It stemmed from a Dance Magazine article in which Lauren Wingenroth, after seeing a dance in which sweaty, mostly naked dancers crawled all over audience members without any kind of forewarning, asks about the provenance of non-consensual audience participation.
Some people took exception to the notion of consent, as both too simple and too stifling. What can happen in a theatre, after all? Well, when participatory performance isn’t thought through, people can be injured; not all disabilities are visible. In theatres, people can be sexually harassed or even assaulted, on stage or off. Performers can use their authority to urge audience members to become complicit in actions they find ugly or distressing, and which, under the eyes of others, they feel unable to refuse.
Even at its most conventional, theatre is a space in which, among other things, social structures of power are made visible, sometimes deliberately, sometimes inadvertently. When the audience becomes an active participant, these issues, already complicated, become infinitely more so. ‘It’s…a question of why choreographers use audience interaction,’ says Wingenroth. ‘What purpose is it serving, and how is it deepening the work?’
In One Infinity, now playing at the Malthouse as part of the Melbourne Festival, choreographer Gideon Obarzanek and his multiple collaborators deal with these questions directly: they tell us exactly what to expect, and why they’re asking for our participation. It adds to an overarching impression that this is a work of absolute simplicity, and yet this is a profoundly complex work, the result of a collaboration between Chinese and Australian artists, dancers and master musicians. And us.
When we walk in, we’re assigned to one of two seating banks that face each other, separated by a slightly raised stage with a dark grey, polished floor. It begins with an introduction: the director and producer come on stage and welcome their audience in English and Mandarin. Obarzanek tells us that he thought it would be interesting if the audience could amplify the gestures of the dancers, and so we are asked to be part of the performance. He explains how this will happen, and each seating bank does a little rehearsal: whenever a dancer is lit high up above the audience facing us, we are asked, within our individual abilities and inclinations, to copy her arm movements. The rehearsal is quite fun, but it gives little indication of what the effect will be.
The choreography, like the set design, works on symmetries. The two companies, Beijing Dance Theatre and Dancenorth, begin in different seating banks, distinguished from each other by different costume colours. The dancers emerge from among the audience, where they have been sitting unnoticed during the opening music solos until spotlights pick them out. (Damien Cooper’s lighting cues everything and, like everything else in this show, is exquisite, organically part of the movement).
In the beginning they dance like us in their seats, creating mandala patterns with their hands and faces. We see the same movements repeated in each seating bank, but we watch them from entirely different angles: from across the stage as a conventional audience, or intimately, sitting close to the dancers. As the dance progresses, moving onto the stage and emerging between and through the musical solos from Genevieve Lacey, Wang Peng, Xiao Gang, Zhang Lu and Zhuo Ran, they strip off their costumes and become a single ensemble. Like everything else about this show, it’s a movement that’s as simple and complex as human relationship itself.
One Infinity is sharply reminiscent of many of Obarzanek’s previous works, which have always investigated the relationship between audience and performers. The facing audiences recall Two-Faced Bastard, and also Assembly, which used an abstracted seating bank for the set and employed a choir of 50 people and eight dancers. And it’s imbued with Obarzanek’s characteristically democratic idea that dance belongs to everyone, not just to those who have trained their bodies for years: in this quality, it reminded of the charming short film, Dance Like Your Old Man, in which six women portray their fathers by imitating how they danced.
But it’s also like nothing I’ve seen before. One Infinity does a number of things that seem, on the surface, to be completely contradictory. It’s a series of exquisite solo performances on guqin and wind instruments that induce a deeply interior, meditative state of attention, but it’s also a dance in which we participate, so that at the same time it’s actively communal. It seems absolutely contemporary, in both music and movement, and yet it also feels like an ancient ritual. Part of this effect of suspension within contradiction stems, I think, from the elegant poise of the whole work, which honours each part of the performance: our attention is directed with equal weight to the musicians, to the dancers, to our participation.
When we watch the audience across from us amplifying or complementing the dancers’ movements, the effect is breathtaking. It reminded me of the single time that I was part of an orchestra (I was a very bad musician and my career didn’t last long): the surprise and delight that my terrible piping became part of a swell of something that was so much larger than me and my poor abilities, an overwhelming harmony. Because we were part of the show in a way that was meaningful, as an integral part of the choreography, I was paying a different kind of attention, though that’s hard to quantify. Everyone was part of the movement, there was no self-consciousness. We were all in the show.
I know I felt purely happy through the whole performance. It felt rare, like being allowed to rehearse a utopian vision of how human beings can be together, in a gentle space that permits us all to make something beautiful.
One Infinity, directed and choregraphed by Gideon Obarzanek, co-composed by Max De Wardener, co-composed and performed by Genevieve Lacey and Wang Peng. Lighting design by Damien Cooper, sound design by Jim Atkins, costime design by Harriet Oxley, set design by Gideon Obarzanek and Damien Cooper. Jun Tian Fang Music Ensemble: Xiao Gang, Zhang Lu and Zhuo Ran. Beijing Dance Theatre: Gao Jing, Hu Jing, Li Lin, Qian Zhihai, Xu Zidong and Zhang Yuanbo. Dancenorth Australia: Samantha Hines, Jenni Large, Mason Kelly, Georgia Rudd and Felix Sampson. Jun Tian Fang Music Ensemble, Beijing Dance Theatre and Dancenorth at Malthouse Theatre as part of the the Melbourne International Arts Festival. Until October 21. Bookings
Wheelchair accessible event
Sound amplification systems available
Partly surtitled or includes dialogue, some background music and/or sounds