Alison Croggon reviews Slown, Smallened and Son’s Lady Example at Next Wave
The SubStation, rising out of a tangle of railway lines at Newport in all its red-brick neoclassical hawt, is nothing if not theatrical. It once housed the machinery that electrified the Melbourne railways network, but more recently has been revivified as one of the most spectacular venues in Melbourne. The young dance collective Slown, Smallened and Son take full advantage of its steampunk glamour.
Like the building, this collective – Alice Dixon, William McBride and Caroline Meaden – is ambitious. Their Next Wave contribution, Lady Example, “considers the contemporary and historical feminine”, proposing “a deranged and exquisite stocktake of our histories and mythologies to propose a litany of new, glorious, shuddering worlds.” No biggie then.
The performance is close to ninety minutes long, a fully realised dance work that includes nine performers. Lady Example is a bewildering bricolage of behaviours and performances, knitted together with total assurance. You feel that it ought to crumble beneath the weight of its own spiralling aspirations. Instead, I found myself enthralled by a precision of judgement and execution that draws together this unclassifiable work into a fascinating unity.
It begins with what appears to be conventional contemporary classical dance. The first couple of sequences, performed by Dixon, McBride and Meaden themselves, are danced either to silence or orchestral instruments – strings, woodwind – building on balletic and folk movements. These are beautiful dances in themselves, at once complex and pure. But purity is not what we’re getting here.
It’s not long before the whole conceit is smashed. Some text begins to overlay the music. It sounds portentous and poetic, but the words are inaudible. Then Dixon, McBride and Meaden come forward and address the audience directly, exhorting us to behave as audiences should, pleasing the performers with our flattering attention. And soon it becomes clear that this work is, in part, an essay about perception: who is looked at, how they are looked at. Who is looking.
The performers are looking at us, assessing us. Turning back the dominant gaze, drilling into it: inverting the supposed narcissism of the woman who is always looked at. We are instructed to look at Will as he dances. We do. The other dancers sit with us and watch him. The audience is surprisingly obedient: we click our fingers when instructed, look where we are told to.
Soon there are too many things to look at: there are more dancers, all performing in different parts of the hall. Someone is seated in a corner, holding a silver swan. Someone else, diminished by distance, is half-concealed by a small screen at the back of the hall. Some performers are mid-stage, dancing together.
The world wound into this performance keeps getting bigger. At first the full-length arched windows that frame the space are curtained but, just as the space is permeable to the sound of passing trains or planes, so the curtains are drawn back. The stage itself is open, we see performers outside the space pacing along the corridor outside. In this late afternoon performance, we can see the grey skies of a wintry Melbourne afternoon, the light failing outside.
The performance keeps shifting. A sudden incongruous dance to Kim Carnes’s 80s hit Bette Davis Eyes. What seems like some early 20th century play in a drawing room with a chaise lounge, seen through a red plastic scrim. Or maybe it’s some kind of medical consultation? A psychiatric examination? A couple, a man and a woman, in frilled white tops, dancing together, dancing separately.
There are more swans, a wave of silver and white kitsch, the kind that you might find in op-shops. They become extensions of the dancers’ hands, struck together to become percussion, things to hold for comfort perhaps or to point with, and eventually a moving flotilla, placed and replaced across the floor.
Like the swans, the spoken text never settles anywhere. It’s always supple, always turning into something else. It’s the shapes of locution, language as stereotype: the language of conventional drama, or of advertising or self-improvement, morphing into something else. Unsettlingly, the words are always spoken with complete emotional conviction, their expressed feeling often at odds with what is said; or the feeling switches in one moment to a completely different emotional place. The constant dislocations are comic, but they also begin to feel sinister.
Against this broken, denatured language, an increasingly complex choreography maps itself across the space: duos, trios, choruses. There’s a sense of flocking, of complex relationships. The chorus work is beautiful, always precise, and the balance of relationships between all the bodies on stage, despite each dancer’s singularity of movement, continually produces an ever more complex harmony.
I still don’t quite know what to make of it and I feel as if I missed half of what was going on, but I want to see more of this company. And I’m pretty sure we will.
Lady Example, choregraphed by Alice Dixon, William McBride and Caroline Meaden. Sound design by Emah Fox, lighting by Jason Crick, sets and costumed by Matilda Woodroofe. Performed by Fleur Conlon, Alice Dixon, Patrick Durnan Silva, Benjamin Hurley, William McBride, Caroline Meaden, Hannah Monson, Emma Riches and Joanne White. Slown, Smallened and Son at the SubStation for Next Wave, until May 13. Bookings https://thesubstation.org.au/whats-on/lady-example/
Contains nudity and strobe effects. No access information is available.