Keir Choreographic Award: Carissa Lee reviews The Wetness and Memoir for Rivers and the Dictator
She’s slippery, she’s fish, she’s hard to catch and she’s meant to be. She’ll slip through your fingers, no matter how big and wide they are, lost from your sight she’s saying, “you can’t have me”.
The Wetness, by Bhenji Ra
Red lighting, a sound mixing desk in the centre up-stage. A white heart propped up house-right. A figure enters silhouetted against the dim red cyclorama (Angel Ho) wearing a ridiculously huge Matador-esque hat.
Ho begins the music. It’s gloriously nightmarish, industrial and epic. If Beastie Boys, Trent Reznor, Joey Jordison and some random person breaking glass decided to collaborate, this might have been the end result. I honestly loved it.
The volume in the space was okay for me, but I like to hang out in mosh pits and listen to industrial goth music. I’m not sure if it was the right volume for every patron in attendance. The person sitting next to me covered her ears for most of the musical intro.
WhenBhenji Ra enters she’s wearing what looks at first like a furry koala costume, but then you realise it’s actually a heart on her head, not ears. The costume is blue and scaly, with hearts on the stomach, buttocks and legs, her outfit is padded to create a Kardashian-like figure of amplified thighs and buttocks. Considering the heat in that room, I couldn’t help thinking, fuck wearing all that gear.
She moves slowly, dragging her feet with an intoxicated sway that turns into intricate foot movement, her face vacant and expressionless. We hear her heavy breathing, and realise that she’s mic’d up. As her character begins to emerge through her movement and breath, Ra meets the eyes of audience members, mouthing words. She makes random vocal sounds (the mic was way too loud for this) accompanied by even darker music. Ho emerges from the behind the sound desk to record her on his phone, projecting her image onto the big white heart.
Ra approaches the front row, takes off the glittery blue heart she’s wearing on her head and puts it on an audience member. She starts repeating the phrases “slipping, bad bitch”, an echo of the generic vocal filler that we often hear in modern pop music, gyrating sexily in her furry get up.
This performance has an edgy burlesque feel to it. Ra seems to be satirising contemporary sexuality with a persona of the breathy diva. She uses the audience to emphasise her status, through unwavering eye contact and the direct address of sexualised lines. She asks audiences members to assist with her costume change, although she’s not invasive, but it was comic when the audience members attempted to comply. Despite the audiences’ apprehension or giggly awkwardness at this engagement with her, played up the interaction like they wanted her, and she was resisting them.
Ra’s cheekiness sifting into her performance was my favourite part. She keeps up the sexy façade, even when when there was a bit of a wardrobe malfunction with some unruly boots. It didn’t matter: Ra made light of it, but still absolutely owned it.
Watching Ra own the space, control the audience, and immerse herself in her performance made me envy her freedom and her confidence. Whether she was wearing that furry onesie, or the stunning lingerie that was revealed underneath, she was beyond expectations, requirement or consequence. Whether we liked it or not, she was the bad bitch in the room. One of the strongest performances, and definitely the most enjoyable, of the two KCA programs.
At acting school, my favourite acting teacher made us do a particular exercise. The class would sit at the back of the auditorium of the theatre while one of the other students would walk onto the stage and say “I own this space.” Our teacher made a couple of students do it about five times, and she still didn’t believe them.
If Lilian Steiner had been in that class, all she would have had to do was walk on the stage. You’d believe her.
Steiner’s performance begins with her on the stage in a silver costume a little like a space suit, backed by pulsing electronic music. The stage is lit a pale green. Her outfit highlights her movement well: it creates a water-like effect that only happens when she moves. Her ballet-inspired movements are both contradicted and complemented by the accompanying music: they are simply beautiful, long-limbed and clean, but small details – her hands shaking, or rapping on the ground around her – betray the sense of a different internal journey.
It felt as if I were watching something flowing right in front of me. Her fluid movement and shimmering costume made me think of icy water running down a window. It’s a shock when Reuben Lewis strides across the stage, trumpet in one hand, and sweeps her up with his other arm and casts her on the floor. It’s an act of abrupt silencing.
Steiner gets back up again. She tries to move and toward him, but keeps being drawn back. It’s as if she will never reach him, as if she’s destined to replay this action of wanting to be closer to him, but never getting there. Her gestures suggest that she wants to challenge him, but her face betrays that she wants to be understood. Lewis plays a single note on the trumpet, which, accompanied by her movement of retreat, makes it seem as if she’s a balloon running out of air, being taken with the wind.
This movement repeats and then they move to the side of the stage. Each performer grabs a microphone on a stand and moves it to the centre before the lights go out. I thought, what a cool ending, we will never hear what they have to say.
But the lights do come back on. Each performer is now in a spotlight, Steiner in front and Lewis directly behind her. He continues to play the trumpet , and Steiner delivers a monologue or poem. Steiner’s spoken piece painted a faint watercolour of images such as large camps and a dictator. It felt like there was more water than paint in this piece. Her delivery began strongly, but the poem was too long and it lacked a sense of dramaturgical structure, which meant the images ran off the pages as if they had no definitive outline.
In her program notes Steiner speaks of us all being artefacts in flux. Perhaps the lack of definition reflected the fact that artefacts, old words on paper, do crumble and fade, as we do. However, there wasn’t enough there to keep me as engaged as I was during her previous unspoken defiant-yet-fluid movements.
I was moved by Steiner’s intense discipline throughout this piece. In a room without air conditioning, all the competition dancers endured the heat of bodies in the room, stage lights, and in some instances, heavy costumes. Towards the end, Steiner returns to dance, and there were moments when I saw the sweat dripping off her nose and chin while she cut her elegant figures. She refused to waiver and wipe it away, as some dancers had, which I think added her character’s strength within her performance.
The performance was bookended with further dancing and a kind of stand-off between the two performers. Steiner, her back to the audience, faces Lewis, who collapses. She continues her dance with new-found freedom, until she too, collapses. She lets her movement end when it ends her, rather than allowing someone to silence her again.
The Wetness, concept and choreography by Bhenji Ra. Sound design by Angel-Ho, costume design by Matthew Stegh. Performed by Angel-Ho and Bhenji Ra. Program 1.
Memoir for Rivers and the Dictator, concept and choreography by Lilian Steiner. Music by Reuben Lewis and Marco Cher-Gibard. Performed by Lilian Steiner and Reuben Lewis. Program 2
Witness is covering all the semi-finalists in the Keir Choreographic Awards as part of their critical collaboration with Dancehouse’s Public Program
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