Choreographer Stephanie Lake goes from strength to strength. Alison Croggon reviews her newest work, Replica.
Stephanie Lake Company’s new work Replica is apparently years in the making. It’s not at all surprising to read this: it’s evident in every moment of this remarkable hour-long piece.
It’s dense with dynamic thought, each gesture finely detailed and yet woven into the apparent simplicity that comes only with fully achieved work. You never lose sight of its most literal aspect: it’s a duet between two dancers, a man and a woman. The complexity that Replica evolves from this simple trope is extraordinary.
In Melbourne dance this month, duets are the new black. Last week, a day apart, two duets premiered in Melbourne – Chunky Move’s Common Ground (reviewed here by Robert Reid) and Replica. It’s not difficult to see the attraction of duets, a metaphor par excellence for human coupling. We can load onto the two bodies of the dancers all our projections of relationship, human and inhuman. For centuries of classical dance, the duet has been the primary trope for heterosexual lovers: a man and a woman, each displaying their differences, their femininity and masculinity, through their unity in dance.
Lake and her two dancers, Christina Chan and Aymeric Bichon, take this trope and playfully spin it through a series of encounters that open out the duet into a dizzyingly complex dance in which two bodies rehearse shifting relationships of power and dependency, symbiosis and conflict. The myth of heterosexual romanticism begins to dissolve and reshape into something much more interesting. “Myths do not flow through the pipes of history,” says the great Russian critic Viktor Shklovsky. “They change and splinter, they contrast and refute one another. The similar turns out to be dissimilar.”
When the audience enters the performance space, the stage seems to be empty. Bosco Shaw’s lighting is already in evidence: a fine smoke haze makes the emptiness of the square stage, defined by clear borders on the floor, uncertain. I am sure that the dancers are already present on stage, but I can see no sign of them. Maybe there are already bodies lying in the back corners, concealed by black drapes? No, that’s an illusion created by the stage borders being broken at each corner. Or is it?
My suspicion turns out to be accurate: the dancers are present. Chan and Bichon step out into the light from somewhere totally unexpected. They are identically costumed, down to the orange polish on their finger and toe-nails and top-knot hairstyles. Almost all the conventional signifiers of gender are absent: Bichon’s short beard and his tallness are the only details that signal his masculinity. Paradoxically, this sexes their bodies: I feel unusually aware that I’m watching a man and a woman. Their bodies and movements aren’t neutral or unsexed: rather, they are profoundly fluid. The binaries that signify and police gender and sex waver, to become a dynamic play of harmony and conflict.
Replica begins to look like the natural world, in all its magnificent, dizzying complexity. It’s the real world, which is overlaid by so much human meaning-making that sometimes we can’t perceive it at all. As So Mayer suggests in her etymological essay series Disturbing Words, maybe we should think of gender as a landscape, rather than as an abstract, intangible spectrum:
What if…we thought of gender as a landscape? Full of roughs and buttings-up, of pits and bumps and barks and falls. Tussocky underfoot. Very real, very uneven, very possible. Not landscape as vista, all sublime and far away. But underfoot or stick or wheel or hand, to be navigated with full attention. Full of alterations by generations of humans. In danger of privatisation, pollution, its specificities and granularities crumbling away under the force of human-made climate change.
In many places, gender has been blasted and monocultured, its disruptions and particularities paved over or bulldozed to grow rows and rows of identical GM stalks. Anything that doesn’t serve capitalism’s need for regularity gets called waste…and poisoned.
Replica, in its physicality and details, its humour and tenderness, its conflict and harmony and abrupt shifts, seems to me very like this landscape. The dancers begin as lovers, embracing each other, and I am never quite able to unsee this. It underlies all their subsequent transformations, which are multiple and evolve beyond the human to the non-human. In one witty moment they exchange faces, as perhaps lovers do; in another, Bichon begins to bite himself in an excess of hunger and then snaps at Chan’s toes, who teases and draws away. In one extraordinary sequence using ultra-violet lighting they become – anemones, perhaps, moving in a blue current of light, or human bodies of the future, evolved into a new harmony. Or perhaps they are just our dreams of ourselves.
The movement itself shifts from angular, almost mechanical, gesture to a lyric fluidity. It’s kinetically linked to Bosco Shaw’s lighting design and Robin Fox’s score – a slap on a body or a sudden gesture switches on a new lighting state, or cues a new rhythm. Like the dance, the sound and lighting find profound variations in a severe frame, working with constant inventiveness. The work as a whole has a beautiful dramaturgy of repetition and variation, which makes each present moment serially open up the whole piece, reflecting back and forwards through the whole work.
The dancers watch each other, display themselves for the other’s pleasure or judgement, control each other’s movements (a couple of sequences that are at once comic, inventive and sinister) or move in unison together, making love or beauty. Once they step out of the performance’s conceit altogether to directly address the audience and bring us into the circle of the stage. This is always a dance of erotics.
Its liberating quality is how this erotics seems at once fresh and deeply familiar. It’s as if I’m being alerted to a way of being that I’ve known all along, that’s common and therefore instantly recognisable, but I somehow almost never quite see represented with this clarity. When the dancers stand up in their final tableau, back in the same place they were in the beginning, I feel a smart of tears behind my eyes. I’m not quite sure why. Perhaps because this is what performance can do: reveal to us all the marvellous ways there are of being human.
Replica, directed and choreographed by Stephanie Lake. Performed and co-choreographed by Christina Chan (Singapore) and Aymeric Bichon (France). Composition by Robin Fox, lighting design by Bosco Shaw, costume design by Paula Levis. Northcote Town Hall, Darebin Arts Speakeasy, until May 5. Bookings.
This production uses smoke haze effects. Darebin Arts accepts Companion Cards, please call the Box Office on 9481 9500 to make your booking.