Dance Plant Collective’s MEAT raises complex ethical questions, says New Review critic Georgia Mill
When I was around nine, I was playing at a friend’s house when her dad bought us lunch from KFC. Because I was a vegetarian, I ate out of the shared coleslaw bucket. Everyone else ate some kind of chicken product: chicken wings, nuggets or burgers. I remember her dad and his friend laughing while I picked at the sour cabbage and asking me to justify why I was a vegetarian. My choice was obviously a hassle; but perhaps on some level it was also forcing them to think about a reality they’d rather not engage with.
This is a common occurrence: people often think your dietary choice is a direct attack on them and will launch a pre-emptive defence. I am hardly a hardcore crusader for the vegetarian cause, but I think that any opportunity to unpack the process that happens between the paddock and the packaged goods is important. Whether we choose to acknowledge it or not, it seems most people feel uncomfortable about the practice of meat consumption and animal slaughter.
MEAT is a contemporary dance work from New Zealand company Dance Plant Collective that engages with the meat industry and ideas around consumption. The work is visually and spatially arresting. The clever use of heaters in the set-design (Achmed Abman) created an uncomfortable and menacing aesthetic from the moment the audience entered. Fire is used to heat our homes, but it’s also used to brand and scorch, to smoke and boil.
We are in an industrial space with peeling paint, wooden crates on the ground and dim lighting. Gates and fences are turned on their sides and propped up in between archways, and eyes peer out at us from the darkness. When we hear a shuffling sound, we walk towards the fences and look through. A woman on her hands and knees is shuffling forward on a long sheet of plastic, her movements jerky and painful, both human and not-human.
She edges slowly along the plastic and the audience moves closer to the fence. We see her body move painfully forward, as if she is not in control of the direction she is being pulled. Her breaths appear staggered and cut short. The pulsing beat of the audio is like the beat of an unfamiliar heart. Slowly she rises: hands moving forward and back, chest convulsing, her feet scrunching the plastic. The pulsing noise will be carried throughout the performance of MEAT, in the movements of the performers and in the music; a soundtrack to bodies pushed, pulled and forced around the space.
There were many beautiful images throughout the show. The set, costume (Lisa McEwan, Elise Li) and lighting (Samuel Folkard) linked together to create a layered world, with dark shadows, electronic moans and a haunting vastness. There were many places to hide in the set and the world created in the performance space showed skill and consideration.
The five performers (Bella Wilson, Brittany Kohler, Natasha Kohler, Jaz Yahel and Tui Hofmann (choreographer)) are incredibly strong and talented. They perform repetitive movements, hoist other performers on the own bodies and contort themselves for long periods of time. They stuff objects in their mouths, look hungrily at other performers and attempt to eat each other.
For me the highlight of the performance was a scene involving an audio track describing the process of butchering a beef brisket while three performers repeated the same pulsing movements in unison. The choreography (Tui Hofmann) in this section accompanied by Alex Zielinski’s composition builds an uncomfortable and entrancing focus: we sit and watch them move in what must be incredibly challenging positions (almost like repetitive pushups), as the casual narrator’s butchering instructions are read out to the all-women cast.
With five performers there was often a lot for the audience to follow and sometimes I found myself a little confused. I wanted a scene with all five performers which attained the same focus and discomfort of the previous scene, but found the sequences with all five were incredibly busy. There were also a lot of different subjects covered – among others, animal slaughter, the fashion industry, women as meat, the human-animal connection and cannibalism.
I felt this performance could be strengthened to slip further into its absurd moments instead of pulling them back to what sometimes felt like literal interpretations of its thematic content. Often I wanted to linger with some sequences. There was the opportunity to play with the discomfort they had created – to push the audience harder. We were ready for more.
There has been a lot written and said about the consumption of meat and its ethics, yet we are still largely oblivious to the conditions of animals used for slaughter. We shy away from the reality because it involves death, gore and confrontation.
Earlier this year, footage of the Awassi Express prompted calls to ban live exports to Australia. In September a cross bench bill to ban live sheep exports passed the Senate, but is yet to make it to a vote in the House of Representatives.
These issues are definitely gaining momentum and I think a greater public understanding of the conditions means that performers have more scope to experiment with their representation of “consumption”. Often consumption isn’t clearly linked with pain and cruelty, and this complacency and cultural acceptance allows it to take place. It would have been interesting to see these represented in lighter moments that contrasted with the heaviness of the rest of the performance.
MEAT offers a promising insight into an ambitious young company that is dealing with complex ethical problems. I look forward to seeing what they take on next.
The New Review program is a collaboration between Witness and Footscray Community Arts Centre West Writers that nurtures and mentors new critical voices. It is part of Malthouse Theatre’s Living Now resident writers program, funded through the MPA Collaborations program, and has been assisted by the Australian Government through the Australia Council for the Arts, its arts funding and advisory body.
MEAT, Choreographed by Tui Hofmann. Performed by Bella Wilson, Brittany Kohler, Natasha Kohler, Jaz Yahel and Tui Hofmann. Music composition by Alex Zielinski (Riyoon). Set Design Achmed Abman. Costume Design by Lisa McEwan. Textile Design by Elise Li. AV and Lighting Design by Samuel Folkard. Produced by Zöe Nicholson. Abbotsford Convent – Industrial School, Melbourne Fringe.