The Keir Choreographic Award: Robert Reid reviews Yoni, Stop-Go and Public Action
Two bodies are in the space. Two women. The space is dark, and their movement together flows in and out of making circles and reaching through them. The building blocks of play are here in their repetitions. More playful than a ritual, less free than a game. There’s gentle blue backlight, it feels calm. They intertwine around each other. They remind me of DNA.
They’re being silently watched from the shadows by a woman at a desk. She sits and watches from just in front of us. The desk, the set of the shoulders, make her seem like an official. A timekeeper or an adjudicator.
This is the first work of the Keir Choreographic Award, presented as part of Program One. Yoni, the work of choreographer Prue Lang and dancers Mikaela Carr, Lauren Langlois, Amber McCartney and Tara Jade Samaya, announces itself as a feminist work in its program note. It assumes a comparatively superficial feminism as a cloak to embody a much deeper and more sophisticated feminist critique.
The first moment ends and is abruptly replaced by a new game. The dancers feint and spar with each other, passing combinations of moves back and forth, as the adjudicator calls out the names of those who have “won” each “round.” The rules of this game are not immediately clear, but the kind of play is all-too-familiar. They compete. They win or lose at the decision of an outsider. It’s physical. They breathe heavily, like athletes.
The scene ends and shifts suddenly again, becoming a general knowledge quiz about the achievements of women through the ages, the young women on stage competing to demonstrate their knowledge of the names of women throughout history. This again suddenly transforms into a historical litany of a timeline in which patriarchy is abandoned, a world in which women shape and guide the future of human development.
The world being modelled in Yoni is one of discontinuous rule-sets that are endlessly, suddenly disrupted, which share a constant thread of social relations constructed around rules of competitive play.
The politics of the piece itself is plain, particularly in the spoken text, but its politics are subtler than the textual surface might allow. The list of names you should know but don’t because patriarchy suppress the contribution of women, or the future in which world peace has been achieved with the destruction of patriarchy: these are the rhetoric of the work, set pieces Lang uses to model the operation of the world. The more sophisticated critique made by Yoni is the modelling and performing systems of competition.
Though the exploration of the mechanics of oppression through competition and erasure is strong in this piece, the work itself cries out for depth. It makes me wonder if Yoni is conceptually constrained by its context: the twenty-minute time limit and its positioning within a competitive framework limit its scope as a world building exercise.
In the world as it is, the games that the dancers play for us suddenly and abruptly change. The rules around them go from the simple proto-play of the first moment through sports to quiz to global politics. The women on stage navigate that world of suddenly changing rules and goals with a camaraderie that carries them through together.
The dramatist in me can’t help but feel like this is just act one.
Stop-Go is the third work on the first night, presented after interval by Branch Nebula (Lee Wilson and Mirabelle Wouters). The audience files back into the space and is requested to remove their shoes, placing one in a grid of green boxes projected onto the stage and carrying the other back to our seats.
Immediately we are invested in the work, whether we like it or not. We have a personal stake in what ever is going to happen next. I personally have awaiting me a long journey of acute awareness of my shoe throughout the next twenty minutes.
At our seats we find instructions. I’m sitting at the back and am also at the back of the line to return so as I climb people are discovering their instructions around me. Sharing them with the people next to them. Already the whole room is more alive than I’ve seen it yet.
The instructions give us timed actions to perform over a period of ten minutes. They include running through the ring tones on our phones, sitting and standing in the audience, applauding for fifteen seconds (a lot longer than you think if you don’t really mean it), getting on stage to roll around and picking up the shoes to throw them to the side of the stage, then build a pile from them and various other actions. Branch Nebula mention in their program note that this work opens “their choreographic toolkit for public inspection and use” and so I wonder if these are the building blocks of their rehearsal practice; move in such a way, do specific action, contrast, repeat.
I still don’t have my shoe.
In fact, the hell knows where my other shoe is now. Somewhere in the pile. I couldn’t see it.
Trust, these moments are all about trust.
Branch Nebula use us, the bodies in the room, to fill the room with chaos. And it is chaos. It quickly becomes apparent that we all have different instructions and for 10 minutes those instructions unleash noise and movement all over.
In this kind of space people let their guard down. They stop performing for each other and focus instead on completing the task at hand. Conventional norms around social interaction between strangers loosen. Even I managed to talk to a couple of people.
At then end of ten minutes you return to your seat. The count down clock that has been projected throughout is the externalised force that gives meaning to the activity and authority to the instructions. Now it gives you a final instruction. Repeat all your actions of the last ten minutes in one. I’m impressed at how many people try to do it. I get barely half way through mine before the minute is up.
We’re now told we can collect our shoe.
Oh yeah, my shoe. That’s somewhere the pile that I helped build. I can’t see it so it must be underneath. I’ll wait. Also, everyone’s in there searching for their shoes. I’m the guy at the airport luggage carousel who waits till everyone else is gone to go get his bag. I can wait a few rounds, I’m not going any where so urgent that I can’t wait for it to go round a couple of times. I wait.
I still can’t see it now the crowd and the pile has thinned…. Yeah, this is what I want. To be the guy on stage at the end going, sorry, has any body seen my shoe? It’s a red doc with blue laces… No I’ll just go back to my seat without it and see if the stage manager found an extra somewhere after.
Then it appears. Thrown back into the pile by someone who grabbed it by mistake, I assume.
There is relief enough for me to sit down on the stage and just put my shoes on while everyone makes their way back to their seats. I’m not even alone, someone sat next to me to do the same thing. For which moment of solidarity is a shore on the other side of the storm. Through which I clung to my shoe as a life raft. As we return once more to our seats, with the screen telling us that if they win Branch Nebula will share their winnings with all those present, it feels briefly like the end of a stadium concert.
If they win, I want my cut.
Throw a group of dancers into the middle of an audience, a slowly cascading, slow motion explosion follows. Throw a pebble in slow motion into a pond and see the ripples.
Luke George describes Public Action as a social choreography, a collective negotiation between bodies, objects, artist and audience.
With Public Action, George sets us first to consider an audience. A projection on the back wall (Nick Roux) of an audience sitting in the seats you’re currently sitting in. Not you, though. Ripples run through the present audience, as they recognise that the projection is not themselves. The projected audience sit and watch us. They itch and shift more as time goes on. Or maybe I only think they do. I think I recognise people in that crowd. People I imagine are probably part of the Dancehouse community. I imagine the call-out that might have gone out for volunteers, to Luke Georgeʻs community, to the other dancers in the Keir award program, spreading out like a ripple through friends and supporters.
At this point a dancer enters through the space and up into the audience, the “us” audience, not the projected audience. They edge into a row of seats and have a short, quiet conversation with the person sitting in the middle of the row, who gets up and goes to stand on the front edge of the stage to watch.
As with fluid dynamics or partial physics, the audience gradually follows her lead. Having been given permission to act outside of the usual conventions of viewing, the audience begins to take ownership of its own agency.
It takes a lot to move this audience.
In fact it takes an explosion.
With the seat vacated the first dancer crouches around it, hugging it perhaps: from my vantage I canʻt really see what heʻs doing. Already the ranks of audience have contorted around the action, twisting inward on themselves to see.
There are giggles and comments starting to emerge from the knot tied in the audience. Maybe from the dancer, maybe apologising for the disturbance or for touching strangers. It starts to look like they’re tumbling slowly over and through the chair and may have been joined by a second dancer. The disturbance in the audience is getting wider, spreading, growing. The shock wave pushing us back around it.
Another dancer enters from the stage, reminding us that there is space behind the action. Space that can be occupied. The first few early adopters get out of their seats and go stand on stage to get a better view. Watching them make their decisions to move and how they carry themselves through the space is revealing of how much we subconsciously perform our decisions and signal our intentions as we negotiate space with our peers.
More dancers are added. More audience moves. The seats tumble slowly along with the dancers as part of the avalanche. A third of the audience by now are scattered across the stage and in the aisle. The rest are turned around, rubbernecking and standing. Our distribution looks like nothing so much as the scatter pattern of debris around a blast radius.
During this process, the projected audience have remained watching, impassive. They have assumed a brace position during the worst of the “explosion” which suggests that the shock wave has been so strong as to breach the barrier between present and past, real and represented.
Finally loud poppy music fills the space and the dancers each emerge from the audience to dance around the audience still scattered on stage. There is an almost aggressive edge to it, the feeling of being at a party just before it goes badly wrong. Here we return from the sub atomic level of the moment to the to the prosaic realities of the dance competition. The projected audience have returned to sitting watching blankly until they disappear, leaving the seats that we now occupy, empty as the dancers exit.
We applaud dutifully, from our scatter pattern across the space and then return to the natural order of things. The dancers return briefly in hi viz vests (and am I imagining hard hats?) to put the overturned seats back where they belong. A lovely cartoony flourish of city infrastructure appearing to repair the damage at the site of an impact.
Yoni, concept and choreography Prue Lang. Performed by Mikaela Carr, Lauren Langlois, Amber McCartney, Tara Jade Samaya. Music by Hildegard Von Bingen and Princess Nokia. Program 1.
Stop-Go, Concept/Choreography Lee Wilson and Mirabelle Wouters (Branch Nebula) Colaborating Artists, Phil Downing and John Baylis. Program 1.
Public Action, Concept/Choreography Luke George, Performed by Luke George, Latai Taumoepeau, Timothy Harvey, Brooke Powers and Leah Landau. Video Design Nick Roux. Program 1.
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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