Inspired by Georges Rouault’s paintings, Seeing Through Darkness reimagines the disabled body, says Jess Martin
When I imagine explaining what disability is like to the people in my life, I find myself caught up in a scenario of silent gestures and pacing around my living room, preoccupied by the struggle for meaningful expression. This is never soothed by the knowledge that nobody actually asks. I feel absurd.
The ink-on-paper portraits of expressionist painter Georges Rouault’s miserere series that inspired Seeing Through Darkness capture moments of self-involved misery. Rouault’s work has a sense of humour – to dwell dramatically alone in one’s own suffering is inherently ridiculous, but also human. This dance performance, directed by Michelle Ryan for Restless Dance Theatre, feels like reaching into the unknown and finding company.
As the audience waits to filter through to the performance space in the Arts Gallery of South Australia, these dark, staring portraits set a heavy tone. The loose linework and strong tonal contrast show Rouault’s particular talent for capturing gesture. The series features several profile portraits with heads inclined at strange and expressive angles, and arms that curve in uncanny ways.
Some of the works include multiple figures with their bodies huddled together, their limbs grasping each other and their head tilted close together. The most striking of these works are the portraits of figures which stare straight out at the viewer.
As the dance begins, six dancers stand hunched over. They arch their spines and extend their necks to lay their heads against each other, eyes closed, tenderly exploring their proximity. Three lights track around the edge of the performance space, amplifying the dancers’ bodies as shadows projected onto the wall of the gallery, in a uniquely interactive lighting installation by Geoff Cobham. The dancers explore the space in sweeping gestures and poses, gaining momentum with the tense and jumping score from Hilary Kleinig and Emily Tulloch.
Each moment in which the performers find each other is filled with the joy of recognition as they recreate the tableaux from Rouault’s melancholy artworks, which fill the adjacent gallery.
As is the custom post-Covid, once inside the gallery the audience consists of single chairs dotted sparsely across one side of the space. Usually, the physical distance between performers and an audience acts as a security blanket while emotionally engaging with live performance. Caring, supportive and antagonistic relationships play out amongst the dancers in a different type of space. It is lonely watching the performers move together through these tense, expressive sequences.
When one of the dancers finally lifts their head and makes eye contact with me, I am overwhelmed. The whole experience feels like it is only about this moment of connection and recognition. Partially it’s the privilege of watching dancers who also live with disability, but mostly that feeling is simply the intimacy of recognising shared humanity.
The exaggerated body in art is mostly a metaphor for emotional distress. It leaves little space for disabled or unusual bodies to be seen as neutral, without a narrative of suffering. The idea of depicting and viewing the “imperfect” is an emotionally and politically charged choice. The disabled body in art has a fraught history that parallels the place of disability in mainstream society – sensationalised, feared and dehumanised. That tension often extends into real life interactions with people who experience disability. There are too few wholesome, accurate or empathetic narratives.
Comparing the dance to the artworks it was inspired by, it feels necessary to consider how people living with disabilities are often treated as if their bodies and lives are inherently confronting. Seeing Through Darkness seems to ask whether an audience can recognise these performers internal perspectives, or ever truly see the disabled body as neutral.
Rouault’s paintings are deeply humane and diffuse the melancholy of their subjects’ suffering by adding humorously melodramatic titles. Likewise, this performance responds to a reflection on misery by finding shared experience, self-recognition and new perceptions.
A mainstream perspective of disabled bodies projects tragedy and suffering, overwriting their humanity. Seeing Through Darkness projects these bodies large and active in the gallery. It seems necessary that these exaggerated figures are depicted by dancers who are disabled, not because the performers have visible impairments, but because imperfection is human and unifying.
Ryan’s choreography recognises the gestural poses of Rouault’s artworks through slow, searching extensions of the head and neck. That familiarity, captured in how the dancers incline their heads together in group and partner work, imparts great tenderness and conspiratory humour to this work.
As they recreate the figures of Rouault’s artworks, the performers negotiate their bodies simultaneously as the objects of art, and as active, subjective performers with the power to challenge the audience. Yet they are also present as neutral human bodies, without inherent positive or negative value.
To take on the dual position of object and actor demands that the audience recognise the humanity and subjectivity of the performers, especially in the act of looking at the audience. The viewer is provoked to explore how we perceive and magnify imperfection.
When Restless Dance Theatre lost multi-year funding from the Australia Council earlier this year it felt like a bizarre mistake. Artistic Director Michelle Ryan had just been awarded the prestigious Australia Council Award for Dance. This is an organisation that has to compete for funding, unsuccessfully, while the Major Performing Arts companies stagnate creatively with guaranteed financial support. Seeing Through Darkness underscores the failure of that decision.
Larger, better supported dance companies are not exploring concepts in this nuanced way, and arguably are not capable of this calibre of work, because they’re constrained by casting able-bodied, classically trained professional dancers. With the limited performances of Seeing Through Darkness already sold out, it underscores how essential it is that Restless Dance Theatre be supported to keep making such necessary work, on a platform broad enough to reach the audience it deserves.
Seeing Through Darkness is a deeply beautiful performance that speaks to how the simplicity of human connection can be so difficult to achieve. It demonstrates how powerful the privilege of coming together through live performance can be.
Seeing Through Darkness, directed by Michelle Ryan, designed by Geoff Cobham and Meg Wilson, music by Hilary Kleinig and Emily Tulloch. Assistant director Larissa McGowan. Performed by Kathryn Adams, Chris Dyke, Jianna Georgiou, Michael Hodyl, Alexis Luke and Michael Noble. Arts Gallery of South Australia and Restless Dance Theatre. Closed.