Saturday, March 26, 2011

No one will tell us...

Rosalind Crisp with Andrew Morrish and Hansueli Tischhauser
Dance Massive
It isn't every day you have the privilege of watching artists so influential and respected in their fields. But then, sometimes such reverence comes posthumously, and improvised dance is about being present in the moment, not creating Enduring Works of Sublime Art. Or possibly that's just my sparse and academic appreciation of this Thing called Dance Improvisation?
I’m not a dancer. I’m not a dance academic. I’m a writer and reviewer with a background in theatre and a reasonable (and developing) dance literacy. I come to the field with a respect both for the expertise and precision required of trained bodies, and for the freedom of expression/presence/experience that it can allow dancers unbound by choreography. And I come with some understanding of the principles, processes and possibilities of ‘improvisation’ as a form.

I’m not completely uninformed.

And yet. And yet, I am flummoxed when it comes to reading/accessing the work of an artist like Rosalind Crisp.

And this work, on this occasion, was being performed to a very tight-knit ‘inner circle’ of contemporary dancers, makers, choreographers – really the ‘who’s who’ of a certain sector of Australia’s dance community. And they get Crisp’s work. They’ve known her oeuvre for many years and they are immersed in the scholarship, the practice, the experience, the principles, and the beliefs of this kind of movement. (The camaraderie is palpable and alienating.) My basic understanding of Crisp’s history and of some of the fundamentals of the work are close to useless in actually appreciating what she does.

Maybe I’m being a bit dramatic. But I’ve been wrestling with this frustration and bafflement for days now: how does work like this speak to a non-dance audience? What is it that Crisp wants to offer us, or provoke us with, or affect us with? Or does she make work purely for herself and for an audience of dancers and improvisers, and not for us at all? Or is it just my own dilemma, and other watchers are less fraught? (I have a sneaking suspicion that the latter may be true...)

I should be more specific.
In ‘No one will tell us...’ (the original title continued, ‘when it’s the end of the world’), Crisp collaborates with performer Andrew Morrish and musician Hansueli Tischhauser for a sixty-minute improvised work in which there’s little rest for performers and, though we’re seated and still, none for audience either. The three bodies in the space feel very independent of each other with moments and sequences of intersection, which were where I felt most capable of ‘entering’ the work. In between, it isn’t always easy to see the connection between Crisp’s movement, Tischhauser’s loop-pedal-rich electric guitar, and Morrish’s linguistic humour with an absurdist tendency and occasional earnest highlights of slightly awkward movement. (Or even to know whether there is such a connection, or whether it’s absurd – and counter to the work’s intentions – to search for one.)

Crisp herself moves with a remarkable vocabulary, one which seems composed of anger, tension, humility, determination, humour, enquiry, certainty, and immediacy. Had I asked, any one of those collegial audience members would no doubt have passionately advocated her ability to be completely present in her work, to be fully in the moment. This is slightly cryptic for a non-dancer. What exactly does this presence actually look like in a performance -- how do you observe and experience that as a watcher? For me, it translates into this enormous scope of movement available to her; not once did she repeat a phrase, a gesture, a shape, a moment. And her energy is heightened and seems to infect the other two performers and much of the audience. Sometimes her movement ‘speaks’ so clearly that it is almost like watching a conversation: between Crisp and her collaborators, Crisp and herself, and, on rare moments, Crisp and her audience.

But much of the time I didn’t feel very welcome. Or very necessary. I didn’t feel that my presence, the presence of all of us in the theatre, changed the way they were working. Or, perhaps more importantly, the why they were working. I don’t mean to say that I didn’t enjoy the work: for much of the hour, I did. Which actually rather invalidates what I’m trying to say. (I don’t apologise for my inconsistencies.) But I was saturated with deep doubt and confusion about the role of the audience in improvised work. Indeed, the role of the audience in any performance or artwork, with improvisation simply holding down one end of a long continuum of style. When is art selfish, and when is it about a connection with an audience, an ‘other’? A completely unanswerable question.

And still I’m left wondering how to ‘read’ a work like this. For me, the movement (and the interaction between the three performers) was less a communication than a series of punctuation marks, with all the linking text/language/thought rendered invisible (though apparently still present, somehow internally for the performers). The punctuation was indelible and very often intriguing, but I felt denied access to the intelligible essence between.

Art is categorically not about complete understanding. Or about comfort. Or ease of digestion. Of course it isn’t. But without morsels of those things, art can simply bewilder And maybe that’s what it is sometimes supposed to do.

Anica Boulanger-Mashberg
Attendance at Dance Massive (Melbourne) was made possible through the arts@work Critical Acclaim program. Critical Acclaim is an arts@work (Arts Tasmania) professional development program aimed at increasing the breadth of critical discourse and discussion in both the arts industry and the public arena.

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