Friday, March 25, 2011

The Weight of the Thing Left its Mark

Shaun McLeod
Dance Massive
Improvised work by its very nature carries an ever-present sense of risk. There will often be failures, but those who embrace working in or watching improvised forms will recognise that those failures balance the intense successes – the times where things just come together magnificently. Those successes are inherently heightened by the presence, or at least the possibilities, of the failures.
This strange binary of risk is an element of every form of live performance. It is what differentiates live work from any kind of recording, whether dance, music, theatre, or some hybrid. Audiences seem strangely electrified by the vulnerabilities, exposure, and uncertainties faced by all performers the moment they step on stage. It’s rather perverted. And also slightly peculiar because, really, no audience member truly wants to see a performer fail.

But it seems to be that abstract risk factor which imbues live performance with some of its mystique and value.

This argument is more applicable to improvisation than any other performance genre.
As an audience member I’m not terribly fond of the risk factor, although I often think I should be, and feel guilty for seeking reassurance and security. So, for me, The Weight of the Thing was the perfect improvisation work: there was a lot of safety there and not necessarily a lot of risk. I found the lack of rawness comforting and beautiful, while recognising that it also divulges a certain lack of immediacy, presence (that abstract word again), and depth which might be possible through less safe modes.

Unlike some improvised works, McLeod’s contains a very definite sense of structure. The improvisation happens within a rather neat set of narrative frames, and it is often clear what the ‘rules’ behind improvisation have been: how the four dancers were working with each other, and also when one section ended and another began. At first I found this interrupted any sense of flow, but then I began to think of the sections like the movements in a musical work: like linked sketches describing one large image.

McLeod’s four dancers – Olivia Millard, Paul Romano, Sophia Cowen, and Luke Hickmott – inhabit a sometimes nightmarish domestic space also colonised by swarms of cutlery and by Madeleine Flynn and Tim Humphrey’s delicate improvised soundscape, While not always adventurous, the sound is a strong partner in the creation of a focused energy throughout.

Interactions swing wildly between conflicted and loving, with the cutlery inscribing now fear, now desperately clinging adoration between the characters the dancers embody. The ‘weight’ of the title invokes for me a weight of desire, a weight of need, a weight of being so intimately and claustrophobically connected with lovers, friends, and family that you can barely breathe.

One of the things I enjoyed most about this work was the empathetic connections between the dancers. Whether moving together or watching each other, there was a compelling sense that each individual’s presence was of greatest consequence, fascination, and import to each other, and this also extended to the audience. It inscribed a cohesive ‘weight’ of consciousness across the work and the experience.
Certainly not all sections of the work succeeded. But that just reminds us of the nature of risk (even when mediated, here, by reassuring structure and a certain level of restriction/reservation -- perhaps even uncomfortable performativity?).

Highlights for me included four simultaneous ‘studies in cutlery’ – explorations by each dancer of a fork or spoon, sometimes a familiar extension of a limb, sometimes an unknown foreign object; Romano and Hickmott’s aching duet filled with compulsive and near-destructive embrace and a simultaneous yearning for solitude; and Hickmott’s strange pitchfork solo, where the weight of the thing was tangible and elegant.

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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