The titles of Lucy Guerin’s recent works have been marked by clarity and transparency, even literalness. Structure and Sadness dealt with the aftermath of grief caused by the West Gate bridge collapse. Melt was a duet for two water molecules that move from ice through to steam. Corridor limited itself to a long traverse stage and took a corridor scene from Kafka as its inspiration. And now Untrained juxtaposes two artists trained as dancers with two artists untrained as dancers.

Contrast these examples with the titular and choreographic opacity of Shelley Lasica’s Vianne and there would appear to be nothing hidden in Guerin’s world, nothing that is so mysterious that it cannot be elucidated in a simple, perfectly decipherable title. For her critics, this is a cause for frustration: her works can be seen as the physical equivalent of begging the question in rhetoric, where the proposition assumes its own truth before being argued. In other words, is the dance redundant once you read the program notes?

Yet, aside from the inherent value judgements involved in meriting metaphor over literalness, describing Guerin’s dance as redundant is to deny its capacity to transcend the admittedly literal text that tries to encapsulate it. Guerin is not given to ornateness in her language but her sensibility for the human form is far from plain—the duets across her body of work are remarkable in their mesmerising intimacy, their detail and their capacity to enliven the space between the dancers as much as they animate the bodies themselves. Moreover, by starting with such conceptual distillation, Guerin’s work emerges from a kind of purity, with every subsequent extrapolation seeming to fit and flow on perfectly from the last.

Indeed, it is a questioning of purity that lies at the heart of Untrained. The title is easily decipherable, yes, but what is it to be untrained? Is the untrained body pure in its movement—unfettered by the conditioning of choreography and exercises? Or is it the trained body, in its refinement and exactitude, that achieves purity by sublimation? Guerin is certainly not looking for an easy solution to this dialectic. She is interested in what it does to us as an audience and to the performers themselves to see these questions made manifest by exploring the continuum from pure naivety to pure technique.

Her staging of Untrained maintains this notion of purity. The set is nothing more than a grey playing square marked out by broad white lines. It is a clever delimiter, its form suggestive of a playground ball court or a boxing ring—both stages perhaps but ones not restricted to the arts. The performers never leave our sight, yet, with just one exception, only when they enter this square are they viewed. This is no geometrical sleight of hand. What we are witnessing is an experiment where we are the lab technicians and this square our Petri dish. By placing contrasting physical presences in the same space one after another, Guerin provides us with a microscope through which to examine the idiosyncrasies, the likenesses, the differentiators and the foibles of four bodies in motion.

The identities of these four bodies are important to note. Byron Perry and Antony Hamilton are two wunderkinder of the Melbourne dance scene. Not only are they ubiquitous presences in the works of Lucy Guerin Inc and Chunky Move, but they are also celebrated choreographers and visual artists. Their untrained co-performers are Simon Obarzanek and Ross Coulter, who are both visual artists. So, as it happens, all are men and all are visual artists.

To begin with, the performers present themselves to the audience one at a time by standing in the centre of the square for a few seconds, doing nothing. They have been asked to be neutral. However, each of them carries a stamp of personality and of habit, and we see this. From this starting point, Guerin uses a succession of provocations to tease out different performative languages: sing a song, be a cat that gets electrocuted, copy your partner. At times, the audience laughs at the ineptitude of the untrained. At times, they laugh at the hubris of the trained. As the work progresses, the laughs dissipate and the analytical eye is no longer restricted to the audience — the performers themselves begin to reflect on how they compare with the others and, vitally, are asked to speak to their own image.

This article originally appeared in print and online for RealTime Dance Massive Special, March 2009, and is reproduced with permission.