— CNP

2009 Melbourne International Arts Festival

It is a truism to say that Hofesh Shechter’s dance pieces are as much about music as they are about choreography—in the double bill of Uprising and In Your Rooms, Shechter is credited with creating both. Indeed, his interest in their combination is hardly novel ground for dance, but his capacity to synthesise their impact on an audience together with a cinematic sense of imagery is the key to his popularity.

Uprising begins with a steady slightly metallic beat, a bank of spotlights tilted towards us and haze swarming portentously across the empty stage. From somewhere behind the lights emerge seven male dancers heading downstage with a determined gait. The air is menacing but Shechter subverts the expected and just as the men can go no further, they arrest their charge by lifting a leg to their other knee and holding themselves in a sweetly balletic stance. The line is ordered and controlled—a display of technical acumen certainly—but the image it presents is only a whisper away from collapse. These men are vulnerable in their balancing act.

As the beat continues to drive on, the men slide out of formation looking dejected, defeated even. Shechter reportedly created Uprising in response to the 2006 riots in Paris, though thematically it feels more like a response to the banlieue riots of 2005, which were more palpably and brutally linked to the ennui of disaffected young men. However, to see Uprising as a political statement is problematic. The real source material is testosterone and, as it does in life, it peaks at puberty. Uprising is less an investigation of men and militant outrage than it is a celebratory omnibus of adolescence. Yes, the dancers show us forms of violence, rebellion and manhood, but they are mock displays, the simulated games of boys testing their own limits and not to be taken too seriously—the pants are khaki but the label is American Apparel.

The music is a propulsive assemblage of percussion that whips the choreography along rather than merely accompanying it. In the words of one of the dancers, Chris Evans, Shechter “liberates the dancers from chasing a meaning around” by using music to set the tone. The result is a physical language that, in being both persistent and simple in its intention, is remarkably legible without dipping too often into literalism. The dancers respond with powerful abandon: throwing their arms back as they run head down, breaking formation in fits of individualism, using their hands to slink across stage like simians, wrestling and caressing. Throughout, flashes of popular dance genres emerge—the negation of the lower body typical of breakdance, the bopping kick of skank—as does the unmistakable urban dubstep of Vex’d with their track Thunder.

With a barren stage and a highly structured beat, Shechter has to find both engaging imagery and fluidity in the bodies on stage. Lee Curran’s sharply focussed spotlights provide pools of visibility that the dancers slide in and out of. Trios and duos flicker past each other in discreet frames like spatial cross-dissolves. When dancers are shrouded in darkness one feels that they have not exited so much as briefly moved out of frame. And when Shechter has all seven dancers working in unison, he is amplifying the human form as a cinematographer might do with a close up. The result is spare but extremely beautiful.

Uprising finishes with a spurt of bathetic triumphalism. The men construct a limp flag-waving human pyramid equal parts French Revolution, Soviet agitprop and summer camp. In some respects, the finale makes sense as the antithesis of the opening image—asymmetrical and multi-tiered rather than a strict line. But it also feels like a cheap shot. The preceding dance has already done the work of dismantling order and control, but rather than living up to or even coveting the title of Uprising, Shechter shies away from revolution and delivers a safe implication of delinquent folly.

A similar whiff of shyness was sensed next door at Look Mummy I’m Dancing, written and performed by Belgium’s first transsexual Vanessa (Van Durme). Adapted from her own book of the same name, the show is a sort of staged Bildungsroman that tells the story of Vanessa’s transformation from a troubled boy into a troubled woman.

For a show based on a very fundamental questioning of gender, Look Mummy I’m Dancing manages to shy away from questioning traditional gender concepts. Vanessa begins her monologue with a story of a couple at a checkout line. In both subject matter and delivery it feels like the anecdote of a stand-up comic pointing out the banal universal tropes of married life for us to both recognise and find funny. One expects this cliché of binary gender absolutes to then be undercut by the subsequent story. Yet, save for a few moments of inner conflict, the tone never really shifts. The writing constantly finds ways of being relatable, hackneyed, earnest and predictable.

Occasionally, often in moments of dark, visceral humour, a real theatrical tension is evoked between Vanessa’s delicate aspirations and the staggering pitfalls of her life. And one might argue that it is not her role to do anything but tell her own personal story, rather than speak to the conceptual or the societal. However, too often, the narrative metes out to incidental players the same one-dimensional characterisations that are supposedly the bane of Vanessa’s own existence and skirts across stories with nary a sideways glance at insight.

A similar problem befalls Anna Tregloan’s The Dictionary of Imaginary Places. Taking the art of public transport eavesdropping and mashing it with the Dadaist penchant for collage, Tregloan has shaped a piece of theatre out of verbatim transcripts of one-sided conversations on trains. The concept itself is cheekily promising, with non sequitur humour and pathos possible at every turn, but the various components never quite slot together.

Tregloan takes advantage of the Meat Market’s extraordinary depth by creating a train carriage out of rows of chairs but, in spite of her design credentials, the set is otherwise underdeveloped and lacking in detail. Tregloan’s 2007 work, BLACK, with its refractive centre of characters, was as much a spatial installation as it was a performance, and that level of attentiveness to the audience’s relation to space was sorely missed in The Dictionary of Imaginary Places. The unhindered distances around the performers created an unfocused, centrifugal effect that compounded the fractured nature of the narratives, leaving the audience to forage for meaning from afar.

Wrapping up many people’s Festival experience this year was Le Salon from the Belgian company Peeping Tom. Partly borne out of the Belgian powerhouses Ballets C de la B and Needcompany, Peeping Tom are a collective of artists orbiting around the central creative partnership of dancers Gabriela Carrizo and Franck Chartier. Each of the performers, including a mezzo-soprano and an actor, bring their own idiosyncratic talents and foibles to bear. This, combined with the very real emotional relationship shared by Carrizo and Chartier, creates an onstage chemistry not dissimilar to that of an amiably dysfunctional family—sometimes pulling in very different directions but inextricably rooted in the same mire of history, experience and artistic heredity.

Le Salon is the middle section in a trilogy of work that loosely follows a family through a cycle of generation and degeneration. The gently decaying wood panelling of the set is at once an allusion to a bourgeois grandeur of the past and a presaging of the characters’ internal declines. With only a sparse use of text, the theatre, humour and intelligence of the piece is in the bodies and the music. And both, while brimming with technical mastery, are also able to seethe with the signs of downfall. Though at times it threatens to undermine itself with overplaying, Le Salon beautifully delivers what it sets out to do—to intimately make flesh the fear of loss, the fear of death and the fear of not noticing it arrive.

This article originally appeared in print in RealTime 94, December-January, 2009-2010, page 4, and is reproduced with permission.
http://realtimearts.net/article/issue94/9630