Dance Massive: Sweat

Branch Nebula’s Sweat is concerned with turning our attention to the invisible members of society—the ones who pull back our chairs, sweep up our dead skin, wipe away our skidmarks and collect our cafeteria trays. Coincidentally, Chunky Move’s Connected touches on similar ground with its dip into the world of security guards, but Sweat tackles the brief far more directly and provocatively.

Nevertheless, it starts by turning our attention to our own behaviour. On entering the well-lit vastness of the North Melbourne Town Hall, there is nothing to look at but ourselves as we mingle and coalesce in atolls of strangers and acquaintances. It is the foyer writ large, a continuation of the antespace and, yet, Sweat has actually begun. From the gathering comes the sound of a welcome. A young woman, dressed in black with a tray and an apron, steps forward to suggest that we really could have made a better entrée—too noisy, too slow and now we are running late. But punctuality is less important than quality so we are asked to leave and re-enter properly. It is a disempowering experience, like any scolding, which is followed on our second entrance by a pronouncement of the social contract we are entering into. We are expected to stand and move as instructed, to do so autonomously when required, to empathise with the performers, to view them objectively on occasion, to clap them at the end until we are told we can stop clapping and to be upbeat about the show afterwards, indeed, to focus on three central messages:

  1. that we saw ordinary people doing extraordinary things
  2. that the piece challenged accepted forms but always remained accessible
  3. that it is a work of great importance to the future of Australia

The sheer tongue-in-cheek gall and cliché of these pronouncements produces knowing titters in the audience and they are delivered with the host-like air of a waiter explaining the evening’s specials, but the tone shifts markedly as our host walks from one audience member to another and asks them first to dress her in the accessories of a cleaner and then to remove her other clothes. At last, semi-naked in rubber gloves and hairnet, she kindly asks a man to force her to the ground. He complies. The shoe of disempowerment is now firmly on the other foot and we have all been implicated.

This simple point of departure is reminiscent of the recent work of performance artists like Georgie Read, who play a consciously mercurial game of push-pull with the audience’s affection. Throughout Sweat, the performers invite our attention and the visibility it affords with flirtatious glances, sweetness and displays of skill. But they can just as quickly disappear into the resentful distance, punish us or deride our presence. This dynamic with the audience enacts the same power hierarchies that are being represented in front of us, where the performers are ordered to clean the floor with their hair, threatened with violence and abused in Spanish in the course of a few minutes.

The piece is constantly shifting in its use of space, using an ingenious collection of mobile light sources to carve out discrete landscapes. And the audience, as instructed, moves about to stay in contact with what is happening, but the reason for the movement itself is not always clear. As an aesthetic policy it is interesting—forcing us to engage with different angles, different architectures, rejigging our perspective. On the other hand, the meaning-making of it is sometimes less evident or necessary. When we are asked to choose a corner to stand in and, thereby, choose a performer to favour, the act of choosing is a potentially loaded act. What are our criteria? Why do we choose a man and not a woman? Why do we look around to see what we are missing? Yet, the subsequent scene feels redundant in its reformulation of previous content and the movement of the performers from corner to corner negates the weight of our choice and elides the kind of interrogation it could provoke.

However, this is a quibble with one short moment in the middle of Sweat and, towards the end, in its final set piece it regains most of the traction it had to begin with. A group of audience members are invited to sit a table, where the performers, dressed as sweatshop workers, politely serve them wine, spaghetti, tomato soup, peas, pineapple, frankfurters—the kicker being that these items are ladled very carefully into completely inappropriate places. The end result is part Grand Bouffe, part Abstract Expressionism. The smiling ceremonial quality of the rebellion is so disarming and so cleverly worked in with our own understandings of theatre etiquette that the audience victims are left laughing rather than humiliated. The humour relies also on our empathy with the performers who, in becoming so clearly and endearingly visible, make mockery of the established codes of service and their concordant entitlements and disenfranchisements. The performers leave the space with gusto, with an animalistic exuberance. At last, they have been seen.

This article originally appeared online in RealTime’s Dance Massive coverage, 2011, and is reproduced with permission.