Saturday, December 5, 2009

Review: The Oracle


By Meryl Tankard and Paul White. Ends tomorrow at the Malthouse.

Debating the finer points of religious texts is always a good way for people with self esteem issues to spend a rainy afternoon, although the occasional bloody conflict has arisen over questions of apostasy, divine justice and where exactly it’s indicated that Dumbledore is gay (also: why doesn’t my spellchecker crack it at ‘Dumbledore’?)

One of those more nuanced questions concerns the last words of Jesus on the cross, which are usually translated as “It is finished!” A lot of the attention goes to what the “it” is, but there’s also a chunk of confliction over the “finished”. Some translations give it out as “It is accomplished!” which is even more tricky. I first came across this interpretation at the end of Martin Scorsese’s Last Temptation of Christ, and that film was so dull that I totally felt for Jesus’ pain at the end and quietly cried the same words in thanks that my struggle was about to end.

“It is accomplished!” is also something I found myself thinking at the end of Meryl Tankard’s The Oracle. Not that it’s a biblical toil to get through, but the piece is a) overtly concerned with religion, b) incredibly ‘accomplished’ in a technical sense and c) an ‘accomplishment’ in that Jesus-y way – that is, as a fulfilment or completion that signals success, not defeat, and deserving of back-patting and high-fiving.

The problem with all of this Bible talk is that it’s not really that interesting, which is the other reaction I had to The Oracle. It’s undoubtedly an amazingly accomplished piece of work, but I didn’t get very involved with it. Paul White is one of Australia’s greatest dancers and everything in this work – every mote of dust drifting through each piercing ray of godly light – seems perfectly choreographed around him. Some of the imagery is arresting: White does a lot of work with a stretch of material that becomes his dance partner, sometimes seeming animated by an unearthly spirit, sometimes flowing out as an extension of his own body, sometimes acting as his shadow or ghost. There’s a great sequence in which it covers his head and trails to the floor, and as he moves it seems to be the one flinging him around; in another he wears the thing as a skirt and does acrobatic stuff that seems reminiscent of Chinese martial dances, the fabric swirling and snapping tight under his deft command.

White’s presence comes across as monkish and ascetic, clean and white and pure and somehow beyond the mundane world. The overall aesthetic of the piece is similar – crisp lighting sharply delineated from great folds of shadow and the thundering Stravinsky score that borders on apocalyptic fervour.
It starts with some video work that felt a bit naff – parts of White’s body are projected in a kaleidoscope kind of way, so his head or arms or chest are doubled or tripled and merge together to suggest a creepy transcendence of the flesh. The solemnity accorded this seems straight out of one of those 90s songs where Gregorian chanting is slapped onto watery ambient beats to suggest something spiritual but also sexy (remember that thankfully brief phase when European monks were inexplicably linked to the erotic? That was a bit messed up, really).

As I’ve said, The Oracle’s a major accomplishment but so austere and, well, finished that it didn’t give me much room to think or feel. In a way, it was a work wearing the robes of the sacred but without any space for the sacred itself – there was nothing ‘beyond’ the divine choreography we were presented with. I suppose I would almost have preferred it if Tankard had asked even more of her dancer, or if he hadn’t been so damned good, because this might have created a sense of the unattainability of true grace or a dialectic between impossible perfection and our all-too-heavy flesh. My problem with The Oracle might just be that Tankard and White are virtually godlike here, and I’m just a godless chump unable to see through the veils into another world.

More god-bothering when I get around to reviewing Hayloft’s BC (hopefully this afternoon), which is a show to which I had even more extreme reactions in several very different directions.

No comments: