So, last week I was in a small room in North Melbourne sitting astride an oversized rocking horse while wearing a red crushed-velvet robe and being urged to spank “the mind worm” – a giant white phallic thing dangling in front of my face – by a trio of near-naked cultists writhing in front of a bank of bright flashing video screens to a soundtrack of soft-porn moaning and the kind of music usually accompanied by album art featuring men with broadswords and ladies cuddling up to dragons, and I thought: “Oh right, I see.” This mightn't have been the kind of enlightenment sought after by the experience but I'd heard a lot about it already and was pleased to finally understand why everyone was urging me to try it on myself.
“The happy Pony Club come in” was one of more than a dozen dance works that made up Next Wave's Private Dances. Choreographer Natalie Cursio invited a swag of emerging artists to create intimate pieces for audiences of one (or sometimes two or three) and the range of dance styles represented was broad – traditional Indian dance, krumping, contortionism, live art and lots of film. In one moment I was slow dancing with a gorilla to Bob Marley, in the next I was sitting in a van while three headbangers rocked out to Alice Cooper's “Poison”. One of the most satisfying numbers was a tiny number named “The Mint Thief” which created a complete experience akin to a movie trailer, cutting together a story of crime and pursuit at an astonishingly rapid pace (and complemented by a heady aroma of mint). And most of the works took place in camping tents barely tall enough to stand up in.
I got along to Private Dances twice – first for a preview and later during the actual season. It was a radically different experience each night. At the test run the performances were all top-notch but the night was beset by logistical difficulties. Put simply, the audience was too eager. One attendee told me that she finally understood the appeal of Boxing Day sales: she was ready to step over heads to get to that next piece of art. The result was a bottleneck, and while a more aggressive approach could see you getting in a good ten or more viewings some people weren't so forward.
This is why you have previews, right? By the following night Cursio had restructured the thing so that these troubles vanished – extra ushers, increased access, more audience capacity for a couple of works. And the other half of the experience, the anticipation, was enhanced too. Now there was great catering, a more comfortable waiting area (decked out as a glittery nightclub) and the introduction of the Conversationalists. Of which I was one.
Why anyone would want a grumpy misanthrope like myself to act as social facilitator is beyond me, but my spidey senses picked up the potential for canapes so I assented. Along with a bunch of others who'd been at the preview, it was our job to chat to strangers about the things they'd seen. We weren't exactly audience plants but it's surprising how infrequently the matter of our appointment actually came up (I even found myself in conversation with someone for about five minutes before either of us pegged that we were both Conversationalists). Really, it only took a couple of us to start talking with a random person nearby before a ripple effect started and the whole room seemed to be excitedly talking at once. We weren't just in a replica of a nightclub – we were in a great nightclub, the kind everyone's desperate to get into.
By the time, then, that I got around to whacking the mind-worm, which I'd missed during the preview, it wasn't the encounter you might expect from my description above. It was a tiny part of a much bigger project that was never alienating or discomforting or self-indulgent or wanky. Most of the individual performances were great on their own terms but the broader context in which they arose was exactly what so many in the world of the arts call for but almost never produce: conversation. There's plenty of talk about the need for more talk but when someone really makes it happen, they should be heaped with praise. If Private Dances is anything to go by, at least. So if you get a chance to catch a remount, take it.