Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Review: Pieces for Small Spaces


Season ended.

I’d never made it to one of Lucy’s Guerin Inc’s Pieces for Small Spaces. I’ve always been out of Melbourne when the annual mini-season takes place. I’ve meant to go since it showcases some of the best new choreographic talent in Melbourne, but Sunday was the first one I actually made it to. Boy-o, have I missed out. It was brilliant. Knowing, funny, subtle, very tough, very exciting – as a package it beat the brown stuff out of a lot of its more high profile peers.

Five short works made up this year’s outing and the only thing they all had in common was the quality of innovation they offered. Luke Smiles kicked things off with that rarest of things: dance that makes you laugh without becoming clowning. Smiles is better known as a sound designer/composer so it wasn’t unexpected that sound was the key to his piece – namely, a performance in which his internal monologue is blared through the venue’s speakers as he dances. There was some hilarious stuff about what he should be including if he’s performing in Sydney (dramatic, emotional gestures with no object) or Adelaide (superfast demonstrations of extra-curricular martial arts/yoga training) or even Melbourne (you can probably guess). The piece continues in this meta-theatrical vein as his musings riff on what we expect when we come to a dance piece, and the audience of fellow dancemakers or fans seemed to get every reference. Great stuff.

Alisdair Macindoe’s solo was also a sharp one. It fits into a loose style I’ve noticed in several younger male dancers in Melbourne such as Antony Hamilton and Byron Perry – the most obvious identifier is an emphasis on really tight popping and locking, but where the breakdancing style of that produces the old mechanised/robot effect, these guys are doing something different. If I were the kind to coin names for movements I’d call them something like the Bit-Rate Boys or the New Futurists or the Cinematrons. What their work does is translate the unique ways of seeing that screen culture has afforded us into live movement. The simplest incarnation of this is the rewind sequence, where a movement is performed and then reversed (often with reversed speech, too). Shifting into slow-motion partway through a phrase is another example; the kind of thing enabled by the technologies behind The Matrix and then realised by choreographers such as these, who are engaged in making the virtual real. Smiles’ piece included some of this stuff, too.

What it all amounts to is finding the visual possibilities that can only be produced through screen-based media and then somehow converting them into live performance. When it works it can be astonishing, as you’re watching something that shouldn’t be possible for a human body without the intervention of editing equipment.

Macindoe adds a new trick here – the jump cut. An ingenious lighting effect turned Macindoe into a human strobe machine: rather than a rapid flickering of light and darkness, the spots altered the colour of the stage wash without a moment’s interval, but somehow in that change Macindoe would shift into a different position. The result was that it felt as if a cinematic cut had taken place, a moment of time removed in each instance. It wasn’t that there was a brief period of black in which movement was simply concealed from us; rather, that interstitial movement seemed to have been erased completely.

Ben Hancock gave us another solo (with a real strobe light); his piece impressed me least on the day, but was still a hugely promising number. Hancock’s solo performance of a Martin del Amo work in this year’s Fringe piece REVERB (1) was fantastic, and he’s a very interesting presence on stage. This time around the work felt too cool for me, perhaps too Melbourne, too neurotic. But I have to admit – Best. Spinal roll. Ever.

I was surprised by Brooke Stamp’s piece and then surprised that I was surprised. Stamp isn’t really emerging; she’s a very established dancer who’s worked with our best and, in fact, was in the first contemporary dance work to inspire me to get back into reviewing dance, many years ago. Her own choreographic practice seems an extension of the work she does as a dancer with other companies, and you can often trace the influence of recent shows she’s appeared in. Her solo here, for instance, is very reminiscent of Balletlab’s Miracle from earlier in the year: to a scratchy, looped old folk song, Stamp spins dervish-like again and again and again, repeating the same movement with slow alterations for the entire ten minutes. These aspects of the piece – the sense of ritual, the endurance component, the linking of a vague masochism and transcendence, the complexity hidden within apparently simple movements – really build on the aesthetics developed by Balletlab, while retaining Stamp’s own original imprint.

I’ve saved Fiona Bryant’s work until last here, even though it seemed a bit of a centrepiece in Small Spaces. It’s just that Bryant is such an exciting choreographer, it’s difficult to do her work justice in words. I first saw her short piece MAX in last year’s Fringe and was wowed – her piece for Small Spaces was equally brilliant. As far as I know Bryant has trained with Deborah Hay’s company or at least investigated her practice, and she really takes it in directions nobody else is charting in Melbourne today.

Her Small Spaces piece began with a simple gesture that completely redefined the space we were inhabiting. A woman with a guitar slung over her shoulder tore away two sections of panelling blocking the window at the end of the room. From the theatrical darkness we’d been dwelling in, suddenly we were watching a frame lit by gorgeous summer afternoon sunlight, a thick lace of green ivy trailing around the bars of the window. It was a painterly scene, and it’s the first time a work has ever taken my breath away just by opening a window.

Bryant herself was standing close to the audience and first became visible when the door we’d entered by cracked open and dusky light from the foyer spilled into the space. It felt like an accident – the arrival of a latecomer – and a lot of audience members looked at the door to see what was going on. Something had happened: the latecomer was simply light and air, but its introduction was also Bryant’s arrival. She wore a dark floral shirt, baggy shorts and clunky shoes. Her hair was pulled back lie a German hausfrau’s. Now, nothing has really happened yet: a window and a door have been opened. But already the space has been transformed and a world of associations created. I’m suddenly in a dappled orchard in New England or a farmhouse in Old Europe, a pastoral scene scored by birds chirping (I don’t know if they were real or recorded) and the clip-clop of horses as Bryant begins to skip around the space.

The dance itself is wonderful – shades of tap appear then slip away; wild gestures give way to resigned stillness – and the presence of the musician adds an element of tension. It’s like the old adage about drama: introduce a gun to the scene and you’ve created an inevitable expectation that it’ll go off. I wouldn’t have been surprised if this guitar never got any use in Bryant’s work, since its very existence in the work was already accomplishing something. It did get some play in the end.

I saw five outstanding, thoroughly memorable short dance pieces in 50 minutes. I’m definitely back for more next year.

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