Form and content collide at Dance Massive

By Rennie McDougall

Choreography meets politics at this contemporary dance festival

Nana Biluš Abaffy’s Post Reality Vision. Photograph by Gregory Lorenzutti

Dance Massive is the most ambitious contemporary dance festival in Australia. It is also a marketplace, where choreographers attempt to sell their work to Australian and international delegates for future touring. Because of this, the ways in which we think about the works can narrow, and particular metrics of quality become prioritised: which works are the most audience-friendly, the most tour-able, the most “polished” or “developed”. But this year’s Melbourne-based festival – its sixth since it began in 2009 – shows that critical ideas about Australian dance have been deepening for choreographers and audiences alike.

The three venues that initiated Dance Massive – Arts House, Dancehouse and the Malthouse Theatre – promote the festival using the language of political urgency. “Now is a time to get close / A time for empathy / A time to connect /A time to assemble,” reads an introductory note. Over the course of its two weeks, I received a manifesto for a feminist utopia, cried out to the land’s Indigenous ancestors and heard artists debate the redistribution of resources. Australian dance is in the midst of an interesting quandary: it wants to engage with political questions around identity, but it also wants to hold onto its history of formal abstraction, where a dancing body might simply be a dancing body. (The most insidious manifestation of this is the phrase “pure dance”, used by some white choreographers to describe formal works.) The distinction between formalism and thematic politics is only valuable when we consider the ways in which the two intersect. The most interesting conversations during Dance Massive 2019 were asking: What are the choreographic structures that elucidate a political work, and what are the politics, intended or not, behind a formal choreography?

Le Dernier Appel/The Last Cry, the latest work by Sydney-and-Broome-based dance company Marrugeku, was one of a collection of works by First Nations artists in this year’s festival. It is driven by the lives most impacted by colonisation, and the emotional echo chamber of those most powerless. The set evoked a bureaucratic waiting area, with a blue trapezoidal backdrop much like a stretched Bank of Melbourne logo. A news ticker scrawled across a digital screen, with headlines describing last year’s New Caledonian referendum for independence from France, along with Australia’s failure to recognise the Uluru Statement from the Heart.

What began as bottled restlessness with tiny gestural details, such as fingers clutching around a pant leg, evolved into a collective manifestation of rage and despair, the movement language combining contemporary, Indigenous and street dances. The six dancers were all powerhouses, but Dalisa Pigram – a co-founder of Marrugeku who also co-choreographed Le Dernier Appel with director Serge Aimé Coulibaly – is one of Australia’s finest performers. There’s something about the way Pigram holds her head: her eyes and chin lifted with her throat thrust forward, tense and radiating, as if her voice is trapped there, about to scream. That tension resonated through her body, as her feet spoke fluently with the floor. More story was conveyed from the dancers’ bodies than from any words scrawling across the back screen.

A raw emotive power drove Le Dernier Appel, but the choreography was alive with idiosyncratic nuances and compositional detail. Only some prescriptively emotional music choices detracted from the intricacy of the choreographic work.

In contrast, Nana Biluš Abaffy’s Post Reality Vision obsessed over Eurocentric whiteness. Post Reality Vision was invested in the history of the nude, especially evoking postures from Renaissance art. Biluš Abaffy – with performers Geoffrey Watson and Milo Love – spent the hour-long performance in a kind of absurdist photography studio. The stage, cluttered with theatre lights, mannequins and video cameras that provided a live feed to a central gilt-framed screen, was also populated with dozens of nude photographic cut-outs of the three performers. The dancers, who also performed mostly nude, were white, the floor was white, the cut-outs were mounted on white backgrounds, the mannequins were white (except one, which was black, but had been doused in white paint).

Biluš Abaffy’s vision of the image-producing world – where beauty, thinness, whiteness and classicism are all unquestioned superiorities – is more parody than polemic; its treatment of the sacrosanct nude is equally reverent and farcical. (In the foyer afterwards, a critic described the work as empty, rolling her eyes at the suggestion that this emptiness was part of its fabric.) It seemed purposefully unclear how much control Biluš Abaffy had over the performance. Mishaps and failures of execution provided the work with its rhythm: cables connecting the video camera to the monitor kept falling out, disrupting the live feed; Biluš Abaffy wore oversized work boots that made even walking a slapstick gesture. Without this clumsiness, the work might truly be empty. The sometimes excruciating refusal of marked time in Post Reality Vision was the very thing undermining the holiness of the static image, and from this playful indulgence arose a heightened sense of the liveness of performance.

No work better understood this liveness than Luke George’s Public Actions, which exposed the immediacy, power and fragility of the relationship between performer and audience. In the opening act, seven performers rolled through the audience like a slow-motion landslide. The audience stood and cleared a path, everyone waking up to the quiet concentration of the task. George is adept at facilitating this shared concentration; the audience become essential contributors to the performative action, which is both disruptive – the seating bank was left ravaged after the human avalanche had torn through it – but sensitive, the destruction achieved with care.

Throughout Public Actions, audience members became as worthy of observation as the performers: one man, visibly unimpressed, watched his own fidgeting fingers; another man pulled out a thermos and paper cups; a woman applauded as another audience member upended several of the remaining upright seats. The cast, too, was not a homogenous group of “dancerly” bodies but a collection of difference across gender, age, race, ability – their pluralism apparent but never tokenised.

George has been clearly motivated by the act of public demonstration, whether it be thousands of people marching or one American football player kneeling. But Public Actions is free from any specific political agenda. In an accompanying essay, dramaturg Daniel Kok writes that “choreography is not defined as a practice in organizing bodies, or what we ‘do’ to bodies, but a consideration of how bodies do things, how they perform”. This notion of “how” over “why” is the work’s core principle. “Art is not activism,” George said in a speech that ended each performance, “but maybe it can be an action.” George’s “radical softness” seems to me a livelier political proposition than someone screaming about injustices in the theatre. Or, as Kok writes, in our Trumpian age of shouted agendas, “the last thing an artist or a performer needs to be in the theatre is another asshole”.

While some choreographers’ attempts at political awareness during Dance Massive were ham-fisted and obvious – the worst offender being You Animal, You by Force Majeure, whose attempts to grapple with violent social hierarchies came off as offensively trite – other shows failed to engage with their intended political proposals. James Batchelor’s HYPERSPACE purported to be “a study of the human body seen through the prism of cosmology”, while also offering a “self-critique of the masculine body”. It instead reaffirmed and capitalised on the image of the topless, fit, young, white male figure as a universal ideal. Batchelor, who has received much support and recognition early in his career, is a sophisticated and intelligent mover. In his solo, Batchelor danced centre stage under a haloing light with perfect control, his arms fluidly articulate and his torso undulating. He occasionally looked out at the audience, coy and sensuous. At one point, he shaped his hand like a gun, teasingly pointing it towards the audience, turning it on its side, and then dancing with it – a figure of sexualised violence.

We all carry our own contextual baggage into the theatre. Before watching HYPERSPACE I had seen clips from the Christchurch shooter’s live feed, so I was especially ready to make a connection. It’s unclear to me what Batchelor intended with his gun-hand. Was this the promised critique of the masculine, or was it just an another physical gesture? If it was critique, what was the critique? Or was Batchelor using the image as a provocation, further exalting it?

As the idealised masculine gave in to its own seduction, I began to feel uneasy. The potential for self-critique lies within all of us: the audiences, the critics, the presenters. Are we willing to contribute to the glorification of such bodies and ignore the contemporary politics surrounding them, clinging to the idea of “pure dance”? HYPERSPACE would be better served by either abandoning its shoehorned attempt at critiquing the masculine or giving that idea more rigorous attention.

On the final day of Dance Massive, improvisational dance artist Rosalind Crisp presented a performance lecture, one of the festival’s more peripheral offerings. Called DIRtywork, it intensely connected place and body, as Crisp asked how she might “embody, understand and connect to the unfolding extinction crisis in East Gippsland”, a region ravaged by deforestation. DIRtywork was devastating, intelligent and profoundly embodied. Crisp described the origins of the building materials of the room in which the audience sat (the lumber of the floor, the aluminium in the lighting grid), the origins of her own body (the source of water used to grow the food that gave her body nutrients), the origins of Australian colonisation (from the introduction of sheep in Australia to her own ancestors). Connecting all these threads was Crisp’s physicality, alive with both certainty and doubt. Crisp, at the height of her powers, proves that the most exciting Australian dancers are not the young and athletic, but dancers with decades of knowledge and experience, who are still discovering why embodiment is so vital today.

Rennie McDougall

Rennie McDougall is a writer from Melbourne, currently based in Brooklyn, New York. His writing has appeared in The Observer, The Village Voice, Lapham’s Quarterly and The Lifted Brow, among others.

Nana Biluš Abaffy’s Post Reality Vision. Photograph by Gregory Lorenzutti

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