Chunky Move, Melbourne: Singularity by Gideon Obarzanek
Performed by Kristy Ayre, Antony Hamilton, Paea Leach, Kirstie McCracken, Carlee Mellow, Lee Serle. At Arts House, North Melbourne Town Hall, 521 Queensberry Street North Melbourne. May 16, 2006. Season ends May 28. Then Brisbane Powerhouse, August 8-12.
In his program notes for Singularity, Gideon Obarzanek writes:
As a choreographer, I have become increasingly envious of literature’s ability to describe people’s dramatic states of mind while they are doing nothing or at most, very little. Dance can only describe through action and similar to theatre’s limitation, where characters are restricted to dialogue to express themselves, emotions in dance are almost exclusively revealed through the body in motion.This from the man whose most recent works include an extraordinary dance documentary for stage -- I Want To Dance Better At Parties -- and the Bessie-winning Tense Dave which he created with a theatre director, a dramaturg and another choreographer, Lucy Guerin...
But, guess what? Rather than continuing with his crusade to blur the boundaries between dance and, well, everything else -- theatre, film, physical theatre, mime, you name it -- Obarzanek takes the high road in Singularity. It’s back to basics.
Carlee Mellow and Antony Hamilton in Singularity
(photograph Chris Budgeon, click on the image to enlarge )
Okay, okay, Obarzanek isn’t gonna turn into Russell Dumas in the near future. There’s more chance of me appearing in a Chunky Move show that Gideon choosing to make ‘poor’ dance... abandoning his supremely talented design team. Having said that, there isn’t a dance ensemble in the country better equipped to perform without flash costumes, without lighting, music and design effects.
Last year’s Infinite Temporal Series (re-staged by its creator Prue Lang) demonstrated beyond shadow of doubt that these are dancers that can be watched up close, just as Crowds (Obarzanek’s contribution to the June 2003 triple bill Three’s A Crowd) highlighted the phenomenal mime skills of Fiona Cameron, Kristy Ayre and Antony Hamilton.
But if ‘less’ is impressive, ‘more’ is just bloody awesome. Darrin Verhagen’s sound design (and Nick Roux’s execution of it) turns a barn of a hall into a sonically perfect studio. The sound image is almost three dimensional. Dirk Zimmermann’s modular set is imaginative, impressively solid, and all the more effective as lit by Niklas Pajanti. But I’m getting ahead of myself. It’s important to note that each element of this singular work is tactful -- not showy or overdone -- and well-judged. It’s a genuine and very successful collaboration.
The performances, too, are remarkable. Not showy or overdone. Carlee Mellow, for example, has to mimic a grand mal seizure -- repeatedly -- in the course of the hour-long performance; first in a low-walled tank-sized enclosure, then on a raised platform. Short of losing bowel and bladder control -- classic signs of the so-called tonic-clonic seizure -- her ‘fitting’ could not be more realistic.
When the audience is allowed to enter the darkened space, we must choose where to go, where to stand... and which performer to watch. Of the six dancers, three are on raised platforms. The other three are in enclosures, presumably the same shape, size and height -- maybe a metre and a half -- as the platforms, only inverted.
By chance I chose Mellow. Now, dance -- even more than other performing arts -- has a voyeuristic element. It gives us the right to look. To stare, even. But stepping up to the edge of the enclosure so that I could see in shocked even me. It seemed way too intrusive. But, why? Was it that the dancers were wearing stylised and stylish but unquestionably “everyday” clothes? Or was it the peeping-over-a-wall aspect of the design? Or was it that we were made seeable, ourselves, by being so close? By entering into the field of light?
My next stop -- picked at random -- had Kirstie McCracken in it. She wheeled and twisted and squirmed and spirographed around her little enclosure like a reptile in a tank. Like some blind alien thing or a hydraulic cyborg. Her body arched as if lifted by her pelvis. None of her movements appeared to be initiated or driven by her limbs. The rune-like, nautilus whorl tattooed on her wrist added to the sense of undersea strangeness.
On plush red carpet -- occasionally red lit -- this young woman with dark-stubbly hair and dark-ringed eyes persuaded me she was swimming in zero gravity, bound -- somehow -- in infinite space. When the lights finally dimmed, the sense that McCracken was in a universal void was complete. And the reminder of Hydra (2000) -- one of Obarzanek’s first great works of dance theatre -- was also complete.
Half way through the performance, these individual ‘rings’ were pushed together and we were invited to sit in the hall’s regular seating, suddenly revealed.
In a way, the first half hour was like an overture, an introduction to discrete themes that were to reappear and combine into a grand fugue. But it was more than that. Seeing the moves from up close -- even above -- and then from raked seating a little way off the high stage, gave us a wonderful new perspective on the movement. A sense of ownership and recognition of it.
Obarzanek is anything but lazy. The second half was never going to be a mere recapitulation. The horizontal routines of Mellow, McCracken and Lee Serle collide with the wild vertical routines of Kristy Ayre, Paea Leach and Antony Hamilton. The dancers affect and interfere with one another. And, more, there’s a pass-the-parcel thing happening.
Horizontal meets vertical, Kirstie McCracken (left) and Paea Leach
in Singularity (photograph Chris Budgeon, click to enlarge )
Tension -- anguish even -- is passed on from one performer to another. Like a dybbuk, it possesses them. Infects them. And it stops -- or does it? -- with Antony Hamilton.
Suddenly we’re in literal space. At the last moment, almost, what we are watching is no longer abstract psychodance, it’s gestural. It’s mime. One moment, we’re watching contact improvisation between The Fit Girl (Mellow) and The Fifth Element (McCracken) -- all abstraction and metaphor -- the next minute we’re watching three dancers miming sitting in a cramped passenger jet at the tense moment of lift-off. Or standing on a commuter bus hanging onto a pole for balance. Or waiting on a street corner for lights to change. Or in a bar...
This is ground that Obarzanek trod in Crowds. And trod brilliantly. It’s rich material that finally finds a place in a work that is descended from his earlier material. It’s not artistic cannibalism or recycling. It’s something else.
(photograph Chris Budgeon, click to enlarge )
Unusually, perhaps, Obarzanek throws us a line and offers a literal explanation. McCracken is a fish out of water. Literally. We see Serle hauling her in on a rope. That’s possibly the one anti-climactic moment in this magnificent and engrossing work. But it’s more than off-set by the scenes that follow... Kristy Ayre in a bar watching her life fragment before her eyes -- while Fleetwood Mac’s song ‘Tusk’ throbs away -- and Hamilton’s utterly extraordinary break-down scene in which he strobes with anguish. Almost as extraordinary is the high-frequency tinkling that accompanies Mellow’s final fit, mimicking the electrical storm in her head.
This really is a major new work, as billed, from the endlessly surprising Obarzanek and his company, Chunky Move. How lucky Melbourne is to have them.
Chunky Move’s I Want To Dance Better At Parties has a brief season at the Joyce Theater in New York, July 11-15.
OTHER CHUNKY MOVE REVIEWS:
Glow (September 2006)