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There’s a lot of spectacle out there—colour and movement, sumptuous images, fabulous techniques of all sorts, a real party, but the more dance I see, the less idea I have of what other people are actually looking at. Little girls fall in love with their favourite dancers, aspiring to embodied ideals with intensity and passion. For others, there’s all that flesh, sexy tumultuous glances, the heat and sweat, quivering sensitivity, swathed in the very height of fashion, re-drawing the images of what is desirable.

I’m usually interested in all the wrong things, and what I see is not what others see. Perhaps I just miss the point, but I don’t want to live vicariously through someone else’s fantasy, constructed on someone else’s terms with pre-digested ideas about how I should view my body, other bodies, the way people live and relate to each other and the world. Frequently I feel I’m being asked to discard my own hard won individuality and jump into that glorious shared heaven of living fantasy that is there for me, if only I could just think differently, loosen up a bit, not be so demanding, maybe be someone else. Well, that’s me.

In the last six weeks or so I have been to seven different dance programs.

I’ve been able to enter into the spirit of some of it, without too much of the aforementioned anxiety. However the experience has been coloured by renegade publicity, inviting, for example, a view of “Sydney’s hottest dancers/performers” (Four on the Floor), which rather sets the tone of a ‘fashion statement’, implies something ephemeral, transient. But some of these works, and certainly the artists, might last considerably longer than that. Even so, a few older pieces, for example Dean Walsh’s Hysterical Headset and Ros Crisp’s On Lucy’s Lips, had been worked over to the point where the fine lines, ambiguities and loose threads had been tidied away, as if they had been mistakes. For me, particularly with On Lucy’s Lips, the unfinished and vulnerable quality of the original performance was an aspect I missed this time.

The four programs of Dance Collection ’95 really were what the publicity said: a forum for playing, trying things out and working out what you think is important in dance. Meanwhile, it strikes me that times and ideals have changed, and the irony is that the primary aim of the growing number of Sydney’s ‘independents’ is to flock together for mutual support. There must be a better name for them. Even so, it’s a shame the organisers want to foreclose their open door policy and act as curators, because a place where artists can feel relaxed and informal rather than pressured to create a finished product is a rare treat for most performers.

With Link Theatre at the Museum of Sydney, the program invited me to see “a dance that utilised the inherent design of the exterior of MOS … both architecturally and thematically inspiring”, a commissioned ‘site specific’ work, Site Lines, which seemed in the end itself to reflect the same environmental insensitivity, or more politely, a cultural strangeness that the first settlers might have experienced on this very spot. We see in the dance material and design the same curiously blinkered reading of both body and environment. The permanent MOS installation Edge of the Trees, by Janet Laurence and Fiona Foley, demonstrating the passage of time in the weathering and layering of physical and cultural material, was used as a set for the new work. However Link just appropriated some superficial visual effects for their own purposes and ignored the inherent potential interactivity and delicate soundscape already part of the installation.

Another vivid collision of material occurred when an old lady wandered across the square, as anyone might have done, walked up to the dancers, stared at them briefly, and started imitating them in an engagingly oblivious way, after which she proceeded to roll up the leg of her pants, demonstrating to a group of young boys her aged and wrinkled knee. A well-meaning administrator tried to lead her away, stop her interfering in the ‘real’ event, but only in her own time did she wander off, much to the relief of the dancers whose performance task was, at this point, to pretend nothing was happening.

The unspeakable eloquence of this episode encapsulated my feeling that the actual present and highly visible layering of cultural values that is in front of us every day, speaking through all our bodies at every turn, with the real passage of real time, continues to remain unacknowledged right here and now, afflicted as we still seem to be with the same cultural obtuseness of 200 odd years ago.

Not entirely, though. There were two short works both of which illuminated in their different ways that very aspect of cultural difference: Mother Tongue Interference , a performance work by Deborah Pollard (Four on the Floor), and Karmagain by Simone Baker, subtitled “A Western Woman’s Eastern past life” and performed as part of Cha Cha Cha, the fourth Dance Collection ‘95 program. Both works expose facile perceptions of cultural displacement and assimilation. Deborah Pollard has gone straight to the difficult bits, where the pretence of bridging impossible cultural gaps is simply unbearable, leaving her witless and inarticulate. Karmagain highlights a westerner’s short-answer response to the culturally inexplicable, with idealisation of classic stereotypes being like a first stumbling attempt at cultural understanding.

And speaking of stereotypes, The Sydney Dance Company’s Berlin is composed of a multitude, all redolent with the nostalgia and romance of Berlin’s theatre and film tradition. If you haven’t already seen Wim Wenders’ film, Wings of Desire, then perhaps you should do that first, because, entertaining though it might be, Berlin doesn’t come close to its beauty and depth. Surprisingly, there is no mention of the film in the program despite the fact that it appears to have stimulated many of the ideas, and only a vague mention of “ghosts and angels”. Nor are any of the other sources acknowledged. Maybe it is simply too obvious to be worth bothering about. For heaven’s sake, Iva Davies and Graeme Murphy look for all the world like the two angels watching benignly over the human world of pleasure and wanting.

Sex, drugs and violence, both nasty and poignant, make their obligatory appearance. Janet Vernon is entirely at home in a tired sort of way as our Marlene. I caught a glimpse of a more contemporary Pina Bausch chorus line from 1980. The Wall is represented too, both the climbing up and the coming down, as well as the militaristic influences of now and then, blond boys perpetually bullet-headed, innocent, power hungry.

But what about the dancing? I hear you ask. Yes, it was there, and I was right up close, not more than 3 or 4 feet from the performers. We could see through the wire mesh, (another image from Wings?), the elasticity, the resilience and flow of dancers caught up in something they have done all their lives, the perfectly timed slippery partnering of duets, and the complex and articulate ensemble work in parts like Angel Life, and Complicated Game. To understand dancing, I need to ask, “What are these bodies saying to me? What do they make me feel?” and I often get stranded with all those unacknowledged physical habits and empty gestures, which lie in that impossible gulf between what they might want to say and what they do say.

RealTime issue #10 Dec-Jan 1995 pg. 27

© Eleanor Brickhill; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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