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be/leaving past/present be/leaving past/present
photo Peter Riley
be/leaving past/present by John Utans, is quite terrific. Take 20 minutes off it and it would be outstanding—tight and engrossing. Solos are not necessary, for example—it’s more ‘electronica’ than jazz as a form. And that is its beauty.

The grammar of the dance is familiar; everyone lined up against the side walls, waiting, on show, actors. I still like this, it means your eyes are peeled and you must skim across the overall surface from time to time. You have to take in the ‘scene.’ And here it means projections, an intriguing and eclectic soundtrack, lighting that is part of the performance, ‘the set’ of old-fashioned ‘school slide-screens’, and the combinations (and narratives) of the dancers (a group of richly differing shapes; only 2 males among the cast of 18, and they and one woman took off their clothes and offered their bodies generously).

The work is about leaving. Yet for me it was about ‘arriving’—as leaving can only come about from arriving. And arrivals were occurring over and over; everyone seemed always to want to arrive.

Throughout the performance there is imagery projected: artworks and artists; especially, for me, Picasso, Warhol and Duchamp (heady references; and ones I didn’t care for in the context—was it catering to another sensibility—I don’t care, these are serious touchstones), as well as other iconic historical (renaissance) works. A scene from an interview with Warhol is featured, he’s sitting in front of the Elvis work. The whole piece begins with a voiceover about a ‘concert’ that’s about to begin of John Cage’s (perhaps with David Tudor); Utan’s references are wonderfully present though, like bones. They don’t condemn the work, they infiltrate it in their own way becoming part of the (new) work —as if they, in the case of Cage, are existing sound, and in the case of Duchamp, are ready-mades, and in the case of Picasso, are all fractured and seen-at-once.

The work is like a moving visual art installation, it has this quality, which is impossible in the gallery. I-did-not-like: the quotes from Matisse and others (too overstated). I-did-like: the text, not from the ‘masters’, that appeared on the back wall: “rain falls/ and at night/ he whispers to me/ all is lost/ by the sea/ they danced into the night/ the rain falls...”

I had a sudden flash with the text and the dancers’ despair (as if children) of Doris Lessing’s Memoirs Of A Survivor. It’s the small things: “There came a day when Emily walked across the street and added herself to the crowd there, as if it were quite easy for her to do this” (Lessing, Picador, 1980). She arrives, somewhere.

There is the hope and feverish work of being young, and of coming suddenly into the light, as one ‘character’ does; she sensuously works her way along a wall, never moving out of the light, until she walks off, leaving the light behind. But she had arrived first, she plays in the light, she is ‘become’ by the light. She’s not innocent. Throughout there is this lack of innocence.

You cannot use these iconic art references, this assured lighting, this soundscape, without already knowing the horror of being awake. And there lies the strangeness of the work. It takes a while to ‘awake’ to it, but it comes like a storm: this is delicate dance. The dancers’ bare feet touch the ground in a strange way. It is not hesitance, it’s as if they ‘care’ about, or worry for, something. This causes a slight imprecision, but also a kind of mercy or humaneness. They are not machines, they do not do perfect. But their feet are my concern here, something about their feet, their just behind-the-beatness. A degree of fear. A sense that arrival and departure is tentative—and fleeting and final.

I suppose I haven’t created a ‘mental-picture’ of this work. It’s a student-performed work, but it functions outside this category. It’s a bit like the projected Warhol interview—it’s a sophisticated innocence, but in this case the innocence is of another order—genuine and life-full. It’s a complex work—almost like watching a movie—it assumes a lot about its audience in terms of art history (but that’s a good thing, and that’s why I disliked the didactic quotes); its form (dance-theatre-visual art-movie-sound) is a wonderful one; a multi-textural work that worked (in the best sense of ‘worked’—a work of art).


be/leaving past/present, John Utans, performers, Adelaide Institute of TAFE, July 2

RealTime issue #56 Aug-Sept 2003 pg. 36

© Linda Marie Walker; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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