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Too Safe Sex

Sydney Dance Company’s Fornicon puts Sue-Ellen Kohler off-colour

Sue-ellen Kohler is a Sydney dance artist.

Another night at the Opera House. Sue-ellen Kohler is seen outside. She looks sick.
Perhaps it’s her all-day-and-night morning sickness or has something she’s just seen caused that pained expression?

What’s the matter, Sue-ellen? “I have just sat through two hours of… of…” Her mouth opens but nothing comes out. She tries again but the words evade her. Finally. “There was…a lot of colour and movement. There. That’s it. I saw something with a lot of colour and movement.”

You’re talking about the latest Sydney Dance Company performance Fornicon. There must be more to say about it than “colour and movement.”

“Oh well, after what I just saw it’s hard to remember that there is much more to dance anyway. I mean, the audience seemed well pleased with a bit of light entertainment, a bit of a story taken from other stories and a chance to perv on all those glamorous, hot bodies—a bit like Baywatch, nothing too challenging or disturbing. What more can you ask for?”

I thought Fornicon was inspired by great moments of eroticism, love, sex, power, citing De Sade, Bataille, Calasso, Nin and Byron to comment on our repressive views of sexuality in a world terrified of AIDS?

“Exactly! You go to see dance that claims all those things and you find that there’s no danger there, just pretence. Gesturing towards breaking taboos while playing it safe. Safe eroticism—I didn’t know that was possible till now. The Claytons form of sex—spend with an eye on saving. Dance can therefore remain a powerless form of communication, commenting on nothing and no-one and (almost) everyone seems to be happy.”

But surely the work has merit. This company is one of the most highly funded in Australia—one of Australia’s cultural flagships adored by Paul Keating and dance critic Jill Sykes alike.

“I think there are individual merits but if I took either the costumes, the design or even the music out of context I would seem to be speaking of three unrelated contributions. You can see the skill and enjoy those elements on their own but in context with the work, they are all at odds.

“Fornicon is so underdeveloped that each element represents a different ego. Because the work in itself doesn’t have a voice or language to call its own, it then becomes transparent, leaving it at the mercy of either the glamour or ravages of fashion.”

Yes, but what happens?

“The story is a torrid little soap opera sorely lacking originality and shape. The ‘author’ (Graeme Murphy) is imprisoned for writing pornography. The scenes unfold as visions of his censored imagination. Drawing on the classic figures of love and lust including Eros, Paris, Don Juan and Helen of Troy, the author interweaves their stories and desires with contemporary icons including a pop star and a giant, winged penis. The steps were the same ones we’ve been seeing from Sydney Dance Company for years now—with the exception of Mark Williams the pop singer as ‘the Don’ who was doing more dancing and commanded more attention than any of the dancers.”

Was there anything you liked?

“My performer’s body is tired of watching these skilled dancers throwing themselves violently from one shape to another, performing steps that speak to the body (especially the female body) as if it is a commodity to be used and abused as the means for another’s end. There was a brief respite, however, with a short solo set within the surreality of an opium dream and performed by Wakako Asano. A dramatic contrast to the other scenes, it drew the audience into the sinuous quality of the dancer’s butoh-esque movement. The performance is driven by a strong filmic score by Martin Armiger who collaborated on the scenario with Graeme Murphy.”

You’re looking better. Who’s really to blame for making you sick?

“Audiences. They like to be in control, to commodify and ultimately have total power over our cultural experiences. To me, Fornicon is a perfect example of this. The erotic, the idea fundamental to the work, which is about breaking taboo, is here a neatly packaged, very safe expression of middle-class, repressed sexual desire. Perhaps Fornicon is so well supported because it is so safe and unthreatening. More innovative work by independent artists is ignored or denigrated. If in Fornicon we are supposed to vicariously live out what we can no longer do in real life, then one cannot help but feel repressed at all turns. The sexual fantasy of the ‘author’ provides no satisfactory escape for a culture that is morally cautious.”


Sydney Dance Company, Fornicon, Sydney Opera House, May 6-30; Adelaide Festival Centre from June 22; then Melbourne and Canberra.

Sue-ellen Kohler is a Sydney dance artist.

RealTime issue #7 June-July 1995 pg. 24

© Sue-ellen Kohler; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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