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Amber McCartney, Island Amber McCartney, Island
photo Gregory Lorenzutti for Dancehouse
James Batchelor’s Island is as remote an experience as its name suggests. Not only is it a work that reveals spatial relations and manipulates our perceptions, but it also presents a world of singular and slick, futuristic discomfort.

In this space there are no seats. One black wall is adorned with a few streaks of silver that zigzag up and away. Over erratic rasps we hear echoing trills and beeps. Between two rows of transparent screens is a dancer, with runners and shorts, anorak, powdered hair and eyebrows all in desolate white. Her movements run circuits based on tight pivots, precise and robotic, and yet with an unhurried, human calm as she moves over two rows of neon-lit hoops on the floor.

Island speaks of isolation, but illusion as well. The screens behind this figure (Bicky Lee) set up a hall-of-mirrors effect, so that looming behind the dancer is a succession of her ghost-like reflections, ever-diminishing, hovering over the hoops; and there in the muddle we also see ourselves, staring back. We are watching a world fragmented, ever-detaching. But we’re also free to roam around it. At a step, the spectres vanish and Lee is revealed as a tangible body. A few steps more and she slips again into other, subtle distortions.

The soundscape (by Morgan Hickenbotham) rises aggressively now. Lee is joined by Batchelor and Amber McCartney, in the same aseptic adventure wear. A rhythmic, high-pitched whirr grows louder and faster, asserting itself with a swerve and swing through the standing bodies, from ankles to hips, to shoulders and down again. A shrill and circular nightmare, the textures of sound and movement merge unnervingly. The effect is potent, but the shocking volume of sound makes me wonder, why the severity?

Batchelor cites among his influences the works of famous pessimists like Aldous Huxley and John Gray, who have promulgated anti-humanist views about the fickleness of the human mind. The installation of mobile screens (by architect Ella Leoncio) does make a point about this. Their mirror effects at times shatter all sense of unity; and since they are moved to new layouts between each section of Island, their changeability is the most interesting feature. Island ‘reads’ like an ironic and self-reflexive study of illusion: a demonstration of Gray’s notion—borrowed from Taoism—that illusion is inescapable, and the best we can do with our susceptible senses is be aware that they feed on such tricks.

Amber McCartney, Island Amber McCartney, Island
photo Gregory Lorenzutti for Dancehouse
What becomes of ‘humanness’ in the midst of all this? Another irony in this work is that, for all our freedom to roam and get close, the dancers remain untouchable and inscrutable. Something human is lurking there, but beneath layers of effects and a wall of harsh sound the dancers gaze at us without expression, with post-human faces we recognise and yet don’t.

In the final section, each dancer draws from their pocket a small potato. A small consolation, perhaps? Each shuttles theirs through the air, staring as it rebounds between bodies and screens, navigating the re-ordered space. If not consolation, then amusement? Or anachronism? This island is full of surprises. It conjures its world with enough force to make the mundane strange again.

Island, concept, choreographer James Batchelor, performers Amber McCartney, Bicky Lee, James Batchelor, architect Ella Leoncio, sound artist Morgan Hickenbotham; Dancehouse, Melbourne, 11-15 June

RealTime issue #122 Aug-Sept 2014 pg. 37

© Jessica Sabatini; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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