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Meaning & its absence in the everyday

Chris Reid: Double Bill

Personwhowatchestoomuchtelevision Personwhowatchestoomuchtelevision
photo Huw Trenorden
Contrasting concepts of dance were portrayed in Double Bill, with recorded spoken text, instrumental music, electronics and video framing one work and movement generating sound in the other, if in an intriguing relationship with it.


Personwhowatchestoomuchtelevision, which premiered in the 2015 Adelaide Fringe Festival, is a collaborative work for four dancers—Mieke Kriegesvelt, Tyson Olsen, Ellen Worley and Greta Wyatt, who jointly developed the choreography—and composer Dan Thorpe. This intense 30-minute work is a setting of the texts of Adelaide poet Rhys Nixon. Thorpe developed the score with the Maple String Quartet and pre-recorded himself reading Nixon’s bleak portrayal of life. The carefully orchestrated sound, with Thorpe performing on guitar and electronics, provides a densely woven backdrop to the voiceover, the dance and an accompanying video to create complex and absorbing dance theatre.

The performance commences with the four dancers standing entranced in front of a TV on a trolley. They then burst into frantic movement as if they’re puppets controlled by unseen forces. Apart from the TV trolley and a couch, the stage is bare. The video, also by Thorpe, appears later, showing a shopper slowly navigating a supermarket, followed by a scene in which the solitary figure walks aimlessly in the street. The video combines superimposed and blurred imagery as if to show how TV programs and reality can coalesce into an incoherent composite.

The choreography is well paced and executed, dramatising the text and responding to the sound. In one stark sequence, two dancers curled up on the TV trolley’s shelves begin to writhe within and around the trolley and develop an erotic duet, like seductive serpents emerging from the TV itself. Another dancer walks across stage doubled over with her head in a rubbish bin that she pushes along the floor. This is expressive and dramatic, dance and text portraying a range of emotional and psychological states—the boredom, anger, aimlessness, isolation and loss of perspective induced by addictive TV-watching and the desire for escape from an unresponsive world. In the final passage, the dancers gaze at a glowing white TV screen in the darkness, like doomed moths hypnotised by light. Personwhowatchestoomuchtelevision is fine work, powerful and probing.

If/Then If/Then

In her If/Then, composer, musician and sound engineer Iran Sanadzadeh has revived the work of Australian dancer Philippa Cullen, who, in the early 1970s, began experimenting with theremins to produce sound through dance movement, and later developed a pressure-sensitive dance floor to trigger sound. Some of the equipment left behind by Cullen, who died tragically at age 25 in 1975, is housed at the University of Adelaide’s Elder Conservatorium and, for her Honours project in Sonic Arts at the University, Sanadzadeh is exploring Cullen’s ideas, devising her own movement-sensitive floor panels using updated electronics.

If/Then is an improvised work for four (or so) performers, including the composer herself, who sit, lie or stand on the movement-sensitive panels, their presence and action triggering shifts in pitch in a theremin-like drone that runs throughout the performance. With contemporary technology, a wider range of sounds beyond those of the theremin could presumably be generated, but Sanadzadeh has reproduced the sonic character of Cullen’s early equipment.

The performers resemble a group of friends relaxing casually while sipping drinks. Their movement mimics natural human interaction—the effect is like watching theatre minus the dialogue. The eerie theremin sound becomes even spookier—slight movements might abruptly trigger dramatic shifts in pitch, while more extended movements might or might not cause any major change in the sound. We thus witness a play that seems emotionally detached from the sound.

Although little seems to happen in If/Then, the theatrical concept is subtle and engaging. More energetic movement might induce a greater range of sound, but the movement remains restrained. While Cullen intended the dancers to make music, the performers in If/Then seem not so much to be playing an instrument with movement as allowing themselves to be observed electronically by the equipment and to trigger responses in the electronics to see what happens. In the meantime, watching people doing nothing reminds us that supposedly casual human interaction is actually a social contrivance.

Philippa Cullen in performance, Ewing Gallery, 1974 Philippa Cullen in performance, Ewing Gallery, 1974
There are other aleatoric elements in Sanadzadeh’s script. Evidently there is flexibility about who performs and how many join in, and during the performance, she signals to the mixer off-stage (Thorpe) to make changes to the mix, which, she told me afterwards, he might or might not obey. I attended both evenings—the second rendition of If/Then lasted somewhat longer than the first, suggesting flexible duration, and it turned out rather differently.

Sanadzadeh’s If/Then is thus about exploring a range of possible actions with indeterminate outcomes, suggesting the influence of John Cage. And as well as demonstrating and extending Cullen’s original idea of reversing the relationship between movement and sound, Sanadzadeh’s concept also inevitably speaks of the new era of electronic surveillance and prosthetic technology.

Double Bill, Personwhowatchestoomuchtelevision, If/Then; Tenth and Gibson, Bowden, Adelaide, 10, 11 Sept

RealTime issue #129 Oct-Nov 2015 pg. 24

© Chris Reid; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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