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Bodyworks: the politics of the embrace

Jonathan Marshall

Is there a psycho-kinetic space between the blow and the caress, or is the touch of flesh on flesh always a sadomasochistic enactment of power which both stimulates and contains desire and unpleasure? Melbourne has become the dance performance site for the painful sublime, populated by anatomic, deconstructed bodies from Lucy Guerin, Phillip Adams, Brett Daffy and Gideon Obarzanek. Bodyworks presented a suitably eclectic selection, but the most compelling was that which aroused such Artaudian and Foucauldian ideals.

Russell Dumas is stylistically and geographically removed from these approaches. His work is characterised by a gentle yet controlled ascension of everyday movement into the rigours of formal dance. It represents an aestheticisation of the commonplace, not a Dadaesque challenge to such terms. Nevertheless the depth of his execution and that of Collin Sneesby in Post Larret 99 paradoxically gives them an unmannered ease which problematises their status as ‘performers.’ The embrace however reveals the underlying violence of Dumas’ choreography. Dumas guides and positions his companion, shaping and modifying the latter’s gestures. Despite Dumas’ sensual, soft touch, there is an inherent cruelty in this friendly meeting of flesh. Dumas moves his subject, curtailing Sneesby’s freedom. The aesthetics of ballet is reinscribed through the embrace.

Brett Daffy’s lonely body is not subjected to the literal imposition of another’s power. This is a body that embraces itself in a violent concatenation of disparate body-parts. It is “meat”, smashed against itself under the gaze of the audience. In Human meat processing works, the spectators act as wall-flowers at a nightclub, probing the body visually in a search for sexual arousal. It is not only the observer who enacts this harsh embrace of flesh by the eye though. Like the denizens of the nightclub, Daffy has internalised this gaze; he scrutinises himself. Violent self-regulation is physicalised in a painful, contorted touching of the self which rips apart and meshes together the fragments which meet. Even alone, the sensual violence of the (self-) embrace remains.

Gekidan Kaitaisha’s Into the Century of Degeneration begins with an unmotivated woman, wandering into 3 men who at her touch lift her by the waist, shake her, and drop her. They seize her as though life depended on it. She struggles to escape while one holds her back—protecting her from herself? Each embrace mingles affection, self-hatred, and loathing of the other. One in a dog collar with eyes heavy with unspeakable sadness manipulates his subject as though trying to save her, hoping to agitate her out of her benumbed reverie. A bully-boy with eyes that bore through walls thrashes her about as though wreaking his havoc on the world. The third reacts instinctively, his sensations dulled but his reactions angry. For all 3, the embrace inflicts pain with a loving cruelty, using an aggressive physicality for salvation and damnation, containment and liberation. The uneven pacing of the embrace, its slow, subtle arousal and whip-lashes of fearsome energy, reveals the anger and love that underlies the meeting of flesh. The body and my jaded eyes emerge scarred yet reinvigorated.

Bodyworks 99: Post Larret 99, director/performer Russell Dumas, performer Collin Sneesby & various guests; Ward: Human meat processing works, choreographer/performer Brett Daffy; Into the Century of Degeneration, by Gekidan Kaitaisha, director Shinjin Shimizu, Dancehouse, Melbourne, Nov 24 - Dec 7 1999

RealTime issue #35 Feb-March 2000 pg. 32

© Jonathan Marshall; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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