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Legs on the Wall: Needing a leg up

Keith Gallasch

Legs on the Wall’s latest creation, Runners Up, is full of the physical virtuosity and endurance we have come to expect from them, but is short of the distinctive organicism the company developed across various ensembles for over a decade and lacks the provocative inventiveness of the best in its recent seasons of short works for Belvoir St’s B Sharp series. It’s a show of bits and consequently a bit of a show, falling far short of the suggestiveness of its title. It seemed such a good idea–what is the impact on the runners up in a Australian sporting culture fixated increasingly on lone winners and less and less on team or on having done one’s best. Coming less than first is only a virtue in international competition when Australian sportcasters can’t be bothered telling us who the winner was, giving out Australian names and positions first. But Runners Up offers no coherent vision of what it means to lose (bitterness, denial, guilt, shame), beyond a generalised, vaguely satirical account of a culture where sport is pervasive and which the show mildly mocks and applauds. However, director Debra Batton’s program says it all, and too much: "Runners Up is not about losing. It draws equal inspiration from the play of the backyard, the competitive sports arenas and the circus and live theatre worlds, it questions the difference between theatre and sport, and celebrates our commonality; the body in action."

Physical theatre has gotten better and better over the years in its dealings with language, but here stiff, unfunny pre-show voiceovers inadequately mimicking sportscaster lingo (long ago decimated by Roy & HG), and the litany of sadly past-use-by-date female athlete woes delivered mid-show in an unconvincing line-up, are proof that physical skill has to be matched with verbal felicity and aware writing, or else. Similarly, taking on film as a part of performance, and at a time when the interplay of virtual and real is reaching new levels of integration in the work of other artists (and in the sports arena!), needs to be addressed more seriously, otherwise it simply feels like fill.

Kind-of framing the show with a dextrous singing and dancing MC is another bad move, since all it can say is what has been said too often and without impact, that sport is just another form of showbiz. The conceit with the most potential for sustaining Runners Up is promptly and brilliantly established and then inadequately sustained. It’s about the sports watcher, at home with his TV, totally immersed in the action, feeling it in every muscle. The home viewer’s imaginative experience is made brilliantly visceral when he is joined on his suddenly mobile armchair by hurtling athletes who integrate him into their vertiginous acrobatics while his gaze stays fixed all the while on the TV screen. Actor Kerry Casey looks just right for the role, and though without quite the skills of his fellow Legs, is perfectly integrated into the action. The audience ache for more, but it’s gone, and nothing subsequently matches it: his strange little dances of participation merely opaque. What better way to work through the culture of win and lose than to lock onto the player-audience relationship and run with it. We almost had an on-stage surrogate! And how better to deal with the ways public attitude determines how sports men and women deal with coming less than first.

The final image of the performers as kids skidding and sliding on their bellies across the wet of lawn sprinklers is wondrously evocative of the innocent pleasures of playfulness that precede the law and order of competitive sport. However, like the earlier, tough headstand scene that exudes very real stress and competition, it gains little weight without a governing vision. Memorable moments, of which there were plenty, and great performers are not enough.

Legs on the Wall & The Studio, Runners Up, director Debra Iris Batton, design Kathryn Sprout, lighting Damien Cooper, composer Carl Polke, audio visuals Kristi Street, performers Claudia Alessi, Kerry Casey, Alexandra Harrison, Ingrid Kleinig, Rowan Marchingo, Kirk Page, Telford Scully; The Studio, Sydney Opera House, October 10-25

RealTime issue #52 Dec-Jan 2002 pg. web

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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