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Adelaide Festival 2004: ADT, Held

Keith Gallasch: ADT, Held

Her Majesty’s Theatre, March 3-6

ADT’s Held is about dance and photography and, inevitability, dance photography, a sub-genre of performance photography in general. Some photographers, like Sydney’s Heidrun Löhr and Melbourne’s Jeff Busby (see p13) have the capacity to suggest more than classical fly-in-amber photographic documentation, conveying a sense of moment and movement in real time. In dance, mirror-gazing narcissism has long been reflected in a kind of unruffled portraiture, all stillness, form and beauty, but for many years now there have been excellent exceptions, opening the lens to the realities and rawness of the body and the rush and blur of movement. Most popular has been an anti-gravitational fetish, drawing on one significant aspect of the appeal of dance (logically extended into Meryl Tankard’s aerial dances for the previous incarnation of ADT). Images of dancers flying, backgrounds erased, have become a cliché, a Freudian fantasy of arousal lift-off. But the leaps of the Sydney Dance Company, for example, are just not the same as those of a new generation inspired, say, by La La Human Steps or Wim Vandeykebus or hip-hoppers. I’m thinking of in-the-air horizontal rolls, for example, which I watched casually performed by a couple of teenagers practising Capoeira in Victoria Square one festival afternoon. These people can also leap from zero—no run-up, there’s no lift, no wire, no flyman. It’s magical, especially when almost instantaneously captured on screen as a still image by a photographer standing centre stage between audience and dancers in the Australian Dance Theatre’s Held..

The primary power of Held is not just the moment caught, but specifically the moment of suspension, gravity defied. It’s a camera moment, one that our eye only just registers, when the dancer is mid-air, ascending or falling. It’s in the eye, the eye of the photographer, the prosthetic eye of the camera but also caught in the eye of the dancer—in one scene in Held I was transfixed by eyes of dancers enlarged on the screen and the alignment of look and movement.

Held is a sustained photo-shoot. American dance photographer Lois Greenfield is on stage when we arrive, already at work on informal portraits of the dancers. A big bank of lights and a reflective screen behind amplifying the flash confirm the sense of studio and session. From then on the theme of photographer and dancers at work together is subjected to numerous variations, interpolated with scenes without Greenfield which are nonetheless photographic in essence, such as a deep red darkroom reverie. In each variation, Held plays with our perceptions. After the ease of association between dancer and image in the pre-show gambit, the company erupts into its trademark power dancing and Greenfield and choreographer Garry Stewart suddenly stretch the duration between the live moment and its projection. The effect is disorienting as our eyes switch from bodies to screen and back, registering flickers of recall or seeing shapes and movements barely remembered. The dancers engage in dynamic tussles, fights but not-fights that allow them with martial arts moves to propel each other through space. The next scene allows the eye to adjust a little more, narrowing the time gap between action and image. Against a wall of sombre, cool green light the magic begins as individual dancers roll though the air, one falling as another rises, the relationship between action and image now and then correlating, the mind muttering “That was a good one...and that one...but not that one” as if flicking through a pile of photographs.

In the next shoot the dancers occupy a small space. Alone and in clusters they leap directly up from the floor, Greenfield’s photographs projected almost instantaneously, confirming and more intricately revealing the dancers’ capacity to fly from zero, to tuck legs beneath them and curl feet in the same second they are airborne. At last, movement and photograph become almost one perceptual field.

Between these sessions, Stewart sustains his play with the phenomenology of perception with shadow (an important part of the pre-history of photography), dancing in the dark (we see and hear the bodies and then glimpse them in flashes of light), darkroom scenes (in one, the collective body of dancers as a wonderful still life with tiny flickers of almost robotic movement, developing into something) and video which alerts us to the substantial difference between moving and fixed images. It is in some of these scenes that Darrin Verhagen’s sound score comes into its own, ranging from delicate piano to solo guitar against musique concrete textures.

Stewart and his designer Geoff Cobham also work the screen as a theme. The dancers move two huge vertical light boxes around the stage at various angles, creating coloured backdrops, shadow surfaces, the all important projection screens and spaces from which dancers emerge. These transform the space architecturally, moving beyond the studio to suggest, as so much work in new media art proposes, other projection possibilities to do with mobility, transparency and the interplay between real and virtual selves. A video of the dancers slowly falling and another of them leaping, in effect, from one screen to another have a peculiar cinematic beauty that confirms the very different feel of the still and the moving image. It also made me mindful that the most potent still images in Held were those of flight (solo or group) rather than the powerful interplay of bodies that threads through the show. Although memorable in its choreography, it does not figure strongly in my recollection of Greenfield’s photography.

Towards the very end, Held loses its grip as if the team has exhausted the repertoire of photographic possibilities. A slow solo against lime green screens and, finally, a series of polished coloured stills of the dancers from Greenfield against an overwrought soundtrack fail to take the dynamic that Stewart has so carefully and rigorously conceived any further. We know these photographs almost too well by now and the absence of the dancers from the stage seems misjudged, sentimental even, giving way to the photography’s recollection of them. That aside, Held is a richly considered and innovative essay in dance photography and visual perception. It also suits a company that deals in speed: the sheer pace and expertise demanded by Garry Stewart means that Held indeed holds moments for us that we would otherwise forget or generalise, yielding brilliant synaptic flashes, extending our appreciation of the virtuosic ADT dancers and Greenfield’s astonishing quickfire intuition.

RealTime issue #60 April-May 2004 pg. 28

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

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