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Courageous lover, great imagineer

Garry Lester on Douglas Wright’s Black Milk

Garry Lester is a Sydney-based writer and dance scholar.

Helaina Keeley, Joey (dummy), <BR />Jessica Shipman, Brian Carbee, <BR />Sarah Jayne Howard, Black Milk Helaina Keeley, Joey (dummy),
Jessica Shipman, Brian Carbee,
Sarah Jayne Howard, Black Milk
photo John Savage
In ghost dance, his 2004 work of “autobiographical fiction”, Douglas Wright recounts his life from the position of someone who feels he has already died. AIDS had taken many of his friends and lovers and held Wright in its thrall. A suicide attempt 2 years later almost saw that metaphoric state become a reality. The pain of loss had become unbearable and death seemed the only possibility. Terra Incognito, his second and most recent memoir takes us into this harrowing world of devastating depression and existential despair and Wright’s ultimate realisation that in embracing death he has found a way to live.

Douglas Wright has stated that Black Milk, his latest dance theatre work, “was conceived and gestated in a profound darkness”, yet for all its terrible inspiration there is much to celebrate within its performance. It is a complex work that delves into the dark underbelly of human frailty but also reveals moments of exquisite tenderness, fierce beauty and disarming humour. We enter a world in which base instinct collides with nobility of spirit: it’s a journey of revelation where paradox and contradiction are embraced in an attempt to make sense of the gamut of our human responses to the vicissitudes of living.

There is an ingenious simplicity about the design of the work—created by Michael Pearce—which belies the complexity of its structure. This structure creates a dynamic interplay between multiple modes of representation, a delicate balance between the intellectual experience of the unfolding verbal narrative, the written signs that reference Colin McCahon’s textual landscapes of the spirit, and the sensual world of the movement: “the lovely bravery of the dance”, as the New Zealand novelist Peter Wells observed.

Wright creates atmospheres of charged emotional states that are breathtaking in their ontological significance. We enter into the realm of states of being, a charged and polyvalent state, where the kinaesthetic and sensual world co-exists and resonates with the world of the mind.

Central to the structure of Black Milk is a ventriloquist act which soon reveals itself allied to the more serious ancient Greek notion of the prophetic and divinely inspired. It becomes a vehicle for meditations on the nature of existence as the conversation between the ventriloquist and his dummy traverses the terrain of nascent longing and desire. This is no simple engastrimythic act, for both the disembodied voices of our protagonists emanate from Wright himself. What begins as a conversation about the desire to be born escalates into a physical act of transgression in which the ventriloquist sexually abuses the dummy, setting off a chain of events simultaneously poignant, frightening and wickedly funny.
Jessica Shipman, Alex Leonhartsberger,<BR /> Claire O'Neil, Black Milk Jessica Shipman, Alex Leonhartsberger,
Claire O'Neil, Black Milk
photo John Savage
This unfolding narrative underscores the presence of the other performers who inhabit a landscape of the emotions in which their actions seem at times to be a consequence of the unfolding central drama, sometimes a commentary upon it and, at other times, a quiet reverie enacted in some private domain. Black Milk is ultimately a paean to life but before we get to that point we are taken on a journey of despair, into the heart of darkness, where human degradation curdles the milk of human kindness and turns it black. And yet throughout these encounters there is a glimmer of hope in fleeting acts of love in which the nobility of the human spirit reveals itself. But this is no simple tale of good triumphing over evil, for we are asked to confront the suffering in our lives and embrace the contradictions to which it gives rise. The installation which precedes the show has a sex doll slowly inflating and deflating on a bed of nails accompanied by a sign that reads “Pain examined without prejudice is metamorphosis”, as the haunting, angelic voice of Antony (and the Johnsons) sings his pain.

There are so many pungent images and passages of exquisite dancing: it is dance in which we experience the embodied presence of flesh and blood human beings rather than those machine-like presences that pervade so much contemporary dance. These characters truly inhabit this world of Wright’s fecund imaginings, where movement resonates with multivalent affect, and technique is at the service of a state of being. Each of the accomplished performers in a grand cast brings a luminous presence to the work.

The giant teat or birth canal suspended from the ceiling pervades the space and becomes a powerful metaphor for birth and death as characters arrive and depart the performance. It heralds the arrival of the fierce beauty and erotic danger of the naked (except for red shoes), scissor-wielding Fate (Sarah-Jane Howard) as she dances her demented Flamenco and the departure of the ventriloquist dummy’s still-born child. The ventriloquist (Brian Carbee) never mouths in the entire performance yet literally embodies his verbal content in a sophisticated modern dance mime.

A young man embraces the stage in a solo of such elegance and eloquence that bespeaks a state of grace. There is a male duet that evokes the tentative thrill of forbidden desire and the melding of spirits. Dancers become human projectiles, narrowly missing each other as they hurtle through the space, plummeting to earth. The lyrical rolling, now done on their knees, suggests the wind whistling through grass.

Joey—the not so dumb dummy—brings the house down when he wonders why a young woman is running. It’s the question everyone has asked at some point during a dance performance: ‘What does it all mean?’ While incredibly droll, the statement risks reverting to meaning making through intellect at the expense of other modes of apprehension. Asking that question treads a fine balance!

The Abu Ghraib scene also disturbs me, not for the blatant inhumanity it represents but the overlay of a commentary of anguish and despair that seemed to blunt its force. Perhaps the innocent questioning of our naïf-philosopher might have sharpened its impact.

Colin McCahon’s often quoted “New Zealand has too few lovers” suggests the need to connect the spirit of place and our relationship to each other. Douglas Wright has done that by confronting the dark recesses of the human psyche and reclaiming the will to live. He is a courageous lover. The whole cast and production team are to be commended on the realisation of the work of this great ‘imagineer’.

Douglas Wright Dance, Black Milk, director, choreographer, writer Douglas Wright, performers Craig Bary, Brian Carbee, Sarah-Jayne Howard, Helaina Keeley, Alex Leonhartsberger, Kelly Nash, Taiaroa Royal, Guy Ryan, Jessica Shipman, Zoe Watkins, design Michael Pearce, lighting design Robrecht Ghesquiere, composer/sound designer David Long; Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, July 19-29

Garry Lester is a Sydney-based writer and dance scholar.

RealTime issue #75 Oct-Nov 2006 pg. 38

© Garry Lester; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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