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within the frame: a timeless space

tess de quincey talks to keith gallasch about embrace

Peter Snow, Tess de Quincey, embrace: Guilt Frame Peter Snow, Tess de Quincey, embrace: Guilt Frame
photo Samuel James & Russell Emerson

Embrace is an ongoing exchange between De Quincey Co and Indian artists in partnership with Monash University. Seeded in 2003 in Kolkata, the Embrace exchange explores a relationship with The Natyashastra, the seminal ancient text and cornerstone of Indian artistic practice, with Body Weather, the practice developed by Min Tanaka and his Mai-Juku Performance Company in Japan. Tess de Quincey was a dancer with that company for six years (1985-91) before returning to Australia where she has continued to perform solo and with her company, as well as teaching Body Weather.

De Quincey defines the developing relationship between The Natyashastra and Body Weather as “a synthesis of Eastern and Western practice and thought, bringing together ancient Buddhist and Taoist thinking with elements of 20th Century Western philosophy. It’s a radical, open-ended exploration that melds contemporary dance and sports theory with martial arts, traditional Japanese/Asian theatre and Western avant-garde arts practices.”

Visiting old friends in India with a great library, de Quincey found herself one day sitting on the balcony reading The Natyashastra and feeling, she says, “a resonance and connection with my own work but at the same time a lot of differences.” Here, she thought, was a means with which to engage with Indian artists.

De Quincey wasn’t thinking of absorbing an Indian performance methodology but connecting with certain “energetic states” common to The Natyashastra and Body Weather. But it’s also, she says, about “the placement of the ego—the position of non-self-expression and utilising the body as a transformative entity.” De Quincey had turned to Body Weather in response to “a crisis of faith in relation to Western dance, because I knew I wasn’t getting what I needed.” Workshops in Bali with Yoshi Oida in 1984 in Topeng mask work, Noh Theatre and meditation with a Shinto priest provided the first steps for a new direction that lead her to Body Weather.

For de Quincey, leaving Western dance was to escape conventional notions of form and expressiveness: “Working in Japan for six years I became really aware that the placement of the individual is really different there, because you see the individual as servicing the communal space...You’re not concerned with the “I”, you’re actually concerned with the space in between.”

I ask if taking on Body Weather is to learn a discipline or evolve a particular state of being. “I think in one way it was almost like trying to shed. The first couple of years were about coming down to bedrock. Really everything I’d learned in terms of physical work had to be dropped. The Body Weather training on a mind-body, muscle and bone level is more like gymnast’s work. It’s quite purist in that respect. Most dancers are working to put aesthetic relationships into their body from the word go. In effect, this approach tries to drop them. All those things take a long time to shed.”

I wonder what de Quincey is doing if not actually dancing in the Western sense? She replies, “Developing strength and relationship to ground—the grounding that is embodied in that. For example, the mind-body workout is purely about understanding the depth of relation to the ground but also about working space together. The communal body is also a very big part of the mind-body. So you see the body from outside working into the greater body. And that in effect is another way of working, a preparation for performance.”

De Quincey senses profound cultural differences in performance and audience reception. “A Western dancer will perceive the internal line of the body cutting through space. So you see the line of the arm working through space. It’s like the geometry of the body is the indicative factor. For Mai-Juku, the body is being danced by the space. So the softness of the arm is totally different. Even if you were to make an arc through space, the reason for doing it would be so different that the expression of it is ultimately different. Often from an audience point of view you’re certainly aware watching this work that there’s a very different sense of time and space, especially of time. I think part of the thinking of Body Weather is to open up a different doorway. And of course, as soon as you shift into a new speed outside your natural speed, you shift out of normal mode.”

Not surprisingly then, framing is a term de Quincey uses frequently. In Kolkata in 2003 she worked on embrace: Limitless with 40 children from the slums, staged in the streets, and embrace: A Silent Thread, with 14 dancers and many locals in a spectacular site-specific work moving from a park to an old home, now a classical music venue. “The sense of framing has partly come about through doing site-specific works. A Silent Thread established a frame for audiences in a stately old home, shifted it around and took them through different frames. I was very affected by the portraits of the old Raj you see somewhere like the Bengal Club. If you’re directing the audience’s attention what they are seeing is, in one sense, a filmic frame. As you move through a site you’re drawing in on different focuses, using performers to delineate frames…and of course, there were plenty of frames within that building—windows and doors.”

But in embrace: guilt frame, there’ll only be one frame, “a gilt frame”, declares de Quincey, a metre wide that she and Snow will perform in, going though a number of “energetic states.” She fills me in when I wonder where the term comes from: “I’ve been working a lot on Gestalt with Philip Oldfield, a very interesting therapist and psychologist based in Sydney. Working with him, I felt an immediate parallel world to Body Weather, but it was a psychological understanding of the same elements. He reads the body completely. His whole relationship to understanding psychology is from the micro-signalling I understand to be the communicating factor in any performance. He speaks about energetics, so maybe my reference comes from that.”

De Quincey details the structure of the performance: “We’ve gone along with The Natyashastra states—love, laughter, sorrow, anger, the heroic, fear, disgust, astonishment. We run through a cycle of them and then, for eight minutes at the end, we’re improvising. The first state is love. You take the eight states and put them inside love. Within love, you have also astonishment, anger, fear and so on; but the base state is love. It’s almost like a holographic world that you can keep breaking down. The first time we did it as a total improvisation. I’d basically conceived it as the frame, the eight emotional states and physical lock-in points within, that delineates the agreement between the performers as to which state we’re in. And we’re going from one state to the next, as simple as that.”

There’s no sense of a one-off about embrace: Guilt Frame for de Quincey: “I find it very interesting, the idea of process and product. The only reason we can make this performance is because of all the other Embrace performances before it.”

Music is also an important component of the performance for de Quincey: “I’ve been waiting for a long time for a way to use Ligeti’s Symphonic Poem for 100 Metronomes (1962), which I discovered years ago and just fell in love with. But we couldn’t get permission from the estate to use it. So I asked Michael Toisuta to make a piece as a homage to Ligeti. It’s very different from the Ligeti, but it uses metronomes. We tried using computer-generated sounds but it was a disaster so we bought metronomes. In the Ligeti I’ve always liked the extraordinary patterns that only last for brief moments emerging from absolute chaos.

“But the interesting issue is how we understand patterns and perceive them. And the music seemed to me the means by which to open the space of the framing of chaotic relationships in our lives. The metronomes create a bedding, an endless felting of layers, but at the same time they cut through them. We’ve had to create that feeling afresh. And that’s been an interesting parallel experiment. Michael’s composition is much more musical than Ligeti’s, even though he didn’t set out to do that. And there are moments where it’s completely like a Balinese orchestra. And we hadn’t looked at that either.”

But the music is not there to be performed to, says de Quincey: “It’s a timepiece. It’s there all the time. To me, part of what I understand this piece to be about is time, because you can’t work with emotions without having time—all those long threads and where they go back into our histories and forward into our future imaginings. Those perspectives seem to be absolutely embedded in the issue of time and space, even thought it’s a tiny gilt frame space…As soon as you bring the world down to a matchbox, space becomes endless as well. It’s the paradox of scale.”

Sydney Theatre Company, Wharf2Loud, embrace: Guilt Frame, created and performed by Tess de Quincey and Peter Snow, original Concept Tess de Quincey, set Designers Russell Emerson, Steve Howarth, lighting designer Travis Hodgson, sound designer Michael Toisuta; Richard Wherrett Studio, Sydney Theatre, Feb 27-March 9

RealTime issue #83 Feb-March 2008 pg. 45

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

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