Dancehouse

CRITICAL DANCE WRITING: CLAUDIA LA ROCCO & MORE

Commissioned essay written by Claudia La Rocco

12/06/2017

It's quite a thing to fly 18 hours; parachute into a continent, country, city, scene for a week; see almost 10 performances over the course of that week; and come out the other end with anything intelligible (never mind intelligent) to say.

As of this typing I've done all but the intelligible bit. What to say about Dance Massive? On the morning television set, after having more makeup put on than I have every cumulatively worn in my life and after the anchors talked about the latest terrorism act and just before my first and probably only time doing live tv, I asked the woman anchor what we were going to be talking about and she smiled tightly and the man anchor adjusted his hair and the woman anchor said what do you want to talk about? And I said I'd just be uncomfortable talking about "Australian dance" since I have only seen a little bit of it and when we went live her first question was something along the lines of "What is contemporary dance?"

*

Who are these men? Their heads are masked in kerchiefs that seem swiped from a grandmother's closet, i.e. from another culture, and I think Keith Hennessy and Jassem Hindi's future friend/ships. We're seated in a circle, on a basketball court, and I think the gymnasium at Judson Church. My references are all wrong. They have spurs on their low boots as they stamp and circle and repeat, hands slapping thighs, movement coming from below the knees. They cycle between props, awkwardly at times, so you notice more the wrangling of the props than the meaning. Or maybe I just don't speak the codes. Anyone who says dance is a universal language obviously only speaks one language.

One of the two stands in the center of the court and cracks a whip, spaced far enough away so as to not catch us but close enough so that you think, each time, it will. The combination of care and malice is delicious. The presenters next to me flinch, and this is pleasing. The work is called Creature, and this, too, is pleasing.

Finally all of the props have been dispensed with, the masks taken off, and we see at last their eyes, see whatever weight is smoldering between the two of them — I think of an old writing teacher of mine crossing out all but a tiny segment of a poem I had written, circling that part and writing "This. This is the poem. Be ruthless."

This dance is the first thing I see at Dance Massive, the day of my arrival, while I'm still half-drunk on jetlag. The quiet heat of the performers' relationship will stay with me. The lack of didacticism. The insistence on folk dance as a contemporary art because it is happening in and on contemporary bodies.

*

It's the golden hour in the park. We walk in companionable silence for only a few moments, before our little speakers begin to kick in, before we see the other groups. We've given up our bags only to be handed these portable little suckers, surprisingly heavy; as instructed I press it into my thigh, my back, my side, anything to try and dampen the shifting sound collage, which is never as compelling as the shifting sound collage that is a city park at the end of a hot day, birds screeching wildly, almost violently, as they come home to roost.

Once we see the other groups the jig is up. Flocking becomes herding. I keep thinking about two of the things our group's guide said: that in a flock there are no leaders and no followers, and that we should keep an eye out for each other in case of danger, also in case "you see someone doing something wrong."

I watch various performers raise their arms as if in salute and think about Trisha Brown's Roof Piece. (She is still, just barely still, with us when I am watching/performing this work.) Of the dancers running to and fro on an expanse of grass in Noémie Lafrance's Manor Field. I think about Janet Cardiff & George Bures Miller's incredible soundscore Forest, how destabilizing and inevitable it was to come across it in the middle of Documenta 13. I think about how resistant I am. How humans are not birds.

What constitutes wrong audience behavior here? I hover on the edges of the action, or, put another way, I form another center of action (on the margins of the margins, isn't that what Shian Law said about the specific lineage of Melbourne dance history he was interested in charting?). The next day I will find my ankles cross hatched by several fine red lines, where sticks and brambles caught at me as I walked through dry brush.

Aeon ends with all of us not roosting but going to ground: lying on the floor of a low building, I am surrounded by strangers and we are all enveloped by bass so profound it makes the stray objects lying around me twitch and shimmy; my discarded sandals keep nudging at my thighs.

*

The thing I could think to say to the tv anchors, the probably stupid (i.e., naïve) thing, is that I do see in Australian dance a certain physicality, a certain sense of space. This feels similar to classical modern dance traditions in America, only further along the spectrum, another step away from European minimalist tendencies (which of course aren't necessarily European, it's just that the last generation to "discover" the possibility of doing less, to make it fashionable, was European).

Anyway, that whole line of thinking isn’t even half as worthwhile as something Taungurung Elder Uncle Larry Walsh said in welcoming a roomful of various industry types to a pitch session by several indigenous dance and performance artists (why does the dance world persist in these pitch sessions?): that he was "still waiting for the ultimate Australian art," which would, I think I understood him to mean, combine elements from the many complicated and painful histories and lineages of this place. Versus trying to ignore some of those complexities. Or ape complexities imported from abroad.

And here I am thinking of something that Akira Kasai said to me, when I asked him whether such a thing as specific to time and place as butoh could exist in 21st Century America? He said, and I am not quoting exactly, that of course authentic butoh existed in America. It’s called hip hop.

Uncle Larry said he planned on living till he was 90. Which meant artists had 25 years to make something happen.

I didn’t catch a lot of what Uncle Larry said, because he was pacing back and forth, and so half the time facing away from where I was sitting (again, in a circle of people). I liked the slow, casual purposefulness of his pacing. I liked how he said, earlier, when I met him outside before the event, that he wasn’t eager to go to New York because it had more people in it than lived in all of Australia.

*

The couple next to me at Chunky Move’s ANTI-GRAVITY can’t stop giggling. Our attached chairs are shaking so much I eventually have to tell them to calm down. But who can blame them? This is deeply silly stuff — the silliest kind, posited as Very Serious Art.

All week people have been talking vociferously about this dance — it’s that rare work that unites people (at least, as one choreographer pointed out to me, people in the particular dance community I’d landed in, margins of the margins). They are all appalled. I go in thinking: maybe I will love it! But no. It’s a thing that merely happens, an hour or so in the theater, the dancing (which looks like great fun to do) largely an excuse for the maneuvering of shiny, expensive equipment.

I always tell writing students that the what isn’t important — it’s not whether you liked it or not, but why.

What’s the why here? Because it’s a facsimile of experience. Because the set is an absurd waste of money. Because it’s an absence of ideas masquerading as a plethora of them. Because that young couple next to me will probably write dance off forever. I had spent the afternoon at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, by turns entranced, upset, challenged, and most of all deeply held by Sovereignty, a survey of works by First Nations peoples of Southeast Australia: what an insult to the system to walk just next door and be given the runaround by such vacuous slickness. What does it say about how a society (all societies, it seems) values dance that there is inevitably money for productions like this? What are the stories we want to believe about ourselves?

*

I’ll admit I was less than enthusiastic about having to identify as female or not at the beginning of Divercity…the quiet violence of naming. But I did the "right" audience thing (I think?) and my status got me in early with a roomful of women, for a ritual that moved beguilingly between awkwardness and power. I’m not inclined to go into detail; it felt like something private — a difficult trick to pull off in the theater, maybe only possible if you aren’t trying for tricks.

After, the men were allowed in, and to watch them move tentatively into the space, to make their way to the remaining seats, the least desirable seats (mostly cushions on the floor), was such a particular pleasure. The force of that reversal. And again later, when we closed with the same ritual, the headiness of women silently, on a cue the men weren’t privy to, threading around the men to return to the stage.

A young girl breathlessly told Mariaa Randall after, "I’ve never felt part of something like that."

To belong in that way isn’t what I seek in art. But I wouldn’t deny the strength of it.

The weakness of Divercity was the modern dance patina, which created an overlay of theatricality on the grounded exchanges of Henrietta Baird and Ngioka Bunda-Heath, who chattered to each other in TKTK ADD NAME OF LANGUAGE(S) while executing repetitive, low-to-the-ground phrases, their effortful bodies acquiring a muddy hue from the pigments covering the stage. The mist, the video, the music, the lights — was any of it necessary to this exchange?

After, when the women in the audience had come and gone, when Baird and Bunda-Heath had pulled up the black tape marking the stage, when the house lights came on, a layered map was revealed: a galaxy of colored dust, of footprints, of lines bisecting and obscuring both of these things. Such an elegant, and stark, commentary on indigenous-settler history — as my friend Emily Johnson noted, the dark straight lines, these corridors of cities, obscured the footsteps and interrupted the delicacy of a nonlinear world of color and information.

*

Anyway, people in Melbourne seem to like steam machines. I can’t claim enough cultural knowledge to say more than that. There one was again in if it’s all in my veins, Martin Hansen’s GIF-hop through dance history. Tellingly, maybe, there were no Australian references, but only a selection of the greatest hits of European and American dance: Isadora Duncan, Trio A, the inevitable Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker-Beyonce appropriation dustup (why no In the Upper Room?? You had the steam machine already!).

Hansen’s trio of dancers cycled through these GIFs, mimicking the repetitive digital files without particular fidelity to technique or form; the rigor was in the setup to get to each frame for the movement, not the execution of the movement. Eventually we got to the perhaps central point of this exercise, that everything these days is a copy and so, on another level, also real: what particular claim does the body have to authenticity? Is it better to watch the GIF of Isadora, or the three women doing it live onstage? Or the video of them doing it live? Should we have the birds in the trees, or the recording of some other birds?

"I like his resistance to pleasure," a curator said in the lobby after. Fair enough, but that resistance is not my jam. I’m too much an American, maybe; I need to believe what Susan Rethorst writes in her book A Choreographic Mind: "Pleasure and rigor are not mutually exclusive."

The question I can get it up for the most as pertains to Hansen’s work is why are many younger choreographers these days intent on giving us antiseptic, high-speed romps through their history (in her 2009 essay, "In Defense of the Poor Image," Hito Steyerl offers a few answers)? Why do they all feel the need to sing bad versions of pop songs while staring at us with looks that might be knowing, or just stunned? Something about the frenetic pace of the remake industry is in the back of my mind, niggling. Something about avoiding heartbreak, by ignoring that you have it. I don’t know. My mind reaches for the next card.

*
Speaking of writing students, I had 14 of them in Melbourne: Ashlee Barton, Elyssia Bugg, Gillian Butcher, Ashlee Bye, Serena Chalker, Ellen Davies, Alison Finn, Leah Landau, Prue Lang, Shelley Lasica, Megan Payne, Audrey Schmidt, Andrew Treloar, Andrew Westle.

… they were a delight. If there are ideas in here that I cribbed from them, I’m sorry; so many smart ideas, such care and thought, probably it’s inevitable. Many folks I talked to seemed to despair over the state of critical discourse in Australia. I think it’s just that the action has, happily, moved on from the newspapers, and we are still figuring out how to catch up. Surely there are more intriguing containers for criticism waiting to be found, no?

*

In Vanishing Point, Shian Law gave us a history tucked inside a film tucked inside a dance careening off another dance. An insider’s affair, which is only a problem if you are keen to reach anyone outside.

I don’t know the particulars of this history but I’m all for untrustworthy narrators, fractured narratives, pictures that escape their frames. I could’ve done without a lot of the pontificating and poeticizing, or rather the underlining of this stuff, and more of bodies being slippery. I would’ve liked to have been there the night when the paint hose didn’t work and instead of the world ending in a red shower, there was only a wet haze. Not that I didn’t like the red. Oh but I’m a bit running out of steam here (sorry, no pun intended). What I’m trying to say is that the information Law seemed to want to underline, that the transmission between bodies, and minds, is faulty and fugitive —that this was already occurring and not occurring without everyone talking about whether it was occurring and not occurring. Conjuring a magical past (or present, for that matter) is delicate work; I think you have to trust that the stuff you’re after will find you, and also be ok with the very likely possibility that it might not.

*

Talk is tricky. I think the transition from dancers being dancers to dancers being people in a dance situation, indicated by them bursting into discussion with each other about what they are doing, is maybe impossible to pull off. I think that might be part of the attraction to it: …can I make this work? Can I solve this human problem choreographically?

This first break comes early in Stellar Project; it’s jarring, the first of several shifts Prue Lang presents us with, making it an audience problem as well: will we assimilate this lurch into self-consciousness? Will we resist? I do the latter first, and then at some point I realize I’ve uncrossed my arms.

Lang gives us the ensemble as exquisite body: if I move my arm here, if you shift your weight there — the communication is flawless, and utterly opaque; it’s only if you don’t need specifics that you get answers. The fluidity and precision in the strongest of her performers is inarguable: a last word that will never say itself. And then come the words that we all should understand, the specifics that of course only get us so far. How can these two realms of being sit with each other, or at least jostle alongside? This is also the big question in criticism (and art is always its best critic).

Stellar Project is the only work I see twice. The first night I am too overcome by heat and tired and show fatigue to stay with it. The second night I sit in the front row, and everything is immediately clearer. Ceaseless permutations of bodies. Negotiation. A final circle of darkness over light, like an eclipse. An arm striking upward, striking through.

*

What is contemporary dance. The eventual answer I stumbled toward, the only sensible answer I can ever think of: it’s just how artists are working today; all the variations one might think of, and more.

Claudia La Rocco

 

Writings from the participants of Claudia La Rocco's workshop - WRITING IN, ON & THROUGH DANCE

 

Pigeons Shit - Andrew Westle

 

Untitled - Ashlee Bye

  

Notes Towards a Theory of Grace - Elyssia Bugg
 
 

Fuck Dog - Ellen Davies

 

Editing - Megan Payne

 

Participation - Shelley Lasica

 
 

DANCE MASSIVE is an initiative of Arts House, Malthouse and Dancehouse in conjunction with Ausdance Victoria. Dance Massive is supported by Creative Victoria and the Australian Government's Ministry for the Arts. The delegate program of Dance Massive is supported by the Australia Council for the Arts.The Dancehouse Dance Massive program is supported by the City of Yarra and its public program, by Victoria College of the Arts.