Lighting design and operation by Tony Black
at BATS Theatre, The Dome, 1 Kent Tce, Wellington
From 23 Apr 2015 to 25 Apr 2015
Reviewed by Chris Jannides, 25 Apr 2015
The two dance contributors to this programme – Juliet Shelley and Jeremy Haxton – work in very different ways. Yet both create choreographic scores that have a reflective narrative element – Shelley’s internal and personal, Haxton’s external and impersonal.
Shelley in her two items is languid in her physical language and draws on an ingrained post-modern dance vocabulary that she tries to keep on the surface. This creates a tension between a submerged training system in her body and the desire to use it as a fresh interface with the surrounding moment. To my mind, however, this struggle does not seem to be an intended one. All the elements of her work look to be about an holistically casual approach to the art of dance. Ponytail flying, she drifts, twirls, floats, swishes and glides in softly extended flows of movement that are designed to announce pleasure and the kinaesthetic joy of sensation. But still there is tension. What is its cause I wonder, as I watch? There is a sense of sliding in and out of connections.
On his part, Haxton has given himself a choreographic agenda that is offered as a kind of personal manifesto. Ignoring for now what he writes about this, and drawing on what I perceive in performance, the manifesto is patchworked and 2-dimensional in its linear simplicity. Compartments of ideas are stacked side-on to each other. Fixed lengths of musical time determine how long each segment lasts. So the short pop songs he uses (Destiny’s Child, James Brown, Talking Heads, etc.) dictate the duration of each choreographic unit, while their lyrics are indirectly lip-synched by the movement. Separated by these self-contained dance-mime episodes, Haxton uses a linking motif of a walking step (a nod here to the Japanese robotic maestros, World Order), sometimes resorting to a little leap to bridge and hop over his narrative gaps and fences.
To Shelley again, and to disconnecting and connecting connections. The solo artist is a fragile one. He or she must either be a charismatic out-there performer, which is often expected, or be skilled at using the vulnerability of their isolated exposure to reveal gentler aspects of themselves and/or existence. This latter, up to a point, is Shelley’s terrain. There is vulnerability and exposure – she pours the personal contents of her backpack onto the floor to reveal credit cards, fruit, a toilet roll, out of which she makes a shrine – and expressions on her face when looking directly at us contain filtering shades of warmth and awkwardness. Connection and disconnection, with us, hover back and forth between these comfort/discomfort conditions. So when it comes to her introspective tendencies in performance, the blur between actual and thematic fragility might need better clarification and purpose.
Haxton also chooses to look directly at us when he performs. But his expression empties its contents in what might or might not be a practiced manner. Although I guess dancing with a banknote glued over his mouth severely restricts facial mobility. Mentioning now the written part of his manifesto; his neutral delivery and episodic choreography about corporate life would be products of his stated attraction to ‘theatricality, comedy, accessibility, light-heartedness’ and, in an echo of something that might have come from Shelley’s book, ‘riding on the flow of the work and where it goes’. I feel his commitment to these interests needs to be challenged. At the moment these aspects of his work are below par, and coming from an institute like Unitec whose dance graduates have been known to reflect their education’s strong emphasis on choreography, I am genuinely surprised at this.
The clear difference between the two choreographers is reflected to a degree in their age gap. Shelley has the advantage that time has allowed her to hone her compositional skills and structures somewhat. More so in the second piece, however, than in the first. The latter suffers from some clumsy sequencing and misalignments between the dance, video, sound and poetry elements (whose position towards the end of the work means that she is speaking it out-of-breath). However, the conventional ABA structure of the second piece contains some pleasant surprises, thematically and structurally. These include the aforementioned bag spillage and its statement about identity, the danced partial opening of the theatre’s double doors as an elaboration on the themes of reminiscence, journey and distance, the ebb and flow tidal motif of an outstretched body sliding back and forth along the floor, the sounds of gulls, ships, weather, airports to create an interesting soundscape mix…
It’s inevitable that two dance soloists in the same programme are going to produce comparisons. When individuals and their works are associatively lumped together by an exercise such as this, their respective practices will rub off on each other for good or for bad.
So is it of any value to say anything about Embody2 as a shared platform?
It is no secret that Wellington’s independent dance scene is currently in a dismal state, and I mean no disrespect to those dedicated, hard-working few that are based here. Hence, in my opinion it is essential for its contemporary dance artists to start proactively banding together, not only to increase numbers, but to build an undercurrent of mutual support, connectivity, critical interaction and encouragement. Initiatives like Embody2are clearly about attempting an important re-growth of energy and exposure for Wellington’s up-and-coming and under-resourced practitioners. But how to do it right?
Perhaps a curatorially strategic approach might be interesting. Not just anyone with anyone, but selective combinations that rub-off on each other in dynamically fruitful and coordinated ways. And can they have collective rejuvenation as a point of attack, alongside practitioners’ individual goals? At least for an initial period of time, just to get things rolling in this lacklustre capital that was once the undisputed capital of dance, but is no longer. Embody2, by Juliet Shelley, and its earlier manifestation, Embody1, initiated by Lyne Pringle, excite these thoughts.
Finally, I must mention the other two contributors – the musician, Keely Turuwhenua, and the video artist, Thomas Murphy – who I’ve not included in my central focus because they fall outside my mandate as a dance reviewer. I will say, though, that each supplies elements of professional joy and imagination that the dance components lack. Turuwhenua was consistently secure and generous in the solo delivery and beauty of her songs and musical artistry, even if kiwis singing original material in derivative American accents confuse me a bit. And Murphy blows my mind with his distinctive black and white video work. The intricately expanding and contracting geometric patterns framing its flora/fauna content are an hypnotically energising choreography in themselves. I wanted to see this playing throughout Shelley’s dance, not just towards the end. The video complements and backgrounds her dancing figure beautifully, and makes better sense of the choreography in the moments when she turns upstage to look at its kaleidoscopic emanations. I want to know more about this video artist.