Lore and On View: Live Portraits

Last weekend I took a train to Wollongong to see Bangarra Dance Theatre’s latest production Lore, at the Merrigong Theatre.  This capped off a fortnight rich in cultural diversity, expressed through the body on stage: Sue Healey’s On View in situ and on celluloid and the intercultural feast that was Siamani Samoa at Carriageworks.

Sue Healey’s work On View was an exploration into ways of seeing, searching and being seen; from a passive gaze to a predatory stare. Her set consisted of multiple projection surfaces, both conventional and unexpected, utilised to modulate the intensity and modify the scale of the dancer subjects on film in juxtaposition to their corporeal selves.

We literally walked into a wonderland where the image was captured, duplicated, contained and closed within wooden boxes, undulating on dark skin in relaxed repose, and replicated on scrunched up tulle appearing as an apparition wafting on smoke, dependent on the angle we chose to view the work. We were initially free to roam amongst the installations until it was time to take our place in the seating bank for the show as audience members.

Do animals possess guile? What are the motivations for wanting to be seen? Ultimately to allure and mate in order to ensure the survival of the species. This production heralded the fact that we humans are definitely in the age of the selfie stick, where it is optimal to be able to capture one’s own image and where the quantity of times an image has been seen, acknowledged, replicated and exhibited has become a universal preoccupation- a status symbol.

The dancers represented an eclectic mix of personalities and physicalities as each was assigned an animal alter ego of the horse, the fish, the praying mantis and the fox. When I think of these animals they conjure up an essence; Rahgav Handa epitomised the virility of the horse with his explosive energy; Nalina Wait was the fish with mercurial sensibilities reflected in the malleability of her face, able to morph and soften; Shona Erskine was the fox full of predatory cunning and wiles, while Benjamin Hancock characterised the praying mantis, delicate and fragile with the ability of camouflage, perfectly suited to his virtuosic physicality and multifaceted gender bending.

Martin del Amo seemed to highlight in contrast what is singular about humans: our intellect; the ability to control and choose how we want to appear. We deceive, manipulate; are duplicitous and deliberately mysterious. We have the ability to strategise and craft the perception others have of us. Sue delved deeply into our awareness and preoccupation with image and its ability to inveigle.

LORE was a double bill consisting of a theatrical dance work. IBIS was set in a fictitious example of the community one-stop shops of the same name, throughout the small island communities of the Torres Strait. Frances Rings’ work Sheoak was indicative of the crucial cultural connection to specific territories and features within. Both works referenced cultural practice including ritual, story and its place in society as a vital ingredient to cultural continuity, representative of cultural practice. Each work was an affirmation of appreciation, of the ability to inform others what is important and relevant to the Australian indigenous psyche.

IBIS was the result of a collaboration between emerging choreographers Waangenga Blanco and Deborah Brown and perfectly captured the location and snug isolation of the islands, nestled between the mainland coasts of Cape York and Papua New Guinea. My heart sang when the Warup (skin drum) and thrum (bamboo drum) beat and the voices sang in sophisticated harmony to complex rhythms, beating a tattoo on thighs, with rattles made of bamboo and beads. Elma Kris was the glue of cohesion between the serious and the celebratory, representing and epitomising her role as elder within the company, and as conduit between the old and new on stage and in practice. When she dances ‘island way’ I have to hold my breath to prevent the excitement threatening to burst from my lungs. Her body bends low and her feet are both lightning quick and deliberately measured. She becomes a spirit. It was her crouching solo, the group ensemble representing the crayfish with rippling body and quick legs (I initially mistook for undulating choral) and the replication of the ritual of spraying baby powder for superior efforts that were most memorable.

Frances Rings is the consummate interdisciplinary choreographer. Her works are textural feasts and Sheoak consolidated this approach whereby dancers welded large sticks onstage, cutting the space, creating terrain by making topographic patterns symbolic of a slowly shifting landscape. These sticks were vertically suspended and given a life of their own as ghosts or totemist ancestors. Sheoak was an ambitious concept, a potent example of The Dreaming: that place where all beings are slightly amorphous; in the process of becoming.

Siamani Samoa was four years in the making, the result of a collaboration between interdisciplinary artist Michael Tuffery and the Royal Samoan Police band and local Samoan dance troupes. It was a work referencing the occupation by Germany before the first world-war; the lasting legacy evident in the music, architecture, and social structure of the island.  This was a mainstream black box theatrical performance event, as well as an opportunity to be a cultural ritual in practice. I attended the last evening and was immediately aware that the majority of bums on seats were Samoan. The atmosphere was where there are multiple agendas, where the performance is an excuse to reaffirm community by bridging the gap between the sacred and the profane.

Who’d have thought that a small police band could’ve drawn crowds by the busload from the outskirts of Sydney and from interstate? Well it did. We all listened to the Viennese waltzes with enthusiasm. I sat next to a large group of teenagers who were decked out in the latest sneakers and appeared more at home with fat padded earphones blasting hip hop. After intermission I turned my body sideways to listen to the back row sing in language, in unison, in stereo with the band onstage. I watched as audience members processed to the stage to place monetary offerings for the Samoan community in large wooden bowls either side, heads bowed in respect as they retreated to their seats. As the long night drew to a close and the various phones, IPads and cameras that recorded the event for posterity were tucked away, a man holding a long wooden staff gave thanks.

‘Thanks’ lasted another half an hour at least, with the man disrobing to reveal his illustrated body to resume his oratory. A woman from behind informed us that we could leave, that this was just protocol. The band came back on stage and more thanks were given, culminating for one last song with performers and audience members dancing together before the night drew to a close.

It has taken me longer than usual to craft a response because I wanted to properly consider and convey the significance of this combined experience. I feel privileged to be able to witness and experience the diversity and passion expressed in those performances and in my engagement. They, in all their guises, affirm how crucial to humanity live theatre is.

– by Vicki Van Hout