From the Olympic arts Festival in Sydney
Can we afford this / DV8 &
Mascura Fogo / Pina Bausch
by Ginnie Wollaston
Two highlights from choreographers of European Dance Theatre presented in Sydney showed how complex the process of creating dance work for high profile one off festivals really is. Bausch created Mascura Fogo as a commissioned co-production with the city of Lisbon for World Expo 1998. It was then selected to be performed in Sydney for the 2000 Arts Festival as part of the Olympic Festival -a strange choice to celebrate Sydney in the eyes of the world at this time! Maybe the wonderful images of the beach, sunbathing dancers on stage, glorious images of crashing surf and waves as a backdrop to the set were thought to be easy connections for a Sydney audience reared on surfing at Bondi Beach! However the piece at 3 and a half hours long - with many images of heterosexual partner dances doing the salsa, snaking across the stage in a city with one of the largest gay populations - seemed a little out of sorts with Sydney 2000. Even though this work lacked the usual Bausch trademarks of female angst and male violence - the audience seemed to be divided over whether they loved or hated it - some indication that the magic of Bausch’s theatre had worked. For my taste, while enjoying the second half, this was neither the best of Bausch nor the most appropriate for the festival.
Choreographer for DV8, Lloyd Newson, on the other hand was commissioned to create a dance theatre work for the festival and to combine dancers from the UK where he has worked for the past 20 years with dancers from Australia. Seemed like a good idea, he selected a site - Lunar Park - with Ferris wheels and an outdoor stage and selected his dancers from cabaret, circus and dance backgrounds. Only once designs, compositions and planning were well on the way, the site was deemed unsafe and a regular theatre venue was selected instead. Then the problems really began, the set designer and the composer were not prepared to readjust their concepts - so new collaborators had to be found. What finally emerged on stage was a diverse cast of dancers, circus and cabaret performers, older, younger, fatter and thinner bodies and some with disability. They performed on brilliant set, made of carpet looking like fake grass, which concealed many an interesting hole or slit from which to appear or disappear. But the work lacked cohesion, the collage of pop tunes matched the cabaret style of dance and theatre sections, but with no theatrical concept to hold it together, the performers struggled to hold the work together. Newson has long been interested in challenging audience perception as to what the dancers body can look like - what the dancer can do or say and what boundaries of content we will consider as dance. His previous works have been a powerful onslaught of the senses and perceptions with brilliant sets, dancers and visual images to feed the soul and challenge perceptions based on beliefs. Sadly this piece did not equal previous works and the reason must lie with the complexity of the project and the catalogue of problems facing the director in this international collaboration. It appeared finally as if the artistic policy of DV8 (written out in the programme as ‘pushing its own boundaries and work processes, insisting on the importance of challenging our preconceptions of what dance can or should address’) was pushed too far.
It is interesting to compare the two pieces in this festival as Bausch has been one of the inspirations for Newson. Bausch’s work involved an international cast of dancers, with whom she improvised throughout an extended period of rehearsal before directing and shaping the final work. The opening male solo on the set design of a large rocky landscape was luscious and sensual, the dancer delighting in the sheer magic of movement, sliding over the stage, like oil over water. This was followed minutes later by a solo female dancer, who became a central figure in the work, displaying an unusual sensual delight in the body, giving us a physical sensation of pleasure in her body, watching simple movements done beautifully. Not surprisingly this piece seemed to focus on desire, on love and the loss of love, but in this work, settled more on images of delight and abundance rather than angst and violence. What is extraordinary about Bausch’s work is the richness of imagination used to investigate a simple story - that of men and women in and out of love, with themselves and with each other. In this work, the first half was full of extraordinary images and dance sequences juxtaposed against each other. The solo dancer on stage is invaded by a parade of dancers as sunbathers, a live chicken eats water melon, aided by a dancer babbling in a foreign language. A bubble bath is pushed across the stage with a naked woman handing out plates to the attendant waiter and a water shute appears between plastic sheets for dancers, as kids to play in. Finally a pet walrus hobbles across the stage, no reasons are given and no questions are asked and the first half ends. What appears as disjointed sections of dance in the first half became woven into a collage of repeated and developed dance and theatrical images in the second half, giving resolution to the jangled threads of the first half. The solo dancer in a blue dress reappears and repeats her solo against a backdrop of projected images of waves and surf pounding visually onto the set of a rock, sometimes engulfing it completely in the image. Suddenly the solo dancer appears vulnerable and tragic, dancing her love dance alone in the mystery and power of the water, that is until she suddenly falls off the front of the stage. A moment of tragedy- or comedy -that had you holding your breath in suspense until she crawls back onto the stage like a creature possessed. The flow of the waves on the screen have a mesmeric effect repeated in a new sequence of flowers opening and bursting forth - like the repeated significance of love bursting out in people and between people. A snaking dance line of couples dancing together weave across the stage and a man dressed up in a long ball gown appears to chaperone his daughter before a line of prospective suitors - the metaphor for the all important question of marriage or match-making. The metaphors begin to emerge, collide, overlap and layer on stage, so like memory over time, the story of the past begins to make sense of the present when all the jigsaw pieces slot into place. This lyrical piece, surprising Bausch fans by its lack of angst, offered a celebration of love (albeit a heterosexual love) and connected love to the natural elements of water and flowers. Though a little deluged by the repetition of water and flowers- I was convinced of the magic that Bausch weaves into her epic theatrical events.
Such an imaginary journey was neither the intention nor the outcome of DV8’s production. Dance Theatre for DV8 is a political act - set out to challenge audience perceptions and often to determine your response. As an audience you are attacked and pinpointed - forced into certain areas of confrontation. The piece started with a line of clowns in a box, in a unison movement sequence of hand and facial moves - slick and together until one pulls off his mask saying ‘ I hate this fucking job...my legs are killing me...I only get a minimum wage.’ Not exactly subtle - but the theme of unmasking and unravelling perceived roles is thrown at you right from the start. It is funny and satirical in places, the dancers performing virtuoso tricks and telling the audience how much the show cost, what each trick they performed cost, a pirouette is basic, dancing on carpet costs more, clothes off is double the money! The roles of performers in life or on stage are reversed and challenged. The puppet to the ventriloquist answers back; the dancer (David Toole) who happens to have no legs but extraordinary arms that allows his body to fly, performs a beautiful duet first with a long limbed female, sitting on her back and then is embraced in the arms of a male dancer. Personal questions between dancers cross the tenuous line between real life and theatrical life: ‘do you have a girl friend...do you have sex’, Toole carries a sign, ‘talk to me’. The subtext of the piece seems to ask the audience to reflect on our relationships, whether the cost of maintaining the external mask is too much for each individual. Despite some great sequences of unison dance and ingenious exits and entrances on the set, the lack of a shared dance and theatre language on stage failed to bring cohesion to the piece. It never rose beyond the cabaret style of short sequences of movement and theatrical interchanges between performers, which while well performed in each part, never created a whole. Indeed by repeating the question of what does this really cost, I was left wondering whether this production costing over 1 million pounds (sterling) was really worth it! The more than occasional comment from the stage such as ‘do you trust me’ seemed to sum it all up - the experiment was a risk, which was never quite overcome. DV8 intend to challenge perceptions by their work, but sometimes audience members need an imaginary journey, to engage, escape and lure them into new perceptions.
The cost of creating work for prestigious festivals have their down sides and certainly both these performance works raised questions as to the value of undertaking such ventures - and leave artistic planning a risky business! .