Her Majesty’s Theatre,
Much of Garry Stewart’s recent work has investigated his preoccupations with technology, with human physiology and with sensory perception. Held (2004), Be Yourself (2010) and Worldhood (2011), in different ways and through different media, all explore the somatic basis of our perceptions and the neurobiological theories that seek to explain them. For his latest offering, Proximity, part of the Adelaide Festival of Arts, Stewart has teamed up with French video engineer Thomas Pachoud, with whom he also recently collaborated on a version of The Rite of Spring for Le Ballet du Rhin. The result is fascinating, strange and at times very beautiful.
Proximity starts with a single video camera on a tripod positioned centre stage, illuminated by an intermittent down spot that comes on with a high-pitched beep. It’s a fitting start, because in some ways the camera is the star of the show: most of what we see live on stage is also fed through time delay and other digital enhancements and projected on three huge screens above the stage. The neuroscientific concepts on which the work is premised are written, literally, on the dancers themselves, or rather on tapes stitched to their clothing, which are held up to the camera and then projected onscreen. Starting with two dancers clad in bright streetclothes, the work segues into a series of segments in which the dancers video each others’ movements.
Some sections are videoed from the front view, so that we see the dancers as they appear to us from the audience, while others are videoed from the flies and we see the dancers from above. Each view lends itself to specific effects. Seen from the flies, the images of the dancers spinning and moving on the floor are overlaid to form circular patterns, at times akin to the arrangement of flower petals, at other times resembling a human kaleidoscope. Seen from the lateral view, the overlaid, time-delayed images allow astonishing play with the body: limbs multiply like those of an Indian God; a single dancer, Tarah Soh, is able to multi-track her movements so that she is moving forwards and backwards, down to the floor and back again, and even speaking and gesturing to herself: she becomes they. It’s the movement equivalent of a musical canon, a familiar choreographic technique, except that here one dancer is simultaneously performing all the parts. It’s quite an extraordinary illusion.
Throughout, the choreography is much less frenetic than we’ve become accustomed to from ADT. The dancers are all terrific, but for much of the piece their movement serves as raw material for the lens to play with and is not particularly acrobatic. There are, however, sections that are not videoed: a group section which is the weakest part of the piece, simply because it is over long; a powerful duet for black-clad Daniel Jaber and Kimball Wong, both wonderfully charismatic performers; and a number of dances for the hand, which are all gloriously inventive.
But it is the digitally enhanced videoed images that stick in the mind; in particular, the astonishing section towards the end in which the images of the dancers become enmeshed in spider web-like threads. This gives visual expression to the idea, signaled in the program and on the dancer’s clothing, that we all incorporate external objects and other people into our neurological mapping of the world. Initially this idea is projected as a comforting idea of intimacy and connection, but this segues into more ambiguous images of insects caught in spider’s webs, or marionettes whose strings are being pulled.
This is one of the strongest works Stewart has shown here for some time, and one can only hope that he’ll do more work with Pachoud. Although conceptually linked to ADT’s other recent work, Proximity just may signal a new departure. Stewart often seems to deliberately eschew the beautiful in his work, but this time he has, whether inadvertently or otherwise, embraced it.
-- MAGGIE TONKIN