Abbotsford Convent, Melbourne/Naarm
Stephanie Lake Company and Abbotsford Convent joined together to auspice this exciting and challenging short season of independent emerging choreographic talent. The program of five works delighted, provoked and moved the audience. The season was held in the Convent’s Magdalen Laundry and Industrial School - loaded spaces and not neutral performance venues. It was here that young female wards of state spent their days labouring, but also being taught some trade skills.
The first work on the Escalator program connects with another aspect of women’s experience – menstruation. In her solo, Menstruation the Musical, choreographer and dancer Kady Mansour plays it for laughs and shock value. On this night, the women in the audience laughed delightedly, while most of the men squirmed uncomfortably. After some film footage of men being vox-popped about what they know about menstruation and tampon use (nothing), Mansour slides through the space, head first, on her back, clad in vivid white, her feet bearing a long trailing cord. Yep, she’s a tampon. She inserts herself into an enormous vagina and, after much struggle, said tampon extracts itself, now a rioting red. Mood swings, pain and some cowpunk danced to "PMS Blues" by Dolly Parton and it’s a wrap up. Yes, the work is broad in its approach but very clever, and Mansour pulls off her concept well. It was a good start to the evening.
The pace changed with Sense Now, danced and choreographed by Melissa Pham and Jayden Wall. This is an extraordinarily accomplished piece. The dancers arrive as a single unit, one atop the other, masked and balaclavered, identity-less. The work progresses through stages of boneless floppy fluidity, arms swiping through the air. Throughout, the precision is immaculately honed. Each body folds, shifts and bends to respond to, or bond with the other, in a series of chain reactions and body puzzles. The work is mesmerising in its rubberiness – all twisty and symbiotic. The bodies fill and unfill the gaps between them with deft quick adjustments. The soundscape by Jayden Wall is also effective - crackly with human whispers faintly underscoring the sound.
A single loud yell directed the audience to another performance space and a journey of quite a different kind. The audience moved toward the sound, and found ourselves standing or sitting on rugs in a roofed but open derelict space – the former Industrial School. In the dim light, a man stood panting. Then, uncomfortably, we heard a slab of "Tie me kangaroo down" by Rolf Harris. The audience cringed, knowing what the lyrics will bring. The man enacted a kangaroo, jumping very close to the audience. While we were still reeling from the offensive lyrics, the sound slurred and was replaced with a series of sound bites and grabs from the likes of Pauline Hanson and Andrew Bolt, plying their toxic racist propaganda. It went on, the snippets saturating and further souring the space. The protagonist ranged like a caged animal, threatened and with no escape. He twitched among the audience; his close proximity made its own point. Targeted in a bright torch light, he was hunted. Finally he succumbed, lying at the feet of a gathered crowd.
Throughout this performance of Gedovait (get over it), choreographed and danced by former Bangarra dancer, Luke Currie-Richardson, I was struck by the role of the onlooker. Witnessing this work felt complicit in the enacted racism and harm presented. This feeling was created by our proximity to the dancer, watching and listening but taking no action. When we were called back to the original space for the next work, walking away from Currie-Richardson was deeply disturbing and further testament to the sense of callous by-standing that I felt. It didn’t feel okay to leave this man extinguished on the ground.
The next work, Kayla Douglas’s Hysterics, is a two-hander danced by Jareen Wee and Sarah McCrorie. Mostly the dance is floor-bound. Starting facing different directions, legs splayed, breathing heavily, the two dancers perform fitful twitching movements. Using mainly their knees, they make effortful attempts at locomotion, slipping and sliding. They thrust their pelvises, writhe and convulse. They seem to be trying to rise to their feet, but with little success until late in the piece. This is an entertaining exploration of the way the body moves when given limitations and how, conversely, those limitations can open up a different kind of movement possibility.
Harrison Richie-Jones brings us Big Wig Small Gig – a pseudo-Baroque courtship parody that revels in the grotesque. We have a face-off between two pantomime dandied-fops, danced by Richie-Jones and Oliver Savariego. Their rivalry becomes a simpering courtship that includes much mime combined with elements of lucha libre and martial arts-inspired lifts and holds. Its camp aesthetic is hence interestingly mashed together with more macho elements. Anika de Ruyter appears late in the piece as an interloper to put the Big Wigs in their place. The piece is playful and works well in the program.
A short disco-inspired epilogue sent the audience on its way.
Congratulations to Stephanie Lake for her keen-eyed curatorship and all collaborators for supporting this very enjoyable and provocative program.
- SUSAN BENDALL
'Escalator' ran from August 16-19.