Nothing to Lose

Force Majeure, Carriageworks, January 22.

IN her 10 years at Force Majeure, the company she founded and which she now leaves, Kate Champion’s material has included the ageing process, near-death experiences, the pitfalls of child-raising and obsessive behaviour, tantalising subjects one and all. Her brand of dance-theatre has always been stimulating but with Nothing to Lose Champion raises the bar and then some.

Her new work, made with activist Kelli Jean Drinkwater, puts on stage the following propositions: that fat people should not hide away, that they should be heard, that they are entitled to make choices, that they may actually like the way they are, and, by god, they can and will dance.

Given Western society’s almost pathological fear of fat, Nothing to Lose is an extraordinarily potent provocation. It was one of the most highly anticipated pieces in the 2015 Sydney Festival and can be seen in March at Melbourne’s Malthouse.

From an aesthetic point of view Champion had long felt larger people could be very pleasing movers, and certainly Nothing to Lose supports that. In Champion’s key cast of seven, Latai Taumoepeau and LaLa Gabor were gorgeously fluid, Claire “Scarlett” Burrows had a frighteningly intense and dangerous solo and Anastasia Zaravinos could have been a fertility goddess.

The framework, however, is highly political. In an early scene the dancers are treated as museum exhibits and audience members invited to feel and knead their flesh, guided suavely by Julian Crotti. The display reminded me, as it was surely meant to, of the Hottentot Venus, a South African woman displayed as a human curiosity – freak, if you like – in 19th century Europe. Later Ally Garrett (beautiful dancer and stage presence) and Michael Cutrupi (ditto) came into the audience to share the kind of advice and support larger people are so helpfully offered for free and often with breath-taking cruelty. There’s no guilt trip. They’re just saying.

Nothing, though, was more pertinent than the scene in which two women wound fabric around their bodies, criss-crossing it over their abdomens until their flesh bulged through the gaps to form generous folds. It was a reminder that our bodies are the one costume we can never shed and the one on which we will always be most pitilessly judged, particularly if one is female.

In this context it was amusing, and in its own way touching, to see how little the gorgeous Taumoepeau was used. She is the smallest of the women and did not get much of the attention. It was the reverse of the largest kid in the dance class being put up the back.

I would not normally comment on what an audience does, but I was fascinated by reactions at last Thursday’s opening performance and reactions that were relayed to me from Friday’s performance.

On Thursday, during Zaravinos’s full-bodied – in several senses – assault on traditional thinking about dance bodies, there was a substantial amount of whooping and hollering, sounds of a kind one never, ever hears during a concert dance performance by someone with the usual dancer’s body. The response said a number of things to me.

It said that some members of the audience were incredibly over-anxious to show they were onside with the work and that they got it; to show that they weren’t confronted or embarrassed. No, they were so with it they couldn’t contain their exuberance.

Or were they really so onside with the thrust of Nothing to Lose? I heard the sound of the vaudeville tent rather than the serious dance theatre. I heard the very response, in fact, that Nothing to Lose was created to counter. I didn’t hear the sound of respect for a fine artist. I heard the unease with which many people regard the bountiful body.

I expect the people making that noise would say I couldn’t be more wrong. But whoever is right, Nothing to Lose has punched well above its weight.

Nothing to Lose, Malthouse, Melbourne, March 11-21.

A version of this review appeared in The Australian on January 26.

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