Stephanie Lake Company, Carriageworks, January 19. Melbourne, February 15-20; Brisbane, February 22.
Stephanie Lake has danced with most of Australia’s best contemporary dance-makers and now, only five years or so into her choreographic career, she’s making a very strong bid to join them at the top table.
At its first performance, during the Sydney Festival, Double Blind was satisfyingly complete and mature. So often a new work has a few rough edges or infelicities. Double Blind already looks like an important piece that’s been in the repertoire for a little while, still fresh but sharply honed and brilliantly polished.
On a pristine white square, four dancers are placed under an unforgiving light (designed by Ben Shaw), watched and perhaps overseen or even directed by sound artist Robin Fox, who sits magisterially to one side on a raised platform and oversees a score with an array of electronic squeals, hisses, moans and thumps that is stimulating and deeply disturbing. But before the work even starts there’s something unsettling in the air.
A double blind experiment seeks to eliminate distortion of results by hiding identities: people don’t know who is in the control group and who is not. Lake also had in mind the famous Milgram experiment that studied how authority can affect individuals’ behaviour towards others. How far would you go if forced, encouraged or just given the opportunity? There has been criticism of the Milgram methodology but more than 50 years later the experiment still excites interest and acts as a touchstone for discussions about atrocities that require the acquiescence at least and participation at worst of many people – people undoubtedly much like ourselves.
Lake starts with a display of childlike curiosity, if the children had access to electricity. Alisdair Macindoe and Alana Everett have a jerky dance of attraction and repulsion that gives every indication of not ending well, even if that tap on the nose could be read as playful. Then boom! There’s an aggressive action that throws Macindoe to the ground. Blackout. And the audience laughs. I guess it’s the surprise factor, but it’s always exceptionally disconcerting when people laugh at violence. Point made. And on it goes, with Amber Haines and Kyle Page joining the fray.
These performers, for whom no amount of praise could be too much, embody a rich, diverse dance language with virtuosity and keen intelligence. They are automatons, faceless followers, anarchists, lovers, prisoners and more, and at each point in Lake’s adroitly constructed chain of events – she is very good at knowing just how long or short to make a section – their clarity of expression is exceptional.
The four are dressed identically in steel-coloured trousers and tops with openings at the back that suggest hospital gowns (Harriet Oxley designed). Even so, they make you care about them as individual souls, even when they are at their most mechanistic. At one point Macindoe is forced to follow the beat of a metronome, an impossibility when it gets to a certain speed. The movement breaks down and what looked pleasing starts to appear manic, even non-human.
At every moment there is something new to see in the movement and Lake’s command of structure and detail is impressive. The exquisite interplay of arms and delicate fingers, for instance, draws intense focus in the manner of a film close-up while powerfully athletic partnering makes the viewer pull back. The ground is constantly shifting.
Double Blind doesn’t turn these ideas into a narrative, nor for the most part does it take a particular position. It simply shows what electricity might do to a body, what a group under control looks like, how the desperate need for another body feels, and how curiosity, betrayal, complicity, torture, surrender and devastation might be represented.
There’s much more, but if there is one large idea underpinning Double Blind it’s that the stripping away of humanity is a cruel business. And it’s not that hard to do.
As for obedience to authority, it was interesting to see how quickly many in the audience started clapping when the dancers did, and how quickly they fell into the regular rhythm the dancers soon dictated. Fascinating.