Force Majeure: You Animal, You

Sydney Festival, Carriageworks, January 6

Heather Mitchell is one of the great treasures of the Australian stage and any chance to see her must be grabbed eagerly, as proved to be the case even in a work as unsteady as Force Majeure’s You Animal, You. Under its founder and former artistic director Kate Champion, Force Majeure created a body of dance-theatre work that combined movement with text and often included actors alongside dancers. Mitchell has collaborated with Force Majeure before and is a riveting presence in You Animal, You, directed by Champion’s successor Danielle Micich (and including text written by Mitchell).

Heather Mitchell Solo Confetti - credit Brett Boardman

Heather Mitchell in You Animal, You. Photo: Brett Boardman

You Animal, You looked marvellous and was performed with passionate intensity. Its effects, though, came from a scatter of individual moments. A coherent whole failed to emerge.

The work, choreographed by Micich and the performers, put forward the not entirely novel proposition that we hide the primal urges that drive our true selves. Strip away the shield and we will be revealed and possibly freed. To that end Mitchell commanded a rag-tag band of two women and two men who seemed to be her slaves, up to a point. Dressed in a long sequined gown that had seen better days she shouted directives through a megaphone, sometimes sitting in judgment from a vertiginously high seat that could be wheeled about the space.

The audience was seated arena-style in two rows of seats ranged around a long, wide oval. Bay 20 at Carriageworks is large and the spare design made it seem even more so. The top-tier team of Michael Hankin (set and costumes), Damien Cooper (lights) and Kelly Ryall (score) created a chilly dystopian environment that nevertheless had a certain elegance and grandeur.

Lauren Langlois and Ghenoa Gela - credit Brett Boardman

Lauren Langlois and Ghenoa Gela. Photo: Brett Boardman

Mitchell was perhaps a distant cousin of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome’s Aunty Entity, her glamour somewhat faded but her resolve firm. When she told two people to get into the centre ring and fight they did it without hesitation. When she barked the order “let’s dance”, everyone complied. But to what end? The stage picture was always vibrant and visually appealing but its meaning elusive, other than the symbolism of the amphitheatre as a place of conflict and the huge plastic bag used early and late in the piece as an obvious stand-in for the womb.

The vague unanimity of the first part of the piece fractured into fragments of memory and individual dances but nothing really stuck. There were solos for each of the four dancers in the cast – Harrison Elliott, Ghenoa Gela, Raghav Handa and Lauren Langlois – and sections in which language predominated. Langlois had a stream-of-consciousness monologue that drew on synaesthesia; Mitchell told a fable about the food chain and spoke movingly about the intimacy and pain of motherhood; Elliott relived the moment of birth; Handa spoke about breath; Gela sought refuge among audience members and then very sweetly thanked them.

Each performer had distinctive personal and movement qualities that made them eloquently individual and therefore worthy of close attention. You wanted to know more about Gela, who greeted people warmly as they filed into the space, and Elliott, who slowed time with a naked dance of evolution from flailing baby to dignified adult. Touchingly, you could see that Mitchell was a non-dancer among dancers (you could also see her knee and ankle braces; dance is a tough master). She moved expressively though, losing herself in that special place that civilians have when dancing.

You Animal, You had a very brief premiere season at the Sydney Festival and there are no further dates listed for performance at this stage. Despite being devised with the assistance of a dramaturg, director Sarah Goodes, You Animal, You doesn’t feel fully developed, which is possibly why it ran only about 55 minutes rather than the advertised and presumably planned 75 minutes.

Off the Record: Force Majeure with Dance Integrated Australia

Carriageworks, Sydney, August 17.

Marnie Palomares has Alex Jones pinned against a wall and is trying to put words into his mouth. Literally. This would be a resonant image under any circumstances but as Jones is deaf it seems an even more intrusive and futile act than usual. Except it’s a moment that also feels achingly intimate.

Off the Record is full of pungent provocations like this as it investigates how information is transferred from one person to another and what is revealed – or hidden or misunderstood – in the process.

Force Majeure IMAGE GREGORY LORENZUTTI

Marnie Palomares and Jana Castillo in Off the Record. Photo: Gregory Lorenzutti

The stakes are upped by the knowledge that the performers’ real-life experiences were used as raw material, so one must assume that Jana Castillo did indeed incite a friend to sully her pristine Barbie collection by ripping dolls from their boxes and using them to demonstrate sex moves.

How much has been fictionalised (Zoe Coombs Marr was the text dramaturg) is impossible to tell. It adds an intriguing layer of perception in a piece that is already multi-layered and conducted in three languages: spoken text, movement, and the beautiful fusion of silent communication and movement that is Auslan. Occasional additions of audio-description and captioning bob up too. There’s a lot going on – so much so in this wide, relatively shallow space that occasionally there’s a sense of being at a tennis match, except one where the ball is in play at both ends.

The conjunction of arts and methods sets up a rich visual and imaginative world. Castillo’s extraordinary plasticity is used to convey her frustration about how bodies aren’t always obedient (“I don’t tic when I’m on stage,” she says). Auslan interpreter Neil Phipps has a great double act with Jones, with the two offering one of the funniest, most telling scenes in the piece as they vie for attention. They also share an exquisitely tender moment of connection, beautifully framed in Benjamin Cisterne’s austere set and lighting.

Gerard O’Dwyer’s sweet, serious presence adds a quieter and more mysterious thread to the complex business of how we explain ourselves to the world. He is a good person who just wants to be liked but it’s not necessarily easy.

O’Dwyer often speaks as if to himself. Palomares, on the other hand, is all super-confidence as she lays bare language’s potential for extraordinary unreliability. Interpreting for Jones at one point with utmost fluency, she is brightly engaged and totally clueless.

Danielle Micich (artistic director of Force Majeure) and Philip Channells (of Dance Integrated Australia) co-directed for Carriageworks as part of its valuable New Normal program. This is designed to bring artists from various disciplines and backgrounds together and to give greater mainstream prominence to work that is so frequently – and undeservedly – under the radar. In Off the Record Micich and Channells fluently cut across classifications and barriers as dancers speak, actors dance and the lines between them are blurred. The audience’s world is enlarged.

Off the Record takes a little time to get into its stride but by the end I wanted to know much more about these people – imperfect as we all are but significantly more honest about it. The show had a very short season in Sydney but one assumes there are hopes for more exposure. Off the Record is worth it.

It was impossible to see Off the Record without thinking of the company’s recent whack to the head by the Federal Government. Force Majeure recently lost four-year funding from the Australia Council after the debacle of former federal arts minister George Brandis’s money shuffle, taking from the Australia Council to set up his ominously named National Program for Excellence in the Arts. (Whose definition of excellence, pray tell?) After Brandis was replaced by Mitch Fifield some money – but not all – was restored to the Australia Council and Fifield turned the NPEA into a program called Catalyst – Australian Arts and Culture Fund.

The Catalyst website says the fund has $12 million annually to invest: “Catalyst will assist organisations to forge new creative and financial partnerships and stimulate innovative ways to build participation by Australians in our cultural life. It will enable access to high quality arts experiences in regional communities and international activities that achieve cultural diplomacy objectives,” it says.

Projects by small to medium-sized organisations are given priority.

The key word is “projects”. The Australia Council funding allowed companies to have certainty for four years; project funding is finite. Force Majeure also has triennial NSW Government funding and is a resident company at Carriageworks. So it’s not going out of business, as far as we can tell, but will undoubtedly have to do less business. As will so many other small-to-medium companies, as they were the ones hit by the Australia Council cuts.

This is the area where most experimentation takes place, it’s where artists find their voices and hone their skills. It’s where some of the most surprising, exhilarating and challenging work can be found. It’s where audiences can find a lot of bang for not many bucks. If the Federal Government were serious about wanting high quality arts and culture to be available to all, this is the last place it should be reducing funding. The amount of money involved is already in rounding-error territory when you look at the Federal Budget as a whole. It really is a disgrace.