Liveworks: Chan, Gunn & Lloyd, Choy

Liveworks Festival of Experimental Art. The Performance Space at Carriageworks, Sydney, October 27, November 2.

A pulsating, unforgiving light picks out Kristina Chan’s forehead and underscores her cheekbones, sculpting her face into an eerie mask. A lone figure in the gloom, she rises to the balls of her feet then drives her heels into the floor.

Up and down, up and down, again and again she goes. The beat imposed by big, industrial blocks of sound is relentless, as if Chan is being driven deep into the earth. Perhaps she is the last person on Earth.

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Kristina Chan in A Faint Existence. Photo: Ashley de Prazer

A Faint Existence is Chan’s eloquent, despairing view of the world’s physical degradation. There is no anger or call to action. This is the end. What you choose to do about it is up to you. As is often the way of these things, there is exceptional beauty in the depiction of existential threat. The visual elements are few and they are rigorously austere, although there is an oddly calming suggestion of repose in the use of curves rather than straight lines and the way light glows rather than burns. Clare Britton’s design has a central mound that suggests by turns a parched landscape and a dying sun. At the back of the space, high up, a slender, twisting ribbon of fabric sparkles with life-enhancing colours although the great rushes of air that occasionally animate it feel less benign.

There is a moment of immense poignancy when Chan lies motionless beneath that ribbon, so far out of her reach. Chan, who is choreographer as well as dancer, has an ability to suspend time that is as exquisite as her phenomenal physical control. She understands the power of stillness and uses it potently.

James Brown’s score and Benjamin Cisterne’s lighting are integral to the intense impact made by A Faint Existence, and it is interesting to note the involvement of a dramaturg, Victoria Hunt. If only more choreographers took this path. This is a dark work whose intent is absolutely clear while having an air of ineffable mystery. There were only a handful of performances but A Faint Existence is surely destined for many more.

Nicola Gunn and Jo Lloyd’s Mermermer premiered about six weeks ago in Chunky Move’s Next Move program in Melbourne so it, like A Faint Existence, is hot off the presses. While the two works share a less-than-optimistic view of the future, Mermermer has slapstick energy and deep devotion to the ridiculous in the face of encroaching darkness. This is Waiting for Godot, if only Beckett had jazzed it up with shiny party streamers and not repeated himself quite so much (Mermermer runs a tight 50 minutes). Gunn and Lloyd chat away to one another and seem to find not only comfort but necessity in their tangling, tumbling, sweaty physical connection.

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Jo Lloyd and Nicola Gunn in Mermermer. Photo: Gregory Lorenzuti 

While the big curtain at the back of the performance area suggests overt theatricality, and therefore the presence of the audience, Gunn and Lloyd don’t look beyond each other. There are no ironic quotation marks around their actions. This immersion in one another is touching and the effect is amplified by the era-style-forgot costuming (Shio Otani designed). The women look very, very ordinary. They look human.

The work’s title carries implications of the persistence or otherwise of memory. It also implies a fading of language and perhaps therefore a weakening of ties between people. Gunn and Lloyd have tried to keep it all going but it looks as if larger, less chaotic and impersonal forces will prevail. Still, like Didi and Gogo, they have gallantly given it their best shot.

Choy Ka Fai’s SoftMachine: XiaoKe x ZiHan was another highlight of Liveworks, sadly only in the first week. Choy, a Berlin-based Singaporean artist, has created a series of contemporary dance portraits combining video with text and movement. This one, featuring dancer Xioa Ke and her artist husband Zhou Zihan (who perform as XiaoKe and ZiHan), takes a critical look at censorship and control in China. Much of it is wryly humorous, there is a glorious piss-take of a propaganda song and a chilling conclusion.

In about 40 minutes it covers a lot of territory and offers keen insights. I wish, though, I’d read Keith Gallasch’s interview with Choy Ka Fai in RealTime magazine before seeing XiaoKe x ZiHan. Apparently an invitation from the Cultural Bureau of China to pop in for a cup of tea is not something you want to receive, knowledge that would have enhanced an exchange between Xaio Ke and Zhou Zihan near the end of the work. Good to know now though. Read the piece here. It’s terrific.

Liveworks continues at Carriageworks, Sydney, until November 6. Mermermer ends November 5.

On View: Live Portraits

Performance Space at Carriageworks, Sydney, July 17

HOW can we know the dancer from the dance, asked W.B. Yeats. It’s a question embedded in Sue Healey’s absorbing On View: Live Portraits, a piece that incorporates the moving image, live performance and, for 10 minutes at the beginning, the dancer as museum object.

When the doors to Bay 20 at Carriageworks are opened the audience, free to wander at will, discovers five dancers placed separately around the dimly lit space. They perform some dance actions but there’s a remote quality about the movement. It’s as if the performers need to wrap themselves in an invisible protective shield.

Raghav Handa, Martin del Amo, Nalina Wait, Benjamin Hancock and Shona Erskine

Raghav Handa, Martin del Amo, Nalina Wait, Benjamin Hancock and Shona Erskine

The audience is then seated for the main event, a 60-minute dance work that invites one to contemplate character, personality, differences between the mediums of film and live performance in creating portraiture and to assess the combination. Or, to be honest, you can skip the theorising and just luxuriate in the company of Martin del Amo, Shona Erskine, Benjamin Hancock, Raghav Handa and Nalina Wait, in the flesh and up on five large screens, your enjoyment doubled. (The piece has been seen in a different version, with these performers, in Melbourne at Dance Massive, as On View: Quintet.)

Healey knows how to pick a dancer. These are wonderfully mature, individual artists. As we see on screen and in life, Wait is a strong and voluptuous mover with a highly expressive face; Erskine is elegant and enigmatic; you will likely never really know what del Amo is thinking but whatever it is, he intrigues; Handa is sensuous and full of juice; and Hancock is fabulously other-worldly, exotic and surprising. Or are these performances not to be confused with intrinsic nature? The dance or the dancer?

The screen imagery is arresting and gorgeously captured – Judd Overton is director of photography – and may be seen at various art galleries around Australia later this year and next. There is, however, nothing to match the presence of the performers. Each makes an impression as an individual but Healey doesn’t leave it there. At the end the five come together, dressed alike and moving as one in a gently ecstatic whirl. The affirmation of community is extremely beautiful.

On View: Live Portraits would be welcome at any time but is particularly good programming at Carriageworks right now. It sits brilliantly alongside 24 Frames per Second, the wonderful large-scale exhibition devoted to dance and the moving image (which I wrote about here). But while 24 Frames per Second runs until early August, On View has a run of just a week. It deserves more.

Ends July 25.

A version of this review first appeared in The Australian on July 21.