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.

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.