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Figure Eights

I may never know what it is like to be an octopus, but I can begin to imagine what it might be like if I was an octopus.[1] Equally, I may never know what it is like to be a dancer, and someone who communicates with their body, but, thanks to a special in-house showing of Prue Lang’s work-in-progress, “Poesis,” as part of her Australian Ballet’s residency program,[2] I can imagine what it might be like if I were. And so it was, that I found myself once more, in the late afternoon, in the van Praagh studio, of the Primrose Potter Australian Ballet Centre, exploring surface and vulnerability as a gloved hand scuttled across the stage like a jewel-hued crustacean.

Performance

Prue Lang: “Poesis,” a work in progress showing as part of the Australian Ballet 2024 Residency

Place

The Australian Ballet Studios, The Primrose Potter Australian Ballet Centre, Southbank, Melbourne, May 3, 2024

Words

Gracia Haby

Collage by Gracia Haby and Louise Jennison

Announced at the start of the year, selected by the Australian Ballet’s artistic director, David Hallberg; choreographers, Stephanie Lake, and Bebe Miller; and Dancehouse’s Artistic Director, Josh Wright, Lang and Deanne Butterworth were the successful recipients of the Australian Ballet’s 2024–25 Residency Program. While Butterworth will commence her residency in 2025, to work on “Half Half,” Lang has just concluded her studio residency, presenting, revealing, five explorations in the first creative development, “Poesis,” with her collaborators Benjamin Hancock and Amber McCartney. Together, in their own kind of coevolution, they have explored “a multivalent world of immanent relationships, environmental immersion, and sensory immediacy,”[3] springing from Jakob von Uexküll’s concept of Umwelt[4] and the origins of the word “poesis:” to make. Uexküll’s unknown worlds of an animal’s experience “revealed only to our mind’s eye and not to our body’s” seems like a wonderful seabed to make into dance. 

In Lang’s hands, the “imaginative writing” Uexküll believed could “simulate other umwelts” by presenting the “familiar in unfamiliar ways” is embedded in Hancock’s coral-like swaying limbs. Anchored to the seabed, in a pair of impossibly high heels, as Hancock floats his upper body in the water, I could well be looking at a lone soft coral in the process of fashioning small, knobbly sclerites across their surface for protection and to keep their shape. In remaining fixed to a central location, hopeful of a reef forming, the heels are a means to transform the shape of the body, and trace a coral before my eyes. As Lang describes to the gathered audience, between the various explorations, “Poesis” is inspired by the “sensory perceptions of animals and humans, examined through the lens of counterpoint.”

Benjamin Hancock and Amber McCartney in “Poesis,” a work in progress by Prue Lang. Photograph courtesy of the artists / The Australian Ballet Residency

Sparked by Lang’s own Octopus practise, “in order to think like an octopus,” she twists her arm to the side, emulating the idea of an octopus changing their camouflage from textured, sandy seabed to vivid orange lobster pincer, in both colour and shape. One organism suddenly becomes another, just as different species in the same environment will “have different umwelten,” and experience their world in their own unique way. As such, McCartney’s hands in boxing gloves are not really hands in gloves, just as Hancock in heels was not really about the type of heel upon his feet, but the new shapes and sounds they conjure. As McCartney’s two front limbs pad about the space, the soft sound they make, as each connects with the floor, feels like the emphasis. I imagine the gloves covered in rows of ciliated sensory receptors.[5] What information are they sending back to the brain, I wonder, as they scan the surface. Hancock bourrées en pointe, in delicious contrast, tall and loud; the loudness, too, a further contrast to the expected lightness of the pointe shoe and its weighted history. Later, from four limbs connected to the floor, as Hancock raises his leg straight up to the ceiling and slowly rotates his foot, there is the fleeting impression of an aquatic animal coming to the surface to draw breath. McCartney extends her arm and cups a padded hand over the pointe shoe, and the two shapes slot together to fill a rectangle, echoing an earlier moment when her hand had curled around Hancock’s topknot like a snug-fitting shell about a hermit crab.

Just as elsewhere Hancock lightly blows upon his forearm and it drifts upwards, weightless, the sense of the animal within these explorations is not overt. Renowned for their unique morphology and flexibility, the neighbouring, flexible arms of an octopus can perform different tasks simultaneously, and can move in a near unlimited range.[6] From elongated to shortened, they are capable of bending at any point. The question Lang asks is not what can such a range of movement look like in human form, but, rather, what does it feel like. With 300 suckers on each of your arms, each served by their own mini brain (a “cluster of neurons called the sucker ganglion,”[7] navigating the watery world of the octopus is a choreographic dreamscape of its own infinite possibilities.

When you have the ability to call upon multiple sensory modalities to access your surroundings from photoreception to mechanorecptors that respond to water pressure, movement, and touch, when I can no more ‘pat your head and rub your belly’, what does that feel like? To find out more, I’ll have to wait until “Poesis” is in its finished form. Until then, I have the enchanting visual of Hancock and McCartney’s arms in first position connecting at the fingertips to form a ring, taking turns to both interlink rings, and independently scamper with their hands across the neck, shoulders, and extended arms of the other. Looking to burrow in somewhere porous? Wait and see.

Gracia Haby


Using an armoury of play and poetry as a lure, Gracia Haby is an artist besotted with paper. Her limited edition artists’ books, and other works hard to pin down, are often made collaboratively with fellow artist, Louise Jennison. Their work is in the collections of the National Gallery of Australia and state libraries throughout Australia to the Tate (UK). Gracia Haby is known to collage with words as well as paper.

footnotes


  1. Thomas Nagel’s posed, ‘What Is It Like to Be a Bat?’ in which the answer is, to be a bat is impossible to know. “The analogical form of the English expression “what it is like” is misleading. It does not mean “what (in our experience) it resembles,” but rather “how it is for the subject himself.” Thomas Nagel “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?,” The Philosophical Review, Volume. 83, No. 4, 1974, p 440, JSTOR, https://www.jstor.org/stable/2183914, accessed May 4, 2024.
  2. Previous recipients of the Australian Ballet’s 2022–23 inaugural Residency Program, which provides each choreographer with a stipend of $18,000 and access to the centre’s studio space and facilities at The Primrose Potter Australian Ballet Centre, include interdisciplinary artist, Sandra Parker, and Artistic Director of the Northern Territory Dance Company, Gary Lang.
  3. Elisha Cohn, “Paperback Tigers: Breaking the Zoo,” Contemporary Literature, Vol. 56, No. 4 (Winter 2015), p 581, JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/24735044, accessed May 4, 2024.
  4. “‘Umwelt’ theory offers an understanding both of species and their evolution that is characterized by radical interdependence. It asserts that species cannot be properly understood other than in relation to the environments they inhabit, and specifically to those aspects of their environments that are relevant to their existence and with which they are… in Uexküll’s own favourite metaphor, in a kind of “contrapuntal musical performance..” Una Chaudhuri, “Bug Bytes: Insects, Information, and Interspecies Theatricality,” Theatre Journal, Vol. 65, No. 3, 2013, p 324, JSTOR, https://www.jstor.org/stable/24580496, accessed May 4, 2024.
  5. Squid and cuttlefish, for example, have lines of ciliated receptors on their heads, which are sensitive to water movements, but the image drawn needn’t always relate to cephalopods.
  6. Jennifer Mather, “Octopus Consciousness: The Role of Perceptual Richness,” NeuroSci, Vol. 2, No. 3, 2021, pp 276–290, https://doi.org/10.3390/neurosci2030020, accessed May 4, 2024.
  7. Ed Yong, An Immense World: How Animal Senses Reveal the Hidden Realms Around Us (London: Penguin Random House, 2023), p 330.

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