The warmth of the spring day did not hold in the Substation. Inside the capacious, high-ceilinged, former industrial space, it is never warm. It is resolutely sub-temperature. Seated for the first of three solos presented under the collective awning of “Blowin’ Up,” I sat, cleared my throat, and cleared my throat again. The cold of the building crept inside my chest with the intention to make me the spluttering, wheezing, noisy audience member. My defence of stoicism and Soothers was going to be tested.
So when Caroline Meaden stood upright from an investigative, languid cat pose, advanced to the front of the stage, a hair’s breadth from the audience, and sniffed, an exaggerated under-the-weather, nose crinkle in want of a handkerchief, my body involuntarily mirrored the waiting room action, and I coughed. And I coughed again, and once more for good measure. In a game of call and response, I was not the “silent animal…. out there somewhere, watching on.” Into Meaden’s solo, “Sneaky Bastard,” I crashed into the “thick silence and …. deep restraint.”1 But my performance etiquette mortification was soothed by the sense that Meaden, Alice Dixon, and William McBride feel like the type of performers that make me want to ask: could your trio become a quartet?
Following on from their work together in “This is What’s Happening,” at the preview performance of “Blowin’ Up,” presented by the Substation as part of this year’s Melbourne Fringe Festival, Meaden, Dixon, and McBride tell their three tales through their familiar occasional whisper and brief twiddle of the thumbs. They tell their tales with a wink that seeks to make colluders of the audience. Earlier, before “Sneaky Bastard” had unfurled their “attack as life strategy,”2 arm movements like that of an elephant’s trunk gingerly sensing it’s way, Meaden, Dixon, and McBride had made themselves store mannequins behind the glass doors in the hallway. Still, playfully posed, and wry, Meaden in forest green, Dixon in a shade of midnight blue, and McBride in scarlet, their attire reminded me of a late ’50s, early ’60s art student. A tap on the shoulder and an invitation to return to their digs for tea and toast around the radiator would not feel out of place. Challenge as a coping mechanism need not ascribe to a set range of movements that fit every body, as this moment and following solos convey.
A curtain divide drops unmasking more of the machine hall, and Meaden hands over the reins to Dixon. The fallen white curtain is pulled to the side of the stage, suggestive of rumpled bed sheets en route to the washing machine, and Dixon’s shape-shifting solo, “The Bush Capital,” asks us to “follow our [new] heroine as she breaks down walls and faces up to some of life’s greatest hurdles,”3 literally. Obliged to transcend what happened but a moment before, as W. H. Auden wrote of human nature’s continual quest,4 Dixon tips over a seesaw. Later, as a low hurdle is soundlessly erected by stagehand, Jule Small (who is credited in the programme with “General Ambience”), she sails across it with comedic aplomb.
Fresh from our wall-breaking, obstacle-clearing journey, we weave our way upstairs for relaxation with McBride’s “Lyin’ Down.” In the upstairs rehearsal space, the room is rendered golden by the lights of the neighbouring train station and car park, and in echo of the explorative trunk-sweeps of Meaden, I find my way to a free stool. Outside, two police officers in fluorescent vests can be seen patrolling the car park. With torches, they peer into the parked cars. Seated in the dark, the tops of the tall arched windows provide brilliant surveillance of Newport. On the walls, there are mirrors, but they cannot compete with the chance to view life from the industrial treetops. The presence of McBride is slowly revealed as he draws the curtains and later the mirrored sliding panels on the view. Uttering “bye, bye” the last of the panels blocks out the chatter. McBride, as did Meaden and Dixon in their earlier solos, crosses the line between stage and audience, with warmth and humour. On all fours, he rests his head in the lap of the audience before worshipping at the altar of the bar heater. One small heater stands in the corner of the room, incapable of warming the space. Turned on, it is transformed into an object of devotion, and it summons up memories of cold studios during my art school years. It is the tea and toast moment of earlier on. It is the notice stuck to the wall in the Substation toilets that advocates the use of the full flush to help the building’s old pipes.
From “part-storytime, part-awkward lap dance, part hypnotism, part-requiem,”5 all three solos reveal their earnest take on life. This is “what it feels like to be alive right now.”6 An unpolished lullaby, a gentle roll, I am warmed by the sense of camaraderie Meaden, Dixon, and McBride create. Jam toast and fine company can hush life’s little heartbreaks.
Brushing aside my crumbs, on the heels of the tender comes “Two Parts of Easy Action.” It, too, is presented as part of the Substation’s curated dance line-up for the Fringe, but there the link ends. Created in response to the impressive, chameleon-like space, Deanne Butterworth, with musician, Evelyn Morris, presents a verse-chorus play with both the machine hall and the audience. Together, Butterworth and Morris add flesh to music’s bones, as they investigate “what we know and what we don’t yet know.”7
With a descriptive title in reference to Alice Cooper’s second album, Easy Action (1970), which in turn was in reference to “West Side Story” (1961), a musician, dancing, and a dancer playing a guitar does not an easy action make. This is what it looks and sounds like when you move out of your known area of expertise. And from this silver clad position of vulnerability, the chance of failure is as high as the chance of success is glorious. It is a tightrope made of orange tape stretched out on the floor, and not to walk it is an opportunity missed.
“Two Parts of Easy Action” is loud. It is felt in the body. To paraphrase Kim Gordon, cited in the choreographer’s notes, sound affects the body and a performance isn’t the same without an audience.8 When in the second part of the work, the audience is called to stand before the right angle formation of erected mirrors and the line of tape on the stage, we are shown as essential albeit awkward tools. A small boy in the audience makes faces at himself in the mirror and seems to have the right idea: with movement, with inquisitive play. Yes! A good way to deal with new situations as they arise is to respond by the easy action of moving on, just like in “West Side Story.” And just like that a link between three plus two solos becomes apparent: unique movements that are true to your own way of operating, that’s the way to deal.
- Caroline Meaden performer’s note, “Sneaky Bastard,” presented as part of “Blowin’ Up,” http://www.aliceandcaroline.com.au/projects-with-william-mcbride
- Meaden performer’s note, “Sneaky Bastard” http://www.aliceandcaroline.com.au/projects-with-william-mcbride
- Alice Dixon performer’s note, “The Bush Capital,” “Blowin’ Up” programme, The Substation, Newport, Victoria, 2016
- “But man is a history-making creature for whom the future is always open; human “nature” is a nature continually in quest of itself, obliged at every moment to transcend what it was a moment before”—W. H. Auden, The Quest Hero, http://faculty.smu.edu/bwheeler/tolkien/online_reader/AudenTheQuestHero.pdf, 40
- William McBride performer’s note, “Lyin’ Down,” “Blowin” Up programme, 2016
- “About the Show, “Blowin’ Up” programme, 2016
- Deanne Butterworth, “Choreographer’s Notes,” “Two Parts of Easy Action” programme, The Substation, Newport, Victoria, 2016
- “Music is very much about the spatial situation and the body, and how the body affects sound, and the movement affects sound, and how the audience is a willing partner in making it all come together.” —Kim Gordon in conversation with Jutta Koether from Kim Gordon, Is it My Body? Selected Texts Ed. Brandon W Joseph (Sternberg Press, 2014), 159