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Foot Work

The sole is stamped with the maker’s mark, the size, and the width of the shoe. The sole is attached to the last with a staple gun, then using the relevant sized upper, the shoe is pulled over the last, the toe is pinned, and the upper is stapled to the seat of the last. This is followed by a combination of paste, hessians and cards to build up the block, depending upon the dancer’s specifications. This is how Freed of London make their bespoke pointe shoes, and this behind-the-scenes process is how Prue Lang’s “Castillo” begins.

Performance

“Castillo” by Prue Lang

Place

Sylvia Staehli Theatre, Dancehouse, Melbourne, Victoria, March 3, 2022

Words

Gracia Haby

Jana Castillo in “Castillo” by Prue Lang. Photograph by Anne Moffat

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Projected on a screen in Sylvia Staehli Theatre of Dancehouse, the over-the-shoulder camera view of the process of pleating the shoe tightly around the last, tying it down, opening for the sole channel and removing any excess material before it can be stitched is not just the craft before the dance, but its own meticulous dance. On the factory floor, this work is precise, to ensure the shoe and the foot work as one. After being stitched, the staples are removed and the shoe is cut down ready for turning. The insole is pasted in and the shoe is turned, put back on the last, and the maker shapes the shoe, performing an initial ‘bang out.’ To finalise the shape of the footwear, the shoe is shaped with a polished hammer, and the insole from earlier is inserted, and the reshaping process is repeated. It is physical work, as the shoe is put through its steps, which is not dissimilar to the steps it will be put through once used, either in class, rehearsal, or on stage.

The synergy between the maker and the dancer, in the opening eight-minute film,[note]“The Making of a Freed of London Classic Pointe Shoe” video filmed by Freed’s in their London factory, uploaded 25th January, 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-zExmSmO35Q, accessed March 4, 2022.[/note] and the choreographer, Lang, and the performer Jana Castillo in “Castillo” is not dissimilar either. Lang is interested in exploring the “taxonomy of touch and texture through the lens of choreography and neurodiversity”[note]Prue Lang, Choreographer’s Note, “Castillo,” Dancehouse, https://www.dancehouse.com.au/whats-on/castillo-prue-lang/, accessed March 4, 2022.[/note] and is doing so by inviting us to look at three different types of footwear: pointe shoes, socks, and sneakers.

Just as overnight, the pointe shoes are left in an oven at 80°C before heading to the finishing room to be neatly bound, tacked down, when requested, and socked, Lang has sought to fuse together the “complex art of [all areas of] dance making and embodiment.” Where does one end and the other begin?

Jana Castillo in “Castillo” by Prue Lang. Photograph by Anne Moffat

When the stage lights come on and I see Castillo, in her pointe shoes, all the better to grand jeté en avant, I see them knowing a sped-up version of what went into making them. I hear the sound of the blocks, left and right shoe conversing. I see the shoes as a glorious extension of her movements as Castillo in turn appears almost in conversation with them, marking time between phases, comparable to where earlier I saw the vamp, sides and back of the shoe marked for where they needed to be cut. Castillo’s movements echo the attachment of the elastic drawstrings in the binding. I see her teetering between being in control of the movement and seemingly led by the shoes themselves, as if it is Castillo who follows the direction of the shoes à la Vicky Page in The Red Shoes (1948).

As Castillo herself explains in Perspective Shift (Episode #3: Jana): “Certain work environments will say that they are all inclusive, but they tolerate you, they don’t accept you, and that’s huge, that’s huge, because you can tell the difference. I felt like if I was a bit “ticky,” or a bit dystonic, I had to apologise. I had to remove myself from situations.”[note]“Perspective Shift: Season 1, Episode 3, Jana,” SBS, December 2019, https://www.sbs.com.au/ondemand/video/1633420355610/perspective-shift-s1-ep3-jana, accessed March 4, 2022.[/note] “Castillo” is Lang with Castillo, not for. And the emphasis on the ‘with’ is felt. Together they have shaped an “innovative visual-musical journey that celebrates physical intelligence and difference and stimulates new perceptions of the dancing body.”[note]Lang, Choreographer’s Note, “Castillo,” Dancehouse, 2022.[/note] Together, with a small team, including composer Chiara Costanza, and video by Pippa Samaya and Takeshi Kondo (in addition to Lang), and lighting design by Lisa Mibus, Castillo in “Castillo” is a tactile exploration of “an artist living and thriving with disability.”[note]“The Journey so far,” Jana Castillo’s bio, https://www.janacastillo.co/about, accessed March 4, 2022.[/note]

In the second film, we move to the natural world, up close. Zoomed in on the details, someone’s head of short wet hair could almost read as a forest of spikey trees. A black and white dog’s torso and hind leg, also momentarily ‘something other’. This reinvention of the known material is what transpires in the movements of Castillo that follow. Things are revealed in a new light in the choreography. This is what the ringing notes of a Bellbird might look like as they cascade through the human body. Castillo traces their gentle procession through her limbs, one hand hovering just above the sound as it chimes its way through her body. I picture a furry green energy, imperceptible to the human eye. Adjusting to the low light, when Castillo appears on the small animal hide, her black-socked feet look almost like the limbs of a domestic cat or dog in a contented stretch.

From movements that express how stones in a creek bed feel to the sole of the foot we arrive at sneakers, artificial light, and manufacturing. In the third short film, a prosthetic right arm and torso tries to connect with the pelvis and legs, severed just below the knee joints, and the space in between what is typically connected, the disconnect, is uncomfortable. What I at first marvelled at — how little it takes to ‘animate’ and make real the unreal — quickly tipped over to feelings of sadness as I viewed a ‘broken’ body, writhing and helpless. The right and left knee joints sought to push the body back together again. Spliced between this visual, hands pull at gum-like, flesh-pink, rubbery dough. It was hard not to read this as the cause of the effect: a squishing of the guts, of the vulnerable internal organs, that lead to a failure to stand. Yet, perhaps, like a micro view of hair that, to me, looked like a forest, this ‘ink blot’ test was something more playful to someone else. Cropped below the knee, you; severed, me. Perhaps someone else reminisced about Play-doh, while another person saw the liberation a prosthetic limb can grant. Perhaps another was in awe of the multidirectional movement and rotation that is the ball-and-socket joint. Indeed, Castillo’s movements in the third response are playful, performative, and nostalgic as fragments of Vanilla Ice’s Ice Ice Baby (1990) ripple through her form, making her limbs liquid one moment, robotic the next, and a warm smile takes over her face. The audience whoops and cheers. “Flow like a harpoon daily and nightly/“Will it ever stop?” Yo, I don’t know/Turn off the lights and I’ll glow/To the extreme/I rock a mic like a vandal/Light up a stage and wax a chump like a candle”.

Like a poem in which line breaks shape meaning, Castillo’s poetic enjambments make multiple interpretations possible, and a warm smile takes over my face.


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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.

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