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New [digital] Ghosts

What was live, I can pause, and it occurs to me that not being able to conveniently pause a live performance was one of the things I most enjoyed about it. It was live. It is live. It was/is roaring along, independent of my will. And in having no control over any part of its trajectory, I disappeared completely, in the best possible sense. I wasn’t me in the theatre or hall, but a series of notes, a flurry of limbs, a lightness, an extension, particles illuminated by stage lighting; anything. In this freedom, a different kind of pause. A pause from being (frantic, scrolling, drafting emails, composing invoices, busy self).

Serena Graham and Joseph Romancewicz in New Ghost by Mason Lovegrove, for the Australian Ballet's

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I miss this pause.

Now, when I watch film and dance on my laptop as miniature theatre, I can pause to answer anything unrelated to what I am watching. Watching: less feeling; less required of me, perhaps. I can leave the formerly moving world frozen on my screen indefinitely, or, at least until the settings on my MacBook draw the curtains; Energy Saver: turn display off after 10 minutes of no activity. Activate Screen Saver: Flurry.

There are many things I would quite like to control (or, at least, have my word heard): environmental policy for an ecologically sustainable existence; transforming Australia into a carbon-neutral powerhouse; ensuring a strong public education system . . . but one of the things I don’t wish to control is the pause button on a ‘live’ performance.

I miss live.

The ‘live’ is what I am missing from digital dance, but this is not revelatory, and I am not alone in this view. All the same—it stings. I miss the shared experience, the wave of applause, the connection that cannot be replicated through a soundtrack of ‘People Clapping in a Large Auditorium’ (2:56). The percussive clap of an audience brings me back to my limbs. It is, like credits are to film, a moment to gather the senses before the house lights come on. It is a way to say thank-you. I loved that. I very much needed that. Come again? Certainly.

The last performance by the Australian Ballet I saw live was Peter Wright’s “The Nutcracker” at the State Theatre in September of last year.[note]Incidentally, the last performance I saw ‘live’ in 2020 was Akira Kasai’s “Pollen Revolution” and Victoria Chiu’s “What Happened in Shanghai” presented as part of Asia TOPA.[/note]

Near twelve months on, a part of me misses the sound of someone nearby unwrapping a cough lozenge during a quiet pas de deux. I miss the overheard audience critique and chatter as I leave the theatre; “Wasn’t what’s-her-name with the beautiful turnout and looong legs marvellous;” “What even is a Mirliton?” “Ramen tomorrow at the food court?” I miss the togetherness of live.

From crisis comes room for change, and change is exciting. I am enjoying the egalitarian nature of anyone with good internet connection being able to see performances in their loungeroom, and on their devices as they do the many other things that we all do in our homes, day after day. Pause that—soup’s bubbled, take the napkins to the table/counter/couch. Pause that—wheel the bins out, work call, sleep calls. I like that you can take a punt on something you might otherwise not have gone to see. I like that you can ‘theatre’ at 9 a.m.

My phone reminds me that I would have been seeing Graeme Murphy’s “The Happy Prince” at the State Theatre tonight. My brain reminds me that I would have allocated 50 minutes to walk there to meet my Mum on the red couches where people sat, sometimes waiting for someone, sometimes just looking at the world roll by as the musicians, easily identifiable by their cased instruments in hand, arrived.

My phone might not have reminded me of the second instalment of the Australian Ballet’s Bodytorque.Digital; a calendar fail my end, possibly, in an un-sunk moment, but my Instagram feed did.

And so, with Bodytorque.Digital, work 2, New Ghost, I am back in the National Gallery of Victoria, but this time upstairs with the old masters, in a world pre-stage 4 restrictions.[note]New Ghost was filmed in the 17th and 18th century galleries at NGV International prior to Melbourne Stage 4 restrictions.[/note]

Should the figures paused within Giambattista Tiepolo’s The Finding of Moses (1740–1745) raise their gaze, they’d see, in somewhat ghostly form, corps de ballet dancers Serena Graham and Joseph Romancewicz, wrapped in costumes that allow them to become a part of the wall behind them or the floor beneath them, and even blend into the daubs of paint behind them, in a world where the canvases are still drying and the surface texture is pliable.

Real-life couple Graham and Romancewicz, who also performed in Mason Lovegrove’s “A Timepiece” for Bodytorque.atelier in 2019, enable a social distancing sidestep and the result is beautiful intimacy and knowledge, together with Erica Kennedy on violin and Melissa Chominsky, cello. At the 2-minute mark, they slide into the rich red walled salon, and the clouds of Camille Corot.

Before Jules Bastien-Lepage’s Annunciation to the shepherds (1875) in twilight illumination, Graham and Romancewicz make an “encounter between the angel and shepherd . . . posed as if lifelike” [note] William S. Feldman, “Jules
Bastien-Lepage: a new perspective,”Art Bulletin of Victoria 20,
Art Journal 20, NGV, June 27, 2014, accessed August 30, 2020.
[/note] yet suspended in time.

Titania and Bottom appear as Edwin Landseer saw them in scene from A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1848–1851), and we’re slipping between centuries: cream-walled 17th to red-walled 18th. With Baby Moses one moment, to a room where “Deer stealers [are] pursued by sleuth hounds” and a horse named Coco gave up the ghost centuries ago (The Last resting place of Coco 1878). Fluid as paint. Fluid as a work in progress.

Through the choreography of New Ghost, Lovegrove poses, “Who is change, who is fear? Get to know them, make peace with them?” Yes. Change is exciting. A chance to replicate not what was, but to show what can and could be. Lovegrove formed this New Ghost “through a process of exploring and understanding. Asking questions and being patient when the answers [didn’t] immediately appear.” And patience is something much needed to get you through change, in any sphere. Letting go of what you cannot control and shaping what you can.

As Tomas Parrish, who composed the piece for Lovegrove’s New Ghost, describes, “We are in a time of restrictions and restraints. We either make the choice to work with or against these frameworks. New feelings that are reminiscent of something past. Old thoughts in new contexts. These ghosts can rise in ways we didn’t realise they could; handshakes, a deserted street, a singular empty coffee mug. How do we experience these today, and how do we let them go?”

Playing with the pause, “You get a fabulous artistic dialogue taking place and it’s really exciting,” explains Nicolette Fraillon, music director and chief conductor of Orchestra Victoria. How long can a note or a limb hover in the air? How does a note or a body bend? The physicality of both, meet. “Bodytorque has always been about imposing limitations: this is an even better learning journey because there are a hell of a lot more limitations.”

Look lively, press play. Three more works from the Australian Ballet’s choreographic development program, Bodytorque.Digital, remain.

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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