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Human Engine

See below the line. Look beyond the surface. Delve beneath the city. Peer underneath the skin. Vide infra. What makes us tick, and ultimately what holds us together, piece by splintered piece.

Performance

The Australian Ballet: “Faster” / “Squander and Glory” / “Infra”

Place

State Theatre, Melbourne, Victoria, March, 20 & 21, 2017

Words

Gracia Haby

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Drawing its name from the Latin word for ‘below,’ “Infra” (2008) surveys the internal. This work is a part of the body within the body; this work is the human condition. Infrarenal. Wayne McGregor invites us to look at the “interior emotional landscape”[note]Wayne McGregor interviewed by Kate Scott, “Athletic Animals,” The Australian Ballet’s Faster Melbourne and Sydney programme, 2017, 12.[/note] by observing and drawing inferences from the data on the stage, in turn calling upon our own emotions. The choreographic language is both felt and distinctly human. Beneath the surface of both city and skin, the binding agent is similar.

Segmented by an LED screen that runs the length of the stage, two letterboxed worlds are presented. Above the line, visual artist Julian Opie’s flow of uniform pedestrians set an unwavering rhythm. From the left and right they flow in a mesmerising pattern that is both soothing and indifferent. If you stumble, assistance is unlikely; you’ll merely disturb the pattern. Simplified to the core—a circle for a head, a block for a torso, a rectangle for a briefcase—they are in stark contrast to the activity below the line. The twelve dancers from the Australian Ballet, beneath the ‘unreal city,’ reveal deep inward feelings. Below the line, within the body, visceral and real, and with a capacity to feel, ache, and sometimes break. The binding agent is fragile.

Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,
And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.[note]T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land, The Poetry Foundation website[/note]

Looking at the projection of walking figures, the physical informs the emotional, and I, too, perceive I am below the line. The figures comprised of pixels, to paraphrase McGregor,[note]“Wayne McGregor on creating Infra for The Royal Ballet,” Royal Opera House YouTube video, uploaded November 11, 2008[/note] are the view beyond the theatre’s walls. If I were to remove a couple of bricks from the State Theatre and peep out, this endless foot traffic is what I’d see. That patterns briefly altered inevitably resume, and ultimately the world keeps turning when you go under, is perhaps one of the hardest notions to fathom. To me, this was exquisitely embodied by Vivienne Wong (Monday, March 20) and Dimity Azoury (Tuesday, March 21) as they fell to the floor in silent grief. As the stream of passers-by threatens to erode them into the ground, they rise, and resume their tread. Self-reliance never felt so weighted and lonely.

After the agony in stony places.
The shouting and the crying

Like the loop of language in T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land, in the dark light of the city, “Infra” gives shape to feelings and builds upon them. Just as Opie’s thin slice of the everyman/woman going about her business guides my focus through showing only what is needed, so too McGregor’s choreography pares back to the essentials. This simplicity through refinement is further reflected in the strings and piano of Max Richter’s music. A score that is brilliantly interrupted by the electric charge of Kevin Jackson (Monday) and Cristiano Martino’s (Tuesday) solos on their respective nights. Jackson taps himself into the mains, seemingly increasing the static and white noise.

Teasingly, when plunged in light wells resembling that of an illuminated train car or windows in an apartment block, my eye tries in vain to take in all of the couples at the one time. My eye flits from Adam Bull, Leanne Stojmenov, Robyn Hendricks, Christopher Rodgers-Wilson, and Alice Topp (Monday) to Jake Mangakahia, Andrew Killian, Ako Kondo, and Dana Stephensen (Tuesday).

Tim Harbour's “Squander and Glory” demonstrates, as does McGregor, that “the human body is the best picture of the human soul.”[note]Ludwig Josef Johann Wittgenstein cited in David R. Cerbone, “(Ef)facing the Soul: Wittgenstein and Materialism,” Seeing Wittgenstein Anew, ed. William Day and Victor J. Krebs (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 154[/note] Harbour’s ‘violet hour’ is also one of ‘the broken fingernails of dirty hands.’ To Michael Gordon’s chaotic swirl of “Weather One,” there is a sense of a conversation between the dancers on the stage and the audience in the theatre. This inclusivity and directness is heightened when the house lights come on part way through the piece. Surplus energy must be dissipated; “lost without profit…willingly or not, gloriously or catastrophically.”[note]Georges Bataille’s The Accursed Share, cited by Tim Harbour, programme notes for “Squander and Glory,” 2017[/note]

Upon the stage, fourteen dancers become twenty-eight when doubled by a floor to ceiling mirror. Harbour has teamed once again with Kelvin Ho to artfully manipulate the familiar. With considered lighting by Benjamin Cisterne, sometimes the reflected dancers seem more ‘real’ than the dancers themselves, and all together the ‘simple’ return is breath-taking.

McGregor’s “Infra” and Harbour’s “Squander and Glory” were presented alongside David Bintley’s athletic celebration, “Faster” (2008) as part of the Australian Ballet’s seasonal contemporary triple bill. Each of the works are monuments to the throbbing human engine. Energy consumed, spent, and utterly glorious. Hold the curtain; let me stay below ground.

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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