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Where There's Smoke . . .

There are some nights when the weather plays its role as if part of the performance. This was the case one very hot eve, when I went to see Ashley Dyer’s “Life Support” at Dancehouse in Carlton North, on the first day of Dance Massive 2013. The idea of being trapped within a room that slowly grows airless as smoke fills and chokes, on such a close night seemed to work hand in glove. Waiting in the foyer, already a claustrophobic air. People fanned themselves with their Dance Massive programmes or whatever came to hand in futile bid to cool the skin. I stand near to the open door where a slight breeze is circulating thanks largely, it seems, to a passing stream of after work traffic snaking along Princes Street. Such is the heat. Relentless. Ongoing. Cooler outside in the polluted air, standing in the last of the sun than inside in a small foyer. A cool change promised, but when … . The crowd in wait is one sweaty mess of opening night excitement. And it is from this one airless room that we move through to the next, though larger and darker, yet airless room. One body of curious punters, we’ve elected an audience member by show of hands, as the person to speak for us and call the performance to an end once a red light appears. Based on a survey filled in by those who arrived early enough to do so, Grace, our nominated collective voice, our own life support, responded that she had saved her fiancé's life by nursing him back to health with serves of chicken soup and much care. She is now charged with the task of deciding our fate as an audience. It will be up to her when the performance is truly over, to decide when the doors can be opened and fresh air granted.


Ashley Dyer: “Life Support”


Dancehouse, Melbourne, Victoria, March 2013


Gracia Haby

Ashley Dyer's “Life Support.” Photograph by Clare Britton

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As we file into the theatre, we are issued with oxygen in a can, and a bottle of water should you wish. Walking in, eyes adjust to the dark space, detecting centrally placed the seated illuminated figure of performer Tony Osborne. We enter from what is the back of the stage and make our way to the seats at the end of the room. The focus is on negotiating the space, registering the posture of the performer and what this communicates, and finding the best survival spot. One row of stools, two rows of chairs, and a final back row of high stools: choose your place carefully. The performance began long ago.

Osborne’s seated posture suggests someone on tea break. Weariness, in a moment of both public and private rest, harbors in his rounded shoulders and the unseeing-yet-aware focus of his eyes. Part in his own world, part observing the activity. Seated atop a milk crate, Osborne is a nurse on a tea break, smoking. A performance that began long ago. This is everyday. As artist Ashley Dyer explained in interview recently (and published on the Dance Massive website), this work, “Life Support,” draws, in part, on the experience of watching a friend lose his battle with cystic fibrosis: “When my friend was born he was only expected to live till he was 20. He lived to 28, constantly reminded about his mortality. He spent a lot of his life waiting: waiting in hospitals, waiting with this thing always present.”

This personal connection is communicated to the audience through the “dance portrait” of the nurse on break who clearly Dyer had much chance to study. More than that, this portrait could be the actual nurse not performer, so real is the sensation. “The smoking nurse, for me, is a beautifully compromised and juxtaposed image. One that is understood but complicated, and requires resolving. It’s a figure that represents both the shortening and prolonging of life,” explains Dyer.

I make my way to the back of the theatre and find a spot conveniently near to an exit. I have a bolthole should the room become too oppressive, the smoke too thick, the atmosphere too intense, the experience of struggling to breathe too real. I also figure that this will be the least smoky part of the room, should this be an endurance test, a case of survival-of-the-fittest.

William Kentridge
William Kentridge, Bird Catcher, 2006 Charcoal, pastel and ink on paper 6 drawings.

The art of transformation is a wonderful thing. One moment we are watching a nurse on a "smoko" out the front of a hospital in a constructed nook against the wall. A space suggested by way of movements alone, for the room is but one dark space. Propped. Sitting quietly. Rolling a cigarette. Thinking, not thinking. At ease. On the wall, to the right, a shadow is cast. This shadow could be a William Kentridge silhouette. It moves occasionally. And it could be torn from black paper. (Think: Shadow Procession, 1999, an animation made using puppets and figures made from torn black paper melded with Invisible Mending, from 7 fragments for Georges Méliès, 2003.) Sometimes around this projection, smoke can even be seen in the form of circular rings. But only sometimes, for smoke does not create shadow, it prefers to mask it. And hide it it does. As the performance progresses, my familiar Kentridge man-on-the-wall disappears. It gives way to a Bill Henson photograph. An illuminated figure set against a velvety darkness that threatens to consume them or at very least, nibble away at the edges. The wall is black and the figure is illuminated and golden, and we are being moved to a new place once more as an audience. The room is filling with smoke but it is so very beautiful a spectacle to see. The smoke chokes, makes it harder to swallow, but it also creates halos of gold to play with and marvel at. A large smoke ring can make a halo-like crown or it can become a shot fired that skirts under the arm. We are now seeing smoke as something beautiful and playful. It, like the weather, is a character within the performance, and I am reminded of how things can be unexpectedly magnificent. The room is filling with smoke and yet though the natural inclination is to flee, we stay and gape at its majesty. For a moment I think this might be what it is like to be mauled to death by a tiger you were only moments ago admiring before it pounced upon you. Marvelling at the beautiful beast, rendered awestruck, and then, too late, it devours you.

As more smoke is pumped into the room, the landscape alters to that of a Tarkovsky film. We are caught up in Stalker now. In the alien and familiar smoky world we willingly decided to explore. And all without having to move from our seats. All within the space of an hour. I cannot see my footing. I lose my bearings. From Kentridge silhouette to Henson illuminated form against black, to a film still in Stalker, this is, as mentioned, some visual magic. It speaks also of Dyer’s intention to create 'paintings of movement.'

As a back screen is pushed up close to the audience, effectively penning us in, and obscuring two of three exits, I am grateful for my seating choice not in the thick of it. This now smaller space becomes increasingly airless. Soon what looks like a sculpture by Swiss artists Gerda Steiner and Jörg Lenzlinger, descends from the ceiling. (Think: Jardin de Lune (Moon Garden), installation in the heart of the old silver mine in Sainte-Marie-aux-Mines, France, 2007–2008) Smoke billows from it. An engine can be heard to idle. Its noise grows louder and louder. Sweat pours down my back. How close the room. I visualise the laneway I know is beyond the exit immediately behind me. Just the other side of the door. My response to this environment is to flee. To escape. Live. Breathe. All of that. I am sitting up straight, ready to make for the exit. But of course, I am not inside a car about to be gassed. I am in a theatre. I have on my lap an oxygen cylinder with its plastic mask for inhalation ease, and a bottle of water. I’d not anticipated being issued with such props. Nor being shown, before performance began, how to use something previously unfamiliar. (In manner much like flight attendants on a plane, Dancehouse staff showed the audience how to assemble and use their oxygen cans.) Nor had I anticipated a performance’s soundtrack being created by the audience pressing down on the nozzles of their oxygen cans and releasing a loud compact shot of air to draw down deep into their lungs. The audience becomes a sweaty orchestra and a fine balance is held throughout the performance between the terrifying fear of suffocation and all that this evokes and the elation of starring in one’s own science fiction adventure.

Grace, it turns out, was keen to let this performance last longer than I think some would have liked. When eventually she declares it complete, she stands up and pushes back the wall that had served to pen us in. The side exit is opened, and we pour out into the still hot night. Deep breath. Exhale. Move forward. The body with all its organs operating is a marvellous thing.

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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