A performance that took place in a 7 x 4 metre box, covered in two-way mirrored Plexiglas film, offered the promise of, as then billed, “two bodies, a drum kit, and a melody.” Two years later, the melody has gone, but the two bodies and kit remain; “by doing away with narrative and melody, and making a constantly ‘in flux’ relationship to the public, attention is focused on the agency of the drumming and dancing and the audience.” Presented at the Substation as part of this year’s Melbourne Festival, the chance to walk around said mirrored box promised a little of the known and a whole lot of the unknown. Count me in.
The result of a collaboration between artist Eve Sussman, dancer and choreographer Claudia de Serpa Soares, and drummer Jim White (one third of The Dirty Three, with Warren Ellis and Mick Turner), “More up a Tree” is a performance that takes place not only inside the box, but outside it too; it draws upon the audience as part of the experience. The audience is free to effectively press their noses to the glass, to prowl around the box or find a better vantage point. There are no seats provided, just a start time: 8pm, don’t be late.
But difficulties they do arise and before the opening night performance began the audience was informed that due to “unforeseen circumstances” we would not be able to move around the box. Of the four sides, only one was covered in Plexiglas film that would allow us to see through the walls and at other times see only a mirror. With the audience invited to assume “an ordained voyeurism, transcending the usual performer-viewer relationship,” I wondered if this would still be possible. With my opportunity to negotiate the space around the box removed, the unfixed suddenly became fixed, and I found a spot on the floor. I sat crossed-legged before one of the large mirrored panels at what was effectively the front of the stage. The box was now a conventional stage, and the space around it only accessible from the front face. The box in the room was now a theatre with a mirrored curtain.
The audience separated into three tiers: those on the floor, those on stools in an arc behind them, and those who stood behind those on stools. And we sat in rows. Seated on the floor, trying to avoid my own reflected image, I was able to scan the audience behind me, and as everyone was either scanning the audience or noting their own reflected image, it was entertaining, this early taste of ordained voyeurism. I might have missed the sense of chancing upon a box-like sculpture, but this sensation was fleeting. As the mirrored film revealed what lay behind, or rather, the inside of the box, what I gained was immense. From my vantage point in the foliage, looking up from the garden into the house illuminated, I could see and not be seen in return. I could study my subjects, White on the drums, and de Serpa Soares as she paced like a boxer. It didn’t matter that I couldn’t walk around the box, what mattered was the two performers and what unfolded from that point onward. For though the front screen served as a changeable divide between performers and audience, I’d have soaked it up just as happily without the box/set. What held me most of all was not the altering of how space can be read, but the conversation, the natural rapport between drummer and dancer. Just as two converging lines on the page can create distance, so too a line of masking tape on the floor would still have enabled me to be a fly on the wall1
Within their glass enclosure, White sat in the corner behind his drum kit. He had cast off his boots, and was using them like two soft vessels to hold his sticks. From where I sat, I could see his socked feet at the pedals, lending an air of spying-on-the-neighbours candour to the performance. He exchanged a quiet smile with de Serpa Soares as she mapped out the space with increasing intensity and pace. Caught unawares, as they teased out movement in response to sound and sound in response to movement, for the main, their containment appeared a liberating sanctuary. Hidden behind a wall of noise, de Serpa Soares could yell at the top of her lungs, but I couldn’t fully hear her. She shook sound from her body as if coaxing it all the way from her little toes, up her legs and torso, and out of her mouth. There goes the hard day; and over there, the weight of the world, discarded. They were playing, releasing, experimenting, and I was watching, experiencing, vicariously. The two of them, to paraphrase the filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky (when he wrote of the distortion of time as a means of giving it rhythmical expression), “sculpting in time!”2
Later, a little ‘cha-cha-cha’ sing-song movement, which I defy anyone to say or do huffily; some words and actions are happy making, no matter how you spin them.
Earlier the space had evoked a zoo enclosure, with de Serpa Soares stalking like a panther in a cage. Back and forth, her feet on repeated loop, wearing a hole in the carpet. In her march, she paused for a moment, in the corner of her confines and looks upward at the wall, her expression was one of focus: I will scale these walls and escape. Wild creatures confined, they break my heart, and this was perhaps why I enjoyed seeing de Serpa Soares later shake loose with high kicks, and roar, falling in and out of time.
The Rear Window style voyeurism, illumination of mundane fragments, and human modifications to architecture and personal space in Sussman’s earlier video works, Wintergarden, Balcony, and Seitenflügel (Side Wing), created with Simon Lee, is embedded within “More up a Tree.” Watching White play, he could well have been an unassuming inhabitant in his lounge room, in the Berlin apartment building of Seitenflügel. To me, reflective imagery in Sussman’s work references the two sides of the one coin: time and memory. “More up a Tree” holds a mirror to time and memory for the performers and the audience alike. The circles de Serpa Soares drew with her bended knees pressed together at the beginning were there at the end. Her slow motion, cat-like prowl, high on all fours, also. It repeated, and yet it changed. And when the performance ended with the mirrored screen once more reflecting the audience, we were in the same position, and yet we’d changed, hadn’t we? Not so static after all.
- This is not to infer that the box was unnecessary, merely that without White and de Serpa Soares there could be no performance. Without being able to walk around the box, for me, it became a stage in place of sculpture/installation to encounter on its own terms.
- Andrei Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time: Reflections on the Cinema, trans. Kitty Hunter-Blair, (University of Texas Press, Austin, 1994) 121