“The spaces we inhabit can frame our experience. How we see, and relate to each other and the world, inspire what we imagine, create, build and destroy. Hierarchies exist, however small, and we navigate them daily. And the body seems to tell all.” –Ros Warby1
The body is an incredible vessel; a physical form capable of invoking meaning through a singular gesture, a tilt of the head, a leg extended, an arm hinged at the elbow like a tent; and shown in sequence, in a dance that prowls and covers every inch of the stage as if testing its confines, it is potent. And for the course of a December evening, the space we inhabited was the seemingly infinite darkness of the Sylvia Staehli theatre at Dancehouse. We had come to see Ros Warby perform, for two nights only, a work still in unsettled form, in the process of development, “Court Dance” (2014), and an adaptation and performance of “No Time to Fly” (2010).
This double bill proved to be my own long-overdue introduction to Ros Warby’s work as experienced with my own eyes, and I lapped up the experience. Several days later, having seeped into my thoughts and made a roost there, I am conscious that I missed a terrific deal. Moreover, this is exciting, this iceberg tip. These two pieces, presented with a small interval of barely three minutes, time enough for a costume change (Warby) and a bewildered and amazed headshake (me), with its grace, curious language (both of the body and spoken), and cerebral titillation, tapped into my curiosity to know more. I sat entranced by the carnival of shapes that Warby could make that leapt from the tentative exploration of a limb’s sturdiness to a magnificent fluid bend. If we understand the world and our place in it, though our body, aware that the very space it occupies informs our perception, I desire the lion’s share of my lessons to be in such a classroom. For now, I take heart in Warby’s own words about her work “Tower Suites” (2012), which “Court Dance” extends, that whilst this knowledge and “these events are embedded in our systems and psyches already, …. the work is not supposed to be weighed down with these references, but rather allows them to be there in the context of our day-to-day lives; and perhaps reminds us how we relate—to each other and the world we live in.”2
Looking at the world through the lens of these two works presented side-by-side, Jakob von Uexküll’s concept of the ‘umwelt’ sprang to mind. Crudely translated from German, ‘umwelt’ means ‘the environment,’ but as a theory it is more than this, it is how each organism processes stimuli, communicates, and inturn creates its own world in order to function. We all carry our own ‘umwelt,’ our own unique way of perceiving the world, and there were moments within this double bill delight when I felt like I was trying to parse Warby’s particular ‘umwelt.’ Perhaps this was suggested to me by the bird-like movements I registered in “Court Dance” as Warby unfurled her long white ‘wings’ and ‘craned’ her neck, revealing a ‘beak’ in profile and a swivel of the eye akin to a pigeon. Further movements proved suggestive of flight before transformation into an acrobat on a highwire, but all the while this sense of the ‘umwelt,’ a shared yet unique, hard-wired way we form a sensory picture, which makes an infrared passageway visible to rattlesnakes and enables bees to zoom in on a flower’s nectar by ultraviolet pathways. “By showing us a natural order, the ‘umwelt’, in essence, declares what is and what is not; it determines the boundaries of reality itself, the delineations in a living world, including who we ourselves are within it.”3
There felt above all a chance to imprint one’s own reading onto the humorous collage. Physical and emotional states were laid open for all to see, the ticktock workings of the psychological too. And so in one moment I saw an interpretation of a bird’s experience or ‘umwelt’ and the next a stately figure representative of humankind at neither its best nor worst, but with and without power. As Warby herself has expressed, in relation to “Court Dance,” “within this piece I do reference hierarchy on micro and macro levels, although I do not expect the audience to recognise this in a literal way. Perhaps I should eliminate it from the programme notes?”4 I cannot help but wonder would I have read this as a stately figure exploring its prowess were it not for the programme notes? Much like a thorough label in a museum or gallery, programme notes, whilst an informative credit and to that end essential, can sway an interpretation and remove a little of the loose inkblot reading. As with museums and galleries, I try to absorb the text and then let it slide into the background as I view the work. In the trace memory of the words, I delighted in watching Warby navigate the stage, engaging with the long black curtains that at times were, through a simple gesture, animated in such a way so as to appear to want envelope her. A twitter of laughter elicited from the audience by this animation of the inanimate.
With utter theatrical restraint, in “No Time to Fly,” Warby let glee rest upon her face before it was washed away with sorrow. There, in one clear moment, choreographer Deborah Hay’s reference to “a full smile or frown never fulfilled,” to “joy and sorrow in movement,”5 in the body, the audience, and in history. To me, Warby called to mind something of a fantastical, mystical conjurer, as Joy and Sorrow flitted across her face, and though I wanted to note what the rest of her body was doing, at times it proved impossible to not simply watch her expressive face as she simulated a system erupting: a bubbling volcano, an order breaking down. The integral yet seamless incorporation of sound into both works made this all the harder as a bubbling whisper of words not always decipherable spilled forth and stole my focus. My ears pricked for words I might recognise and taking equal pleasure in the rhythmical sounds of those I did not know, this conjurer with a classically-trained imprint visible on the body, held me spellbound through the simplest of mechanisms. The sounds we make, the ways in which we communicate, in the voice accompaniment to the movement a universal language is heard. In addition, a little of ourselves at play, forming shapes and making sounds just for the fun of it as we marvel at the range possible. A dancer as a lexicon, a performer as a vessel through which time passes, Warby made manifest Hay’s rumination: what if every cell could perceive time passing?6 Indeed, watching Warby perform she became something of an enigmatic portal, a conduit of flesh and bone through which the presence of others could pass.
Tied to this, the travel paths Warby undertook in both works, to my mind’s eye made a series of beautiful squiggly lines on the stage floor. I was reminded of the automatic drawings of the surrealists, as I thought about the trace lines on the floor; a kind of silvered snail trail left by Warby’s choreographic mapping that felt both ordered and spontaneous. Those automatic drawings championed by the surrealists as being “a higher form of behaviour” capable of expressing the “creative force of what they believed was the unconscious in art,”7 this topsy-turvy curl of pathways unknown translated into what I ultimately read in Warby’s movements. Warby’s travel paths, to my reading, seemed not unlike André Masson’s Automatic Drawing: “like a medium channelling a spirit, he let his pen travel rapidly across the paper without conscious control. He soon found hints of images—fragmented bodies and objects—emerging from the abstract, lacelike web of pen marks.”8
Sound and shadow play, and the myriad of forms conjured, these two solos proved anything but. In one lone figure on the stage, there is a whole chorus of characters recognizable and otherwise.
- Ros Warby, “Tower Suites: Artistic Note,” Ros Warby website.
- Urszula Dawkins, “Ideas in Relationship… Ros Warby’s Tower Suite,” Arts House Melbourne website, February, 9 2012.
- Carol Kaesuk Yoon, Naming Nature: The Clash Between Instinct and Science (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2009), 18
- Paul Ransom, “I Dance Alone: Ros Warby Returns Home,” Dance Informa, December 2, 2014.
- Deborah Hay, “No Time to Fly: A Solo Dance Score written by Deborah Hay,” programme from premiere at St. Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery, New York, March 25-27, 2010
- Deborah Hay, “Using the Sky,” Motion Bank Online Scores website.
- Jennifer Gibson, Definition of Automatism, MoMA website, Oxford University Press, 2009.
- Description of André Masson’s Automatic Drawing, MoMA website.