Despite the heat, December is an excellent time for a Four Larks production, their spirit of generosity and excitement being a happy complement to all that is best about the holiday season, and also, in their defiant independence, a cure against all that has become corrupt and unlovely throughout the long and cringle-crange year. Their latest production is religiously themed, too, adding further to the sense of a Christmas processional — not because of any overt celebration of Christian traditions, but because of its preoccupation with the inner life.
The play, a “junkyard opera”, is The Temptation of St Antony, based on the novel of the same name by Gustave Flaubert. Antony has retreated to a mountain hut in Egypt to lead a solitary life dedicated to prayer and abstinence. His ambition for spiritual purity, however, is violently upset by a series of vivid hallucinations. The Devil himself brings on the seven deadly sins, before returning to astound Antony with paradoxes of infinity; the Queen of Sheba confronts him with her sexuality, while Nebuchadnezzar tempts with power and riches. Hilarion, a former disciple, offers him secret knowledge, and a parade of demons and spirits abuse and debase him.
The story has ancient roots, going back at least to Athanasius of Alexandria’s Life of Antony in the fourth century, but Flaubert’s innovation is to leave open the question of whether these visions are real envoys of the Devil, or only the work of a superabundant imagination. And that’s the fertile ground of doubt upon which the Larks build their adaptation.
Dancing to express the organisation of
cinders, finally emancipated.
I sat before a stage and saw a little girl
with her head thrown back, and a smile. I
knew her, for she was the daughter of John of
But she smiled, and her feet were not like
feet, but …
Though I knew her body.
All these sudden insights (e.g. the great
analogy of a woman compared to the world in
Brussels) all of these start a line, which
seems about to unite the whole world logically.
But the line stops. There is no unity. All
logic and life are made up of tangled ends like
–TE Hulme’s Cinders
1. Which is where it starts: in tangled ends.
James Batchelor’s Island is an enthralling combination of dance, sound design and installation art, a fascinating approach on problems of perspective and positionality, all pulled together by an intriguing, ultimately elusive, utopianist dream logic.
Entering, we are encouraged to find our own place in the room. We can move wherever and whenever, even after the work begins, exploring different views on the action and the architecture. Orderly lines – the bank of seats, the rows of eyes – are broken off. The audience stops. We are standing, then we are moving. We are that tangle of ends, the loose strands, tossed, as the daughter of John of Elton throws back her head.
2. The work has a has a slick, cyberpunk kind of atmosphere, with suggestions of the uncanny and post-human. Given this general sort of sci-fi feel, the literary influences cited by Batchelor in his program notes are pretty wild, and perhaps counterintuitive.
TE Hulme’s Cinders is mentioned. Astonishing! TE Hulme, proto-modernist poet and amateur philosopher, big and bluff and always chucking people down the stairs, a self-declared enemy of Romanticism, a prig and a reactionary, who volunteered as an artillery man and was blown-up in 1917 in West Flanders. Has anyone else thought of TE Hulme recently? John Gray has. But more of that later …
Hulme had no truck with progressive politics of any kind, and especially not with any belief in the perfectabiltiy of society, or even the possibility of changing what he saw as its most basic motive unit: the human ego.
In opposition to socialism and Utopian schemes comes the insistence on the fact of the unalterability of motives. Motives are the only unalterable and fixed things in the world. They extend to the animal kingdom. They are the only rock: physical bases change. They are more than human motives: they are the constitution of the world. (Hulme’s Cinders)
But Cinders is a kind grimoire for modernists: whatever spell you need, you will find it in Cinders. Who knows what Batchelor has discovered? Perhaps this:
A judicious choice of illusions, leading to activities planned and carried out, is the only means of happiness, e.g. the exhilaration of regarding life as a procession or a war. (Hulme’s Cinders)
I find that kind of amazing. Here, in 1906, we have a declaration that the world of simulacra might be – if we choose perpetual war – pleasurable and exhilarating. It doesn’t matter if we can’t find Thomas More’s Utopia in the Atlantic; we only need a judicious carto-choreographer, a chorographer. Follow her, follow her illusory feet, her feet-not-like-feet, and we shall find paradise in processionals. If we don’t get blown up.
Batchelor talks of tearing down veils and deconstructing illusions. As affecting as this work is, it’s still a long way from penetrating the Veil of Maya. On the other hand, a Hulmian sorting of veils, a project of distinguishing and selecting between illusions, may well be within his range.
3. TE Hulme is interesting enough, but to pair Hulme with Aldous Huxley is something else. Among the modernists, Huxley is Hulme’s antithesis. Huxley is a political progressive, a gentle, would-be-mystic, a pseudo-scientist and a pacifist: four reasons for Hulme to despise him. Batchelor cites both Huxley’s Island and The Doors of Perception as inspirations for his own Island.
Well, we can probably guess what Batchelor finds in The Doors of Perception, Huxley’s famous account of his “experiments” with mescaline. It is the search for some hidden hatch in the back of the skull, a temporary escape from the suffocating embrace of selfhood: a utopia for the mind. But what does dance have to do with it? Can the dancer lift her audience from the ruts of ordinary perception? Can dance transform spatial relations, or only reveal them? What is Batchelor really up to with his Huxley? What good is choreography which only imitates the feeling of a sacramental experience of reality?
To put it crudely, don’t we need Artaud’s peyote for this stuff to work?
4. It’s even less clear what we should understand from Batchelor’s reference to Huxley’s Island, a strange book, little read, somewhat old fashioned, freighted with once-fashionable ideas about political economy and orientalist consciousness-raising.
Perhaps the influence is only a practical one? Batchelor’s work has a kind of pop-and-lock, hip-hop inflection, something smooth, effortless, zero-gravity…
He actually was floating. “Floating,” the voice softly insisted. “Floating like a white bird on the water. Floating on a great river of life—a great smooth silent river that flows so still, so still, you might almost think it was asleep. A sleeping river. But it flows irresistibly. “Life flowing silently and irresistibly into ever fuller life, into a living peace all the more profound, all the richer and stronger and more complete because it knows all your pain and unhappiness, knows them and takes them into itself and makes them one with its own substance. And it’s into that peace that you’re floating now, floating on this smooth silent river that sleeps and is yet irresistible, and is irresistible precisely because it’s sleeping. And I’m floating with it.” (Huxley’s Island)
Floating… white birds, swans … white short, white shoes, becoming future swans?
5. Finally, Batchelor cites contemporary British philosopher John Gray, best known for his fabulously melancholic Straw Dogs.
Gray is, first of all, the reason for Batchelor’s interest in TE Hulme. Gray shares Hulme’s hostility to any politics or system of belief that aims at changing human nature. He quotes Hulme extensively in his most recent book, Silence of the Animals, a thoroughgoing denouncement Utopian idealism. No more Islands, Gray demands. They are impossible. The only Island we will find is the Island of Death. Science can’t take us there, and the attempt would overthrow millions. Whether from the political left or the political right, the dream of remaking society is necessarily a desire for murder and destruction.
Perhaps then, if Batchelor follows John Gray, this “posthuman” aesthetic — a term which absolutely suggests the possibility of an Island – is no such thing at all. Perhaps it is a kind of mysticism?
John Gray claims that what is needed in place of Utopian neoliberalism is “godless mysticism”, which he describes as a kind of extreme skepticism, or dystopian thinking. Does that explain the quiet, monkish industry of Batchelor, McCartney and Lee? Quick, rigorous, but unhurried? Their strange costuming – the white on white, white clothes and shoes, white chalk through the eyebrows and hair? Is it reminiscent of something cultish? Perhaps this Island is a cult dedicated to mystical self-abnegation? Moving around those the mirrors in which we figure possible worlds…
6. There is only one art that moves me, says Hulme. Architecture.
The design of Ella Leoncio, described in the program as an architect, is simple but brilliant. She uses mobile banks of semi-transluscent, semi-reflective plastic panels both to cordon off the performance zone (a temporary clearance in the waste, as Gray would say), and also, interestingly, to project that performance zone into and across the audience, using a kind of funhouse hall-of-mirrors effect. One of the things I always find interesting about so-called environmental theatre — theatre where the action happens all around — is that it forces you to recognise the presence of other people in the audience. You might have a great sightline at first, but when the action shifts to another part of the room, you and everyone else are thrown out of order. It’s a constant process of (usually silent) negotiation and reordering with those around you. Here there is that, but also the mirrors, so you can watch yourself, and everyone else, caught in that process readjustment, appearing alongside the moving bodies of the performers.
7. And the performers are looking at you. They single out individuals and stare, briefly, without expression. It’s unnerving. Is this inspired by TE Hulme?
Think in a theatre and watch the audience. Here is the reality, here are human animals. (Hulme’s Cinders)
Either way, the effect is uncanny. There is something brilliantly robotic about the measure and control of all three performers – Amber McCartney, Bicky Lee and Batchelor himself. It reminded me – of all things – of that poledancing witch-robot, by Blurred Lines. She is also able to recognise people, staring at them from behind her mask. This kind of thing is deep in the uncanny valley.
8. Our sense of unreality — in tension with Batchelor’s desire to “deconstruct the symbols that veil our perception of space” — is accentuated by Morgen Hickinbotham’s affecting sound design, which mixes ethereal soundscapes with grinding, body-rocking pulsations. Particularly in the first movement, we get lots of sustained, high-pitched atmospherics, like throbbing violins, but distant, under miles of reverb. Imagine the sharp, stabbing strings of the shower scene in Pscyho, but slow…
By what I think is the third of four parts (Batchelor describes the work as a “three-part study in space”; I counted four distinct parts, so I’m not sure where the divisions are meant to be), the music is overwhelming. People are starting to dance, or at least to shuffle and nod. And why not? We’re on our feet, the music is an irristiable 88 beats a minute, and that growling bass goes right through the body. (As CB pointed out to me, however, only the non-dancers started to dance; apparently the professional dancers in the audience had too much self-control).
9. In the third part, or the second last, all three performers position themselves in a small enclosure, almost one on top of the other, and each remove a small desiree potato from a pocket. Then they sort of mime their potato caroming off the walls of the tank and off one another. At this point, Morgan Hickinbotham’s beats are probably at their most irresistibly danceable. But the significance of all this is, well, obscure.
Perhaps it is a reference to Tristan da Cunha – one of the islands described in Judith Schalansky’s Atlas of Remote Islands, reputedly the most isolated inhabited place in the world. Islanders there work on communally-owned potato plots in their leisure hours. Certainly the claustrophic, clambering choreography, in slow motion, fits with Tristan, where there are only 261 inhabitents, wtih 8 last names between them. Life is slow, and very, very contained.
Or perhaps it is only to say, “Of course the Dharma-Body of the Buddha is a potato!”
But maybe, just maybe, it’s a kind of retro futurism… immediately I was reminded of the old Atari game of Asteroids with its potatos in space:
10. And cinders become the Azores, the Magic Isles.
There is so much to like about this piece. The design is so rich and involving, the choreography and argument so enigmatic and intriguing. If it isn’t the most radical sort of environmental theatre, it is enthralling nonetheless, layered with ideas, aesthetically appealing, choreographically expert, and intellectually stimulating.
Island, Wednesday 11 June 2014, James Batchelor & Dancehouse Housemate production, Dancehouse.
TIMON: What wouldst thou do with the world, Apemantus, if it lay in thy power?
APEMANTUS: Give it the beasts, to be rid of the men.
-Timon of Athens
We let go of one another from time to time, simply letting ourselves quiver with cold: our bodies were quivering like two rows of teeth chattering together. The wind made a wild sound in the trees. I said to Dorothea in a stammer (I was stammering and talking wildly), “… My skeleton … You’re shivering. Your teeth are chattering … ” I stopped and lay on top of her, heavy and still, panting like a dog. Abruptly I clasped her naked buttocks.
-The Blue of Noon, Bataille
1. On a misty, drizzly winter’s night, nipping cold, Melbourne’s Secretive Dance Team perform the second of their delitescent “works of wander”, this time a pastoral farce spoofing animalism, totemism, rituals of initiation and ludic Orphism.
2. Why a secretive dance? Is a secretive dance the same as a secret dance? No, I think a secret dance would be a samizdat dance, a forbidden dance, performed underground, in private or in a private code; even then, say, in the living room or the bedroom, the performance would involve some great personal risk, both for the dancer and the audience. That risk is the meaning of the secret dance. Secretive dance, on the other hand, is performed in an obscure zone neither public nor private. The secretive is playful, wilfully obscure: it places itself in both or neither. What is at stake for the secretive dancer, and for her audience, is never clear, and perhaps never can be clear. What is at stake is an enigma. The enigma – which might be an invitation or an initiation, or some other formal gesture – is the meaning of secretive dance.
3. Where does the work wander? Forth, in forest glades, among the solemn elms. It is indeed a funny kind of forest. What sort of place is this for sacred play? What sort of Arcadia? What sort of Arden? What happens in the Carlton Gardens after the sun goes down? Is there a more storied or more sordid lurking-beat in Melbourne? The gardens were planted out in 1856, and as early as 1860 local residents were complaining to police about La Trobe Street hookers touting along the terrace. In 1870 we read in The Argus of Mary Brien, fined £10 for indecent behaviour in the gardens. She got off lightly: on the same day the same justice sent “a very loud-voiced virago” named Nora Horne to gaol for 12 months for being a “disorderly” prostitute. Even now, on the very night of the performance, one of the dancers is propositioned by a shady male skulking by the playground. But what else should we expect? Such inner-city parklands always show the underside of nature, its rough backend.
4. “That is not a tree but the back of tree,” writes GK Chesterton. “Can you not see that everything is stooping and hiding a face? If we could only get round the front.” But we can’t. That would mean getting out from under civilisation. No, you can’t go in front of a tree, only behind it, where, furtively, you discharge, de-sublimate, or regress, disclaiming for a brief, sleazy moment the norms of civilised life. Discharge all you like; you will never again see that primitive face of things.
5. But before the discharge: we huddle under a peppercorn tree, drip, drip, drip, waiting for something to happen. It begins, and with poetry: a dark prosopopoeia, full of doubtful assurances. It is obscure but unmistakeably comic, recited into a tin-can-and-string telephone. We are led into the “forest”. The receiving tin can dangles uselessly by the hierophant’s waist.
6. More humans appear: joggers, rain-hail-or-shine fitness fanatics, dressed in sweats and hoodies. They run their laps around our little company. Their exertions promise metamorphoses; huffing and puffing, they lewdly expose the beast that nestles by the skeleton: Swan, Brumby, Tiger, Bear.
But lewdly how? How to choreograph exposure? If it were only some sort of Midwinter’s Night Dream we might simply cry, “Masters, spread yourselves! For dance is a kind of spreading, and you are all Nick Bottoms.”
Of course, here, in Carlton, the metamorphosis is more awkward, more like the difficult transformations described by Krasznahorkai in the opening lines of his Animalinside: “He wants to break free, attempts to stretch open the walls, but he has been tautened by them, and there he remains in this tautening, in this constraint, and there is nothing to do but howl.”
It is difficult – necessarily difficult – to spread the walls. We laugh at their groaning labour. But they persist. I am reminded of the late Niki Pollard, dancer, choreographer and researcher: “Stretch open the cavity, string the bones differently. Cover and flush. Keep the image going. Flush.”
Yes, flush in winter, flush in Melbourne, flush in the cold and the rain. Flush your blue moons. A sudden breakthrough! Clutching their buttocks – spreading their buttocks – the secretive dancing animals leap up, rushing helter skelter, howling, quivering, rebounding off tree-trunks. Flushed, transformed.
7. Of the animals of the forest, Anonymous Boschs, or Animanimous Boschs: what was the bear doing, in all his grunting innocence, his inclination toward pleasure? Vigorously rutting with an aluminium possum deterrent? Athens is become a forest of beasts. Do those semi-bestial humans, those in Bosch’s garden of earthly delights, in fact purify – or at least naturalise – sex and sexual play? Is such a reversion possible? So some commentators claim … but is there not a little willful perversion, too? A little Boschian cheek? There is more than a little cheek in the funny forest. And such bathos! When the torn aluminium sleeve clatters to the earth, abandoned…
8. After harassing the audience with howling and lunging, perhaps a form of interrogation, the four beasts switch to a sort of ritualised grooming, which includes tenderly pressing our toes and anointing our foreheads. Why isn’t there more allogrooming in contemporary dance? A genuine reconciliation of the two tribes, audience and performer? For the cold, the wet, the confused it’s a welcome gesture, a bonding moment.
9. As a finale, the dancers piss in glass cups, so to perfuse their holy trees, totems, the elm-that-hateth-man. What to say, except that it is – against all probability – a beautiful, natural moment? The dancer-animals stand in the middle distance, adrift on the wet lawn, so green, the city skyline lost in sheeted cloud. We wait on the path, beneath the lofty, whispering trees. Hunched, bent like cracked pipes, exactly as if they were draining something precious, each of the four dancers fills a glass. They offer these piss-filled glasses to their tree-spirits like temple dancers, or like Freudian infants, offering excrement-as-gift. Lit from beneath with small led lights, the glasses have that same warm cibachrome glow famously captured by Andre Serrano in his series of photographs of cultural icons immersed in urine, of which Piss Christ is the most notorious. And why not smile? Why not welcome the gift? Such warmth! Oh for a hot mug of piss to hold close on such a nipping night.
10. What else? Swaaaaaaan. Bruuuuuumby. Tiiiiiiiiiger. Beeeeaaaaar. Their cries linger. A dream, past the wit of man to say what dream it was.
Funny Forest, Wednesday 4 June 2014, The Secretive Dance Team, corner of Carlton St & Canning St (Carlton Gardens).