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
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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).