We enter the theatre and discover a large hand-shaped piece of particoloured material draped over half the seating. Sarah Aiken stands toward the middle of the stage. She pulls it towards the pass door stage left, a long, lingering, cloth caress. She enters the door backwards. We take our seats. The hand bunches together like a fist closing as it flows through the narrow door.
Sarah Aiken is the 2015 Dancehouse Housemate and this is Set, a choreographic representation of the dancing life of objects and an exploration of possible “self expanding tools”: an artistic speculation on what it is to be a non-human dancing thing.
At least, this is one possible way of understanding the performance and connecting it with Aiken’s enigmatic but elegant programme note–
A thing is not just a thing.
It’s never enough to just be what you are,
you’ve got to represent.
Aiken, wearing four brown cardboard tubes, one on each limb, lies on her back. It is very quiet. We can hear the cars outside on Alexander Parade. They sound like distant waves. The thing before us, in lighting designer Amelia Lever-Davidson’s soft gloom, looks almost aquatic, like a sea anemone, its long golden spines washing back and forth in the current. The lights bring out all the warm gold tones in the brown cardboard, merging Aiken and the tubes as one – a thing emerging from the darkness of its being.
The lights brighten. Sarah Aiken sits up, spreads her limbs-longer-than-legs and limbs-longer-than-arms. It’s a surreal image. I think of one of Dali’s elephants, fallen, on its back, stilted legs waving beetle-like unable to get back on its feet.
What follows is a series of held poses, a string of serenely imperfect attitudes, to misquote Jenny Gilbert. One moment it looks like Aiken is a morsel being duelled over by two pairs of chopsticks. The next it looks like Aiken is wedged in a mangling roller. Now an incense stick holder. Now a crazy clock ticking on the floor. Sometimes the pose is recognisably human – say, yogic puppy pose – but extended, like a visual glitch.
Moving stage left, in the back corner, near the door. Sarah Aiken removes the tubes from her limbs. The dance here looks like performed sculpture. Aiken places herself between the tubes, the wall and the floor. She holds a tube, say, between her shoulder and the wall, while simultaneously reaching for a second tube, her body lodging itself in the architecture.
A new section. Stage right, miscellaneous objects are placed before us. A large black sculptural piece with multiple facets. Some more cardboard cylinders. A pink yoga mat. A coffee cup. Reflective gold-coloured strips. A pot plant. A sports shoe. Later, inside one of the cylinders we discover further treasures. Shells. A gem. A grey plastic elephant. Is this a critique of the material world? Something akin to Jerome Bel’s Nom donné par l’auteur, a work which likewise places random domestic items on stage? I think not; this is too affectionate for critique. Instead, what is offered here is what Ian Bogost might call an “aesthetic set theory”, a way of presenting objects without insisting on a human logic of relation. The objects are allowed – encouraged? – to persist within their own inhuman inscrutability. As Aiken places each object on the stage, a custom-shaped spotlight highlights the place and a happy doorbell sound announces the revelation – an audio analog to what Bogost calls “the gentle knot of the comma” which separates items in a list.
Centre stage, a large screen, again in the shape of a hand, is hoisted from the floor into the flies. Onto this screen is projected a live video feed of the other side of the stage, which designer Daniel Arnott – who worked with Aiken on the 2013 early showing of Set at Pieces for Small Spaces – uses to create a digital collage placing Aiken among the objects. We see her performing in front of us in the flesh, but also on the screen where she is appears equivalent in size to the small toy elephant. The video operationalises the aesthetic set: it is now a movie set, which Aiken explores in an attitude of passive wonder, marvelling at the gem, climbing into the coffee cup.
Is this video meant to dramatise the possibility of a respectful – affectionate? – encounter between the human dancer and the non-human dancer?
The final movement. The thing now to be represented is human connection. Aiken is joined on stage by four guests, each bringing their own long cardboard tubes. First, they try to establish and maintain cardboard linkages. Here Aiken and her collaborators construct a network map of human relationships, a representation of the multiple ways individuals are connected. This is the performance of nodes and edges, one which shows also the precariousness of human relations when not attentively maintained. It all culminates in the creation of a cardboard crown as the dancers slip their arms inside the cardboard cylinders and form a circle. A possible gesture toward Aiken’s artistic interest in pseudo spirituality and the wiccan circle casting referenced in Overworld and elsewhere? Or simply a comment on strength in collectivity?
Coda: set dancing, based on quadrilles. The front row of the audience is invited – by the meaningful waggling of tubes – to join the performers in their magic circle. This is what was pre-figured in the opening image of the caressing hand reaching into the audience space. They split into pairs, one performer with one audience member, their arms reaching inside one another. They slow dance to Nick Cave’s “Into My Arms”. Aiken and her chosen audient shuffle toward the raised area at the back of the performance space where they dance beneath a mirror ball. Irony? Probably not. More like teasing earnestness.
Set, Wednesday 22 July 2015, Sarah Aiken, Daniel Arnott, Amelia Lever-Davidson, Matthew Adey, Canada White. Dancehouse, 150 Princes St, Carlton North