It happens not in a bunker but a basement. There is a narrow staircase. The floor is polished concrete. The plumbing is exposed. The walls are bare. At odd intervals you can hear the soft rush of water. There are no windows. But it isn’t a bunker. It’s an exapted interstitial space, an urban cavity appropriated as a gallery. True bunkers stolidly resist appropriation. Indeed, they stolidly resist every function except resistance itself.
Bunker is an experimental assemblage, plugging together two contrasting dance temperaments in order to see what flows. It’s also a depiction – a strange word, but I think it’s the right one – of the way different natural forces work to overtake, breakdown, absorb and ultimately erase human interventions in the natural world.
It begins with Lilian Steiner and a broken breezeblock. Here is a perfomer whose practice speaks directly to the telluric and the tectonic. She stands doubled over but rock-solid in her core on the two halves of the breezeblock. She seems to embody a thousand-year process. When the stone she is holding in her hand finally clunks to the ground, it is as if a slow but relentless force has passed through her: from the ground to the breezeblocks, from her toes, through her body and into the stone. Have we just witnessed, in a slippage of eons, the progress of erosion, the lithic dream?
When Steiner moves, she keeps low; often she is on hands and knees; sometimes she seems to have her ear to floor as if listening. It is not enough to say that this is a dancer whose movements are grounded.
There is some quality of intentness which reaches through the ground. She is grounding or becoming ground. It is as if she were tracing currents of energy or feeling for the edges of the plate. It is a willed intimacy with the earth. When she moves, cancrine, it’s as if she’s moving along narraow rock strata. Even when she’s not hugging the ground, even when she’s on her toes, shuffling but elegant, she is still grounded: she is only tracing the valleys and peaks through which the stratum has been turned.
Even in Bunker’s slow passages — or especially in the slow passages — Steiner communicates intensity. She makes visible the pressures at work in the temporal gap between the before shot and the after shot: the new bunker and the old, battered walls sinking into the ground, erroded edges, cracked slabs. Are those moments of frenetic action some register of a thousand years of seismic activity? When she briefly leaves the stage it’s as if the whole bunker has been swallowed up – by the earth or the sea, or perhaps the wind, in fine dust particles, two million years later.
Leah Landau, in contrast, suggests something languorous and vegetative. She is working on a different timescale to Steiner. Hers is the organic world, the dream of trees not stones, a world where walls and bricks are overturned by roots and covered by leaves. While Steiner stands with her stone (Steiner und ihr Stein), Landau enters with bag of potting mix. She tips it up on the floor and exits. She then re-enters with a large pot plant, which she plunks down on the pile of soil. She is wearing daisy yellow shorts and singlet. In the first few minutes after depositing the plant she seems to follow the passage of the sun with her face, making a slow turn through 180 degrees, one hand on her hip, the other loose at her side. The way sunflowers do.
The contrast between the yellow and the deep green of the house plant is striking. Later, after again leaving the performance space, she reappears in purple, the lush purple of pansies and salvia.
Landau bobs along, rising and falling like new shoots, ascending then falling. Through short improvised passages, the movement of her arms suggests the curious, somewhat bumbling, snaky movement of a fast-growing tendril as it searches for a hold, covering over a branch or wall. At other times it is as though she is celebrating the rampant glories of an overgrown garden, stepping between creepers, pushing aside ferns, bouncing through grasses.
Bunker is described in the programme as a dialogue; but it’s hard to find any moments of mutual recognition between the dancers. Are such moments necessary for an effective dialogue? The two dancers are connected, placed in a serial relationship, side by side, but what if anything flows between them? There are moments of synchronicity, but these are so few and far between. And so the two dancers give the appearance of isolation, each keeping to her separate register of intensity. If something does flow between them, it remains hidden in the slippage of unrepresented time.
The two performers seem like literal personifications of elemental forces. It’s unusual to see this sort of direct representation of abstract processes in contemporary dance. This is one way of making force visible on the stage, but is it perhaps a bit quaint? Or a bit distant? It’s almost as if they were characters from a modernist romance, built out of references to more ancient rituals: the spirit of erosion dances with the spirit of germination. Another way would be to offer up the figure of the bunker and show its body convulsed, the concrete spasmed, the hatches screaming, the bricks constricted. But I think the bunker remains absent. Perhaps the separation of the two dancers signifies this absence, as if the absent, resistant bunker remained between them.
And so we are left with something which fascinates but is nonetheless elusive. Something akin to a decayed ritual or defunct worship. In this, at least, the work recalls Paul Virilio’s description of old German World War Two bunkers: empty arks or little temples without a cult. Settled in its basement gallery, the Goodtime Studios, Bunker is a like a theoretical cult, a possible service for an absent bunker. It is as if to say: resist, bunker, resist, but the elements attend you regardless.
Bunker, Tuesday 22 September 2015, Lilian Steiner, Leah Landau, Andrew Treloar, Goodtime Studios, Basement, 746 Swanston St, Carlton. Photos Lauren Dunn.