They landed in London, and took to the air. Clearly, these three choreographers – Elizabeth Streb from New York, Meryl Tankard from Adelaide, and Deborah Colker from Rio de Janeiro – were not satisfied with our earthbound existence. What about all that space up above?
Streb treats that space as a simple matter of fact, nothing more – but nothing less. ‘D’ya want psychological, emotional or physical?’ she barks during her audience-interaction spiel at the end of her show. Diving into the gap of our momentary hesitation, she shouts ‘Hey! How about physical?’
No surprises there: Streb’s style is a kind of physical theatre without any of those ‘theatrical’ elements of drama and plotting and sentiment. This is the real, material world. And Streb’s a material girl. Not for her the enticing illusions of theatre to seduce the imagination. Targeting our bodies more than our minds, she aims for involuntary, visceral response: a lurch in the stomach, a tightening of the throat.
The dancers/athletes/gymnasts don’t ‘perform’ so much as perform feats. In Fly (1997), the opening segment, one woman orbits the stage on a huge counterweighted lever. A spinning meteorite hurtling through space, she scatters the dancers in her vortex like so much debris: with split-second timing they dodge the lever, diving to the floor or toppling backwards like skittles. The set for the show – scaffolding, walls, platforms, mats – has been miked, producing a self-generating score by amplifying each impact as the dancers, stiff as ramrods, flat-splat against its surfaces.
And there you have it. The following episodes all repeat those basic elements action and reflex, velocity, impact, precision – and though physically heavy-duty, it is choreographically lightweight. In Breakthru (1996) a woman simply catapults herself through a pane of glass. The End. In Bounce (1994) the dancers backflip and crash-land on a small mat, rolling off just in time to avoid the next body plummeting earthwards. And in Up (1995), they ping off a trampoline into sky-surfing somersaults, or rebound backwards onto the adjacent platforms. Sometimes, swallow-diving through the air, they simply bypass the trampoline altogether and belly-flop straight onto the floor.
when waiting for their cues to join the action they crouch at the sides, as alert and ready as ballboys at Wimbledon
Throughout, the dancers bark orders – Go! Left! Extend! Back! – and when waiting for their cues to join the action they crouch at the sides, as alert and ready as ballboys at Wimbledon. The overall effect is a cross between a commando course and a cartoon strip: crash-bang-wallop meets ready-aim-fire, assault meets battery.
This is a show about mechanics, with human bodies as its principal physical objects. Indeed, at one point the dancers line up and each is introduced simply as a set of statistics – name, age, height, weight – like an army roll-call or an ID parade. Fittingly, the dancers wear functional unisex unitards: nothing to attract attention to them as individuals beyond their personal physiques.
In Furioso, originally made in 1993, Meryl Tankard adds one layer of differentiation to that physical base-level of human existence: male/female. There are five of each, and the gulf between them is huge. The scene is set with the women dispersed across the stage, gesturing gently upwards, each involved in some private ritual. One by one the men enter and grapple with the women, aggressively sexual. Motivated more by masculine rivalry than interest in the women as such, they fight over them for possession. The women themselves are indifferent to all this attention and competition, attempting to continue their own self-absorbed actions in spite of the rough man-handling.
Docile creatures here, the women reveal a flip side in the following section. In ragged canons, all the dancers run full-tilt across the stage and dive headlong into chest-slides on the floor, human toboggans in a slam-dunk competition. Though the women match the men, it’s a competition without winners, with bruises as its only prize.
Later, the women find their own space: the air. Suspended from long ropes, they swoop vertiginously over the stage: wild, banshee spirits with streaming hair, as turbulent as the wind. The men never quite make it into this medium. One of them spins, thrashes and twists as he dangles, like a fish out of water. He launches himself outwards to soar perilously over the auditorium, but the rope pulls him back down. Though the men occasionally swipe a tortuous ride from the flying women, they remain essentially earthbound, hulking bare-chested Tarzans to their flighty, rope-swinging Janes.
the men remain essentially earthbound, hulking bare-chested Tarzans to the flighty, rope-swinging Janes.
Furioso is more striking for its imagery than for its composition, which in every section is based on the repetition, accumulation and multiplication of short phrases. Still, it packs a certain relentless punch, though it’s far from subtle. Based on dualities, it oscillates between earth and air, movement that is violently active or resignedly passive. The music too alternates between the pounding drums of percussionist Elliot Sharp and the lofty spiritualism of Gorecki and Paert.
Yet the gender divide doesn’t correspond quite as simply as that. The women, at least, occupy both realms, down as well as up, fierce action as well as solitary quietude. In the final moment, the men run into huge, vigorous jumps, but end clumped together on the floor. As the lights fade, the women slowly rope-climb up the back wall, ascending upwards towards some unknown place. It seems that the only way out of their entanglement with the competitive, grounded world of macho muscularity is, literally, to rise above it.
Like Furioso, Deborah Colker’s Rota (1997) starts on the ground and only gets airborne later. Colker’s upward mobility, though, is less an escape than a joyride: the men and women in her engaging troupe of fourteen are more interested in the serious business of having fun. It begins seriously enough, with classical arabesques, light sissonnes and supported pirouettes. But they pop the bubble of any high-art illusions with a sudden awkward angle of the leg, a clumsy drop to the floor, or a goofy grin, as if to say: only kidding. The music too splices Mozart and Schubert with ambient techno and snippets of jazz, as the dancers mix and match their posé-posing with bouncy aerobics and mugging gestures, clamping hands over their mouths as if they’ve just done something naughty.
A petite suite of four movements – Allegro, Ostinato, Vigoroso and Presto – the first half of Rota expands into a playground of movement, blending matter-of-factness with make-believe, just for fun. How far can you lean forward if somebody’s grabbing hold of your ankles? Can you pretend to be a little boat? They do, endearingly, steering with imaginary paddles as they shuffle-bum along the floor.
The choreography, though not sophisticated, is disarmingly unpretentious. And with its bright lighting, boldly coloured costumes and striking backcloth – a crisscross of lines, dashes and squiggles that also seep over the floor – it is gorgeous to look at.
Gorgeous too – okay, sexy – are the costumes for the second part, chic white underwear bearing witness to the wonder that is Lycra. More fairground than playground, it is in this half that the show begins to take off, hinting at a more magical world. In Gravity, the first section, the dancers space-walk in slow-mo. They lift each other upwards to hang upside down, or lie flat in the air with limbs waving like fronds. The slowness of the action and the ambient soundtrack make the dance seem to happen in dreamtime.
In the final section, the dancers caper on a huge 22-foot high wheel, weights on a swaying pendulum, or exercising hamsters chasing the wheel’s rotation. From up on high they eject into space, tracing long arcs of airborne pleasure before they land. Plain, unadorned mechanism though it is, this ferris wheel nevertheless imparts a giddy, carefree delight, and the swirling strings of a Strauss waltz invoke the lilting rhythms of romance. Love is just like a merry-go-round… The piece closes with eight dancers hooked onto the wheel as it spins, little carousel carriages of humanity.
if life's a wheel of fortune, you might as well enjoy the ride.
Rota is entertaining rather than profound, wearing its metaphors lightly and its heart on its sleeve. Still, though it doesn’t go for messages, perhaps you do get the sense of one: if life’s a wheel of fortune, you might as well enjoy the ride.
If ballet, in Adrian Stokes’ famous phrase, is ‘the aria of the aerial’, what manner of song have we seen? Where ballet is winged, with these choreographers the movement is more free-fall, as much about gravity and ground as flight and air. I imagine their arias thus. Streb: the shriek of a white-knuckle ride (a sound which quickly dulls the senses). Tankard: a two-part composition for male and female voices, octaves apart. Colker: the variegated sounds of convivial chatter. And while I’m on pat formulations, let me add that Streb is sexless, Tankard sexist, and Colker pretty sexy. But whatever their various merits and concerns, as they came nose-diving, dangling or free-wheeling through London this spring, each brought her own distinctive brand of visceral pleasure to lighten the lives of us poor landlubbers.