Site-specific dance: the phrase often suggests the idea of integrating or tailoring dance to the (implicitly non-theatre) location in which it is performed. But London based choreographer Shobana Jeyasingh, who has made several site-specific works (in the UK these include for the Greenwich Borough Hall, the courtyard of Somerset House and the steps of St Paul’s), has typically been less accepting in her approach. She doesn’t simply reflect her location, and goes further than entering into a “dialogue” with it: she argues with it.
Nowhere more so, I think, than with Outlander, commissioned for the Venice Dance Biennale by the Intercultural Institute for Comparative Music Studies of the Fondazione Giorgio Cini. Jeyasingh’s previous Biennale commission, TooMortal (2012) was created for the nave of a small church; here the setting is also liturgical but on a far grander scale: the refectory of the Basilica of San Giorgio Maggiore, a long hall in which the Benedictine monks would dine. At the far wall hangs The Wedding at Cana, a vast painting from 1563 by Paolo Veronese depicting the feast where Christ performed his first miracle, turning water into wine. The central figure of Christ is the still point; everywhere else is thronged with banqueters, servants and entertainers in motion.
The audience for Outlander are seated along the sides of the hall, which is bisected by a raised runway – or banqueting table – that acts as the stage. More than a physical stage, it becomes an axis between the imagined and the real, or between past and future. The Palladian architecture in the background of the painting echoes the actual architecture beyond the hall entrance; and the audience, arrayed along the length of the refectory, might almost feel like diners themselves, with Veronese’s painted celebrants heading them at high table.
The piece begins with Avatâra Ayuso lying before Veronese’s scene. A voiceover speaks briefly about dreaming of tomorrow. Ayuso’s regal gestures and stylised poses hint at the mannerisms of the painting, but are contorted into phrases as highly strung as the amplified, lute-like strums of Scanner’s electronic score. Her elegantly held arms are spliced with choppy flails; her hands frame her face by clutching at it; gestures of politeness alternate with combative kicks, with legs that splay wide as if in childbirth, with fingers that cup breasts. It’s a sensuous but extremely tense solo, and it moves in one direction only: towards the exit. A row of lights suspended above the runway slowly reveals Ayuso’s singular pathway; it feels as if she is tunnelling her way out and away from the painting, towards the future.
As Ayuso exits, a second soloist appears before the painting: Sunbee Han, doll-like in a dress of shiny black plastic with a bobbed wig and kohl-smudged eyes. At first an unearthly soprano voice coils around her as she pitches and spins; then the siren song gives way to a spacey techno beat, and Han too begins her inexorable path towards the door. Her solo is as disjointed as Ayuso’s but the tension is more machine-like than sensate, as if she’s wound up by some mechanism within, her alien actions oddly cut with moves yanked directly out of classical Indian bharatanatyam. She seems an entirely outlandish creature, put together from parts.
As Han exits, so a final figure appears before the painting: Sooraj Subramaniam. The opening voiceover now returns at greater length – the disembodied robot voice of someone describing himself: grey-green eyes, carrying a cellphone, wearing an H&M sweater. Ayuso and Han gently reprise their trajectories towards the door, as if showing Subramaniam the way. He follows at a distance, but he does not exit. Instead, he turns back towards the painting, and he claims the length of the hall as his own with a contemporised bharatanatyam solo of resounding stamps and commanding poses. Having literally stamped the length of the room with his presence, he too turns to the exit, where he bows towards the outside, towards the future.
There is nothing reverential, nothing museum-like about Outlander. It seems almost to fight its site, making the hall feel like a constraining corridor more than a place of veneration, challenging antiquity with Scanner’s futuristic sounds. Costumes (Ursula Bombshell), design (Sander Loonen) and music (Scanner) are bold and modern, like the choreography itself. The one element that feels misplaced is the voiceover (also by Scanner, and taken, incidentally, from a sci-fi film). Its initial references to dreaming about tomorrow seem of a piece with the piece itself, but its lengthy return pulls the work off its axis: suddenly there seems to be a far more specific narrative, and if the tone feels appropriate the story is intrusive.
The story that the viewer gives to Outlander is another matter. Is it to do with Jesus, with the Renaissance, with a feast for the eyes? With a corridor of power, with others, with aliens? You could certainly see it as giving a stage to the marginal figures in Veronese’s scene – females and foreigners, who are so often subjects of Jeyasingh’s work. But I thought of it as the staging of an argument, between the painted figures of the past and the live ones of the present, moving away from a history already portrayed, towards an undefined future.
Whatever your take, it undoubtedly imparts a sense of not accepting the frame of its setting. It’s not only a response to its site, but also a riposte. Its latter-day technology, its disjunctive composition, the way it points outwards and away from its location feel like a counterargument.
But is it, actually? Veronese’s picture is a technological fake – a facsimile – in any case. The real painting is in the Louvre in Paris. The one at home here in Venice is a digital replica composed of more than 1500 separate graphics files, made by a Spanish company and printed in 2007. It too is an outlander.