REVIEW by KIERAN FINNANE
Lights down, the hush of voices, an expectant pause, curtain up: such is the typical ritual ahead of performance, a delicious moment in itself whatever the experience that follows. From the start, The Perception Experiment set its audience on a different track.
The dance performance would not be on the Araluen stage but in Gallery 3. We were asked to remove our shoes. This worked a subtle shift, breaking down a degree of formality between strangers. A woman in front of me shared laughter at her odd socks.
We were told we would be taken into the already darkened space, one by one. We would be safe, the producer assured. We were asked to wait till the lights went up before taking our seats. Murmur of relief – we would be seated.
Through black curtains a white-clad and -hooded figure reached out and took me by the hand, leading me to the right. In the residual light of the Exit signs, I could see someone else being led to the left. I was handed on, to another white-clad figure. She took me by both hands, which felt more intimate, gently leading me into the performance area.
There was no sound other than the quiet movement of the performers leading in the steadily growing audience. People stood where they had been led to. Not speaking. There had been no instruction to stay silent. We were responding intuitively to this extension of the hush that usually precedes a curtain-raising.
I can’t say how long this took, perhaps five minutes, maybe 10. The atmosphere was expectant and also restful, standing there quietly and obediently in the dimness, surrendering to the process being put in motion.
We were all still standing when the performance began. Four white figures wove their way through the crowd. Perhaps not everyone was touched but many were, the figures brushing up against them, with deliberation, gently, subtly sensual. A sense of complicity had been created.
To a degree, the spell broke when the lights went up and we took our seats. We were more our own agents again, more conventionally audience members, although no doubt more attuned to what would unfold by our induction into its pace and ambience.
After this the first image was of a long cornet-shaped bag being hung in one corner of the performance area. A white granular substance began to stream from it; we knew that this moment would hold until the bag was empty, a classic evocation of time passing, of mortality.
The four white figures massed themselves beneath the pouring. The soundscape was making itself not only heard but felt, a deep vibration through the space. Almost imperceptibly the figures started to move, the substance pouring over them in different configurations, until eventually they broke apart.
There was a strong sense of the primordial, of a coming into being, birth pangs, the quickening of breath as the figures moved forward into the space. At the same time for me another stream of associations also took hold.
These were prompted partly by a sense of foreboding in the soundscape and the mostly black, rather cold space; partly by the anonymity of the uniformly clad figures, their apparent submission to forces beyond their control; and particularly by their face hoods. I could not help but see them as a reference to the spit hoods made infamous by the Four Corners exposé of juvenile detention practices in the Northern Territory. This was not the performers’ intention, as those attending Friday night’s panel discussion learned; in fact they had sought to avoid the association with spit hoods. But it shows the power of iconic images, such as those from that Four Corners broadcast, to enter our imaginative repertoire and to assert themselves, whether purposefully bidden or not.
For me the unintended association was strengthened when all four performers later lay down in a row alongside one another – they were the prone detainees being hosed down after tear-gassing.
The allusion was broken when they took their hoods off in the second half of the performance. While still not strongly gendered (that is, not feminised, there was no doubt that they were women) or characterised, the four were now certainly more humanised and there was a sense of them being out in the world.
The opening image of this half was particularly memorable. One performer (Madeleine Krenek) stood in the middle of the space, holding cornet-shaped bags in each hand. Slowly she began to spin, the bags streaming their white substance around her feet. Intriguingly, at first, the spinning movement caused the pouring substance to draw a flower-shaped design on the floor. As her speed increased the propulsion lifted the bags higher and the substance strewed out further.
Only now did I clearly understand it was salt and was drawn into the idea of a salt lake being formed in the space.
Krenek’s spinning went on for minutes, stretching every expectation of how long she could keep going, a bravura performance. We could hear her feet turning in the salt, the fine crushing of the salt grains, making a strong sense of connection with this representation of ground. This grew as the others moved into the space, marking the salt with the movement of their feet and drawing in it with their hands. The association with the ancient art of sand-drawing was clear.
This second half of the performance was enthralling and held me close to the performers’ intentions, “to examine our experience of the physical world, blur its edges and offer an alternative view of how we might navigate through it”. That alternative view would include, no doubt, slowing down, staying still and quiet, and allowing what is happening around us to be deeply felt, to move into it, picking up its rhythms, opening ourselves to its invitations.
The Perception Experiment was the first work made in Central Australia by locally-resident choreographers Frankie Snowdon and Madeleine Krenek (both graduates of the Victorian College of the Arts and with professional experience interstate). They were joined in the performance by Kelly Beneforti and Tara Samaya, employed in Darwin and Adelaide respectively as professional dancers. Sound design was by local musician and composer Darcy Davis (working with them via the internet, from Boston, where he is studying at Berklee College of Music); lighting design by Jen Hector; project production by Adam Wheeler.
It was also the first time Araluen had turned over one of its galleries to a contemporary dance performance, the gallery space encouraging an appreciation of the sculptural qualities of the performance, of its hybridity.
These firsts are exciting expansions in the range of creative arts being generated out of The Centre.
PHOTOS courtesy Pip Samaya.