[2012101] Back of the Bus

[2012101] Back of the Bus

Java Dance Company @ a bus on the streets of Adelaide

6:00pm, Thu 8 Mar 2012

Believe it or not, I feel pretty guilty about not pushing myself to write about a show I’ve seen in a timely manner, or “in season”… not so with Back of the Bus. Because there’s so much I wanted to record that could be considered spoilers, and I didn’t want to ruin the surprise for anyone else who happened to see the show.

Good thing I’m writing this ten months after it’s finished, then. Timely in its own way!

Drawn to the premise of a dance piece taking place on a bus, I headed to the Town Hall meeting point, but found the bus waiting in front of the entrance of the Medina on Flinders. After verifying with the driver that this was the correct bus, I pressed him for details of the performance; he just laughed and broke eye contact. “I’m sworn to secrecy,” he said.

First on the bus, I took what I hoped would be an optimal seat. Soon the bus starts packing out with other passengers – it looked like a sell-out, and I started talking with the young woman next to me (as I am wont to do). We start comparing Fringe shows – I’ve not seen much, she says, just stuff at the ‘Caravan. Conversation shifts to the Festival – my Raoul rant sparked lively debate – but when I start my ADT rant a girl in front of me turns around and joins the discussion. We chat, we laugh… I ask what they’ve heard about Back of the Bus – they independently shrug.

With the bus loaded, we take off and are given brief instructions – basically, don’t do anything stupid, and enjoy yourselves. A portable stereo pumps out classical strains as the bus slips into traffic and heads down Flinders St; there’s lively conversations all around, and everyone seems chirpily happy, but there’s no dancing to be seen. The bus gets caught at the lights on Pultney and Flinders… and I see her: a woman carrying a plethora of shopping bags, running for the intersection, frantically hailing the bus to stop. The lights change, the bus crosses the road and pulls over to let her on.

She clambers on awkwardly with her shopping, sighs heavily, and slumps in an empty seat, her bags flopping over her neighbour; she offers them a lolly for the inconvenience, then begins flumping down the aisle, smacking grinning passengers with her bags as she goes. She squeezes into another seat, and starts unloading the contents of her bags – it’s a comic physical performance, and she over-acts every lurch of the bus as it continues down Flinders and right onto Hutt.

After jumping on her bags and flinging herself up and down the aisle as the bus accelerates and brakes, she eventually settles in a seat and begins dozing. Everyone on the bus is laughing – it was a gloriously silly performance. The bus turns right onto Halifax, and I turn to the girl next to me – “I feel like I have to watch the corners for more runners…” – but as soon as the words start coming from my mouth, she smiles at me knowingly and stands up. She’s the next dancer, and I blush with the shame at having missed the setup – but grin at having been fooled.

Where the first dancer was frantic and messy, the second is balance and poise and… oh god, that heart-warming smile. Remaining mute, she elegantly swans the length of the bus, sliding along other passengers and melting them with her gorgeous smile as she just radiated happiness. The bus stops at Hurtle Square and we pile off; the dancers encourage us to form a circle, holding hands. They get everyone engaged – even the smaller children – as they dance among us, trying to get us dancing too. Back onto the bus, and the second dancer returns to her original seat alongside me and rests her head on my shoulder; I’m sure I managed to get a tiny droplet of sweat from her brow on my shirt. I’ve not washed it since.

Another dancer appears from the passengers – it’s the girl who’d sat in front of me, who’d laughed at the ADT conversation. I blush again; I grin again. Her pervasive mood feels almost romantically melancholic, but the aisles become a blur of activity with all three girls using the space, the lack of space, the poles of the bus to move: three different styles, three different moods. A stop on Grenfell, a short walk down to the Reading Room on Hindley where the girls have somehow arrived first: there’s a short performance that’s all about smooth movements within the tight space.

Back onto the bus again and we continue, and the girls start waving to other traffic between their dance pieces. I wonder about the busses we passed on King William Street – they were full of frowns, and ours was full of smiles, with passengers literally dancing down the aisles. Eventually we return to the Medina, and congregate in the Treasury where everyone – the passengers, the dancers – are all smiles. Back of the Bus felt like one of those experiences where you feel an intense kinship with the people who sat alongside you, and as we mingled there were the knowing nods of the shared experience. A wonderful, enchanting, and – above all – joyous experience.

(I talked to the girls afterwards; “you had me completely fooled!” I laughed, stating the obvious, before the two I’d chatted with at the beginning of the ride start jokily arguing over who nearly broke the other’s cover… “you stole my line!”)

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