[2013070] Skeleton

[2013070] Skeleton

Larissa McGowan (and company) @ AC Arts Main Theatre

7:00pm, Thu 28 Feb 2013

At the launch event for the 2014 Adelaide Festival (which, at the time I type this, was just over two weeks ago), I bumped into a new friend from this year’s Festival; she mentioned that she’d been reading this blog every day (thanks!), but asked why I hadn’t kept writing.

The answer (which I never got around to telling her at the time) is, quite simply, “Skeleton.” This show.

Because there’s no way I can possibly convey what I felt during and after this show; there’s no way I can describe how it affected me. My word-writing skills, they ain’t that good… and yet, I want to try. I really want to impress upon the reader how totally fucking amazing this performance was: how gobsmacked it left me, how much I wanted to rave about it to anyone who would listen, and… well…

…see? I feel utterly incapable of writing about its impact on me. But what I can write about is what I expected… and what I saw.

Anyone who has engaged in conversation with me about the Australian Dance Theatre over the last couple of years has instantly regretted it; my (increasingly irrational) disappointment in their output manifests itself as a boorish outspokenness. But one positive constant throughout recent ADT performances has been the presence of Larissa McGowan; far from the ever-so-slight stereotypical dancer, her Amazonian physique exudes strength – whilst her movements still revel in grace and finesse. So when Skeleton was announced as her first independent work, I was anxious to see what she would conjure up outside of the technological constraints of the ADT.

So I was initially a little nonplussed when the piece opened with a series of person-sized screens (like mobile office partitions) steadily crossing the performance space, constant velocity their only virtue. But then the screens started leaving behind dancers: clad in simple grey garb, they’d sneak onstage under the cover of the screens, hold a pose or commit to a small movement, before disappearing from the stage behind another screen.

The effect is… well, magical. The understated nature of the movements – both human and mechanical – assures me that this is no ADT-style technological tour de farce.

And then Objects start appearing, their pure-white presence a stark contrast to the inky blackness of the space and the grey-and-tan of the performers. A shoe appears from behind a screen; a skateboard rolls into the dancers’ interactions. A bike becomes a focal point. The threatening presence of baseball bat matches the unsettling soundtrack of samples from movies; the audio verges on the discordant throughout, with the end result being an edgy undercurrent of violence.

Whilst the movements of the dancers spans the range from ballet to pop’n’lock, Skeleton also has a couple “gimmicks”. The aforementioned screens frame the performance, and even when they’re static – most notably during the kicking sequence – their presence still defines the space, providing a contrast to the engagement of the dancers. But the most startling gimmicks are the Objects: their pure white appearance gives the impression that they are made of plaster… an impression that is validated when they eventually shatter.

And those moments – those shattering moments – are real technical standouts. Whether it’s a skateboard snapping in two, or a t-shirt on a dancer in motion, every breakage seems perfectly timed. I honestly have no idea how some of those moments were controlled; in particular, after tensions simmered within a protracted atmosphere of violence, the dancers stop mid-move, and turn in unison to look at a bicyle at the back of the stage… they hold the pose for a perfectly weighted beat, and the bike snaps in two. Retrospectively, it seems like a bizarre series of events, but it triggered something in my mind that has been haunting me ever since.

But even without the gimmicks, Skeleton was still utterly compelling. The physicality of McGowan’s troupe brings a real sense of power to the stage, engaging me on a visceral level; the fact that the soundtrack of the performance was unnervingly discordant, and that the gimmicks were so stunningly effective, was super-delicious icing on an already glorious cake.

As with the Ennio Morricone event last year, at the end of the performance I was suddenly up on my feet, clapping and wooting as loudly as I could. It’s only the second time ever that I’ve (intentionally) given any performance a standing ovation, but – once again – I found it absolutely inconceivable that I could not be on my feet. Skeleton was a contemporary dance masterpiece that engaged me more than any other performance in the last half-a-decade… and, what’s more, it encouraged me to believe that there is a viable intersection between dance and technology.

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