This is what happens when art ticks boxes!
Words & images © Paul Ransom
NOTE: Last month – March 2020 – in my role as a critic for a dance publication1 I attended the semi-finals of what is now Australia’s premier competition for contemporary choreographers. The Keir Choreographic Award creates a platform for the nation’s dance makers firstly to be commissioned and secondly, to vie for the two main prizes, Best Overall & Audience Choice. From an initial selection process, eight choreographers were invited to make short, twenty minute works. The semis were danced over two nights in Melbourne before a final four competed for honours in Sydney. The review I wrote, which thus far has not been published, strikes me now as more salient than when I first penned it four weeks ago.
This critique begins on a #16 tram, trundling home from Dancehouse after the second semi-final of the 2020 Keir Choreographic Award in Melbourne. An elderly couple, clearly lost, turned to ask if I could point out the Collins Street2 stop. It was a simple act, yet somehow, moving. Was it their gratitude, or the giving of small kindness?
The truth lay back in the theatre; not simply because this year’s eight KCA pieces were mostly underwhelming but because across both nights of the competition a disturbing subtext had emerged. We are used to dance pushing the boundaries of form, to dance about dance, and to the various postures of identity; so much so that these are now MOR. Yet, ingested whole, KCA 2020 felt more like mortification. A spectacle of mass disavowal. An incredibly privileged and fortunate cohort of artists lurching through the practised routines of public confession, shaking off the discomfort of extreme comfort with a disingenuous, performative display of choreographed self-loathing.
We birch ourselves to forget, and in so doing, transfer our sins to you.
First of all, let us acknowledge that the convoluted mirror of contemporary Western guilt is not confined to dance or the arts. Furthermore, I could easily be accused of projecting my own unease onto the performers, and indeed it would be dishonest for me to entirely dismiss this. Often, what we see on stage is what we see in ourselves, especially in a non-literal form like dance. If this truly is what sits at the heart of my disquiet, then KCA 2020 was a resounding success. To be nudged into difficulty is, in my view, part of art’s core brief; namely, to show us what it means to be human.
Yet, here too, another fracture. With a couple of exceptions, this year’s Keir octet managed to reduce their dance to an almost bloodless ritual. I kept wondering, where is the body in all this meta-confection, where the beautiful, fragile shell of our joint humanity? For there was a distinctly inhumane, ascetic sheen to much of the work. Though cleverly constructed and undeniably thoughtful, the work was clean. Virus free. At times attritional and procedural. Like exam candidates.
Perhaps some of this can be explained by the competition overlay. These twenty minute works had a reduced objective. Not only were there time constraints and judges to impress but, even to get here, there was a selection process. These eight were chosen.
What the overall coldness of the gatekept eight says about the gatekeepers is revealing indeed. Is this the pyrrhic victory of the KPI? The risk averse result of an orthodoxy whose memes are communicated through socially visible gesture and faddish jargon? Since when did dance become terminology?
Of course, all this makes sense in the context of a tortured cultural awkwardness. Social media and 24/7 news drama have uncorked the genie and we are beginning to wish we had wished for something else. Now we are in a mess of our own making. We tried to blame the other but that rang hollow. Now we watch the disquieting theatre of self. Are we the elite? Is this altitude sickness?
Cue the almost infinite regress of self pondering self. Then, as the knot tightens and the breath becomes shallower, we are left in airless circling. The instinct of joyous creation now shaped into careful criteria. We are all accountable now, boxes ticked, but we move as if by formula. Algorithmically. Are we dancing or simply signalling that we can dance? Or rather, that we can watch dance, that we can be a good little audience?
I say this not to undermine, nor to indulge conspiracist fantasy but, rather, to wonder aloud if anyone feels the same. Am I alone in thinking that the blood is somehow being drained from the body and that the freeze dried result is a thin and compressed file format? The key information is there, like a digitally described arc, but no other pollutants remain. Thus, for the most part, KCA 2020 felt like consuming dehydrated nutrient goop. It will keep us alive…but that’s all.
While the choreographers, performers and gatekeepers of KCA 2020 bear responsibility for their choices, (creative, political, etc), the largely desiccated dance that resulted is perhaps something we share communal authorship of. Because this isn’t simply a bad crop (or a grumpy writer). The clipped wings of the Keir Choreographic 8 were tethered by many bonds, from the way we do arts in this country to the way we do society, from the manner in which we speak to one another to the way in which we do in group/out group. (Indeed, dance itself is an in group, and the distortions of the silo were plainly evident in this year’s semi-final offerings.) Therefore, to say there was a cold, antiseptic sting to a few dance pieces is to allow for the idea that this is the world we are making for ourselves.
There is a deeper, more complex point here, one that drills into the organisation of large scale societies and the cognitive limits and biases of the human animal. Some will argue this is drawing a long bow but when even dance, with its primal roots and core physicality, is distilled to an icy abstraction in which the apparently corny notions of beauty and humanity are eschewed in favour of virtuous spectacle and eviscerating shame, I am drawn to conclude that the tribe has an issue. With itself.
You might say, ‘gosh, this all a bit over-thought’ and I would say ‘perhaps that is the point.’ Which takes me back to the tram. The act of helping the elderly couple was unusually moving for me because it was an instance of what was lacking on stage.
But something else happened on the #16 that night. As I sat there pondering KCA, I heard it. Within touching distance: German, French, Mandarin, Spanish, Japanese, English. There it was, not on stage, not vying for a trophy, not part of anyone’s apocalypse or identity drama. People together. Looking and sounding different but similarly naked underneath. Smiling and talking, not wearing face masks, not scared stupid. Diverse, warm, flawed – all of us getting a tram together on a pleasant late summer night. If only the semi-finalists could have given us something so beautiful and humane. So worth watching.
1: Dance Informa.
2: Collins Street is one the main retail and finance strips in central Melbourne. It is also home to many international hotels and upscale eateries. My guess is that the elderly couple were visitors.