Touch Compass: The Sleep of Reason begets Monsters / 17 March 2009
Harmonious Oddity – the triple bill by Touch Compass presented over the first three nights of the Art of Difference Festival began with a piece of Dance for Camera called The Picnic made in 2003. Imagine a bizarre Victorian garden party envisaged through the lens of Alice in Wonderlands' looking glass, peopled by an eclectic mix of strange folk. Playing with images of circus freak show, the piece was a highly polished, original and entertaining whirl around the theme of a pleasant summer afternoon by the river. Each characters' costume took on architectural importance, elegantly and cleverly framed within a fast paced movement. Every frame was staged like an Impressionist painting - with some direct references to Degas' pictures of gentlefolk, white parasols in hand, indulging themselves in social fraternity.
Much of Touch Compass' work plays on the idea of dream images and the surreal. The second piece was a duet with Suzanne Cowan and Adrian Smith called Grotteschi. A gothic horror, the piece told the story of a spider woman, at turns feeding, using and devouring her acolyte. The lighting was used to dramatic effect to capture small, riveting movements of the spider womans' head, torso and her many legs, which at times seemed to fill the stage. A very versatile piece, the work embraced a range of tempo and mood changes from cafe society, to ballroom, to dark subterranean lair.
In a work staged later on Thursday in Federation Square, at the heart of Melbourne's arts hub, Suzanne Cowan created another strange Bosch-like character for another duet with a non-disabled dancer. Bedrock was quirky and in-your-face, angry and funny look at the patronisation of disabled people. Covered from the head down in thousands of cotton wool balls, Suzanne looked something like a terrorist sheep, dependent yet menacing. Performing without her wheelchair, Suzanne was handled and placed into position by her dance partner Sean Curham. On one level the piece was about a fight to stay in control, throwing out notions of aesthetic and celebrating the inane.
I loved the boldness and the weirdness of this work, but unfortunately the main piece within the triple bill, Harmonious Oddity, failed to meet my expectations. Whilst some of the narrative held the attention, much of the intent behind the work got lost. The basic story took the audience through a day in the life of the central performer, Jesse Steele setting the scene with a film of him having dinner, going to bed, and falling asleep into dream after a day of rehearsal.
It would have been far stronger if there had been more autobiographical references, but it was unclear how much of the storytelling had come from the central character. We were looking in on Jesse’s internal world, ostensibly exploring the taboo area of learning disability and sexuality. I've seen this theme worked before, done with tenderness by UK inclusive dance company Stopgap and with an unequivocal directness in a film recording of Back to Back's Sally and Bunce. In Harmonious Oddity the main character is assailed by creatures of the night. At first he is scared but then comes to welcome their presence. But there was something verging on exploitation as the relationships were played out. The non-disabled dancer flirts with the learning disabled dancer. He warms to her, but you know that there is going to be no follow through. There is a tacit collusion with the general discrimination that a learning disabled man has no right to feelings of desire. The central character becomes further infantilised as the movement turns into flights of fancy about horse-play and mock gun battles.
Coming from the UK I'm not used to dance companies working along the lines of mixed ability. It didn't work for me. The dynamic of the more experienced performers became overshadowed by the physicality of the less experienced, unconfident performers. I kept wanting more from Jesse Steele. He struck a charismatic presence on stage, but we never got to him. There was a story in there to be drawn out, about how surreal disabled peoples' lives can be – having to navigate through the misconceptions and prejudices of the external world, but what we got was bitty and mostly superfluous.
The aerial work which Touch Compass cite as having given them an international reputation for ingenuity in their performances, took away from the energy of the performance rather than giving it gravitas. Apparently Harmonious Oddity won four Tempo awards in 2007, but I wonder what level of critical debate the company have had around their work.
During the two days of the Art of Difference seminar there was much discussion around the lack of critical debate around disability arts. It is part of the package that comes with the majority of reviews of the work of disabled and deaf performers and artists. There is a worthy sheen that is placed over the work, which stifles debate. Often it is the reason why artists with disabilities don't want the disability tag. It is the same here as in the UK. But then the other side of the coin is that there are few platforms for work informed by the disability experience.
Tom Shakespeare talked a lot about the lack of reference to art historical resources, which would give reviewers a way of contextualising the work. Bruce Gladwin talked about the job for reviewers having got easier in reference to Back to Back Theatre Company, as the body of work they have produced over the 23 years they have been going, has created its own reference points.
Generally there is a sense, certainly in Melbourne if not other parts of Australia, that the Disability and Deaf Arts movement is coming from a viewpoint that puts artistic excellence in front of other considerations; an argument I think that we are still seeking to win in the UK. Not that our artists don't do artistic excellence, but maybe it is still accepted as a key priority.