Festival Review: Proximity

by Jane

Film and performance implicitly train our eyes in different ways. While a cinematographer has the power of framing and depth of focus to train our eyes to a particular moment or person, on stage everything is in frame at the same time. Through the use of lighting, blocking, and/or choreography the director can help guide where to look, what moments of a scene or movement should be capturing to our eye, but ultimately the theatre audience has choice: are they watching the primary performer, are they studying detail in the design, are they watching members of the ensemble?

Garry Stewart’s Proximity for the Australian Dance Theatre combines live dance work from an ensemble of nine, with live video art and manipulation by Thomas Pachoud. With a combination of stagnant cameras and cameras manipulated by the cast, a live feed of the dancers is projected onto screens taking up the back of the stage. Pachoud manipulates these images, creating looping and overlap of sections of video, creating the illusion of a moving performance space, or with lines that play and intersect with the dancers’ bodies.

Stewart has built the work through scientific concepts of sight: throughout the show the cameras train on embroidery on the dancer’s colourful tracksuits (costumes Galle Mellis) on which are listed facts about how our eyes and neural centres interact.  However, the combination of our eyes attempting to focus on the hyper-specificity of film and the generalisation of live performance doesn’t expand our choices, but confusingly limits them.  Watching an ensemble or background member of a live performance is specifically a choice; but here the large screens dominate in our line of view, and little else can be absorbed. The very tool Stewart has tried to exploit as a lesson in the incredible skill in our eyesight instead becomes an interesting focus on one of their limitations.

How much of this is the play between dancer and screen that would be pertinent in any venue, and how much of this is the trouble with Her Majesty’s Theatre is, of course, at question. The theatre’s high stage and near flat rake of the stalls makes any work close to the floor invisible by those in the stalls more than a few rows back.  When a show is trying to demonstrate a relationship between the dancer and the technological intervention of their image, not being able to actually see the dancer impinges on this immensely.

While Stewart has at times used cameras above the stage to allow the audience a view of the dancers on the floor, he doesn’t use this to exploit the strength of their performance or choreography. Proximity finds precision and technique in the dancers all too often replaced with the visual trickery of the computer.  The image on the screen spins, creating images and patterns reminiscent of cinematic work of director/choreographer Busby Berkeley.  Where Berkeley did, however, use complex choreography to create his elaborate images, Proximity relies on the power of the computer: two people lie on the ground and the computer spins them for us.

The piece works best when drawing attention to the geometry that Stewart does form in his dancers. Stewart’s work shows a fascination with the angularity of dancers, and fine complex repetitions that can be made through the angles and joints in his dancers arms and hands. Much like floor work is often lost in Her Majesty’s Theatre, this fine hand work can also be lost in the deep auditorium.

The use of the video work to highlight these patterns that have occupied Stewarts’ work in the past which gives this show its strengths.  The close zoom on the hands as the block and angle against each other gives the audience a view to the precision that Stewart often returns to which they have not previously been afforded.

Similarly, this work is highlighted when Pachoud’s work responds to the video by building and connecting lines between the dancers bodies. Like much of the work, this is also with mixed results. This component is most successful when it absolutely highlights the precision, complexity and geodesic patterns formed by the dancers, in particular one scene in absolute close up on once dancers’ hands.  When the focus on detail in this component is lost, and instead these patterns are built across several dancers’ bodies, the interesting lines which are present in the whole dancers body are lost for a jumble of lines intersecting across arcs and between people.

Another fine use of the screens is when the precision in emotion that can be expressed by a dancer is also highlighted, as dancer Jessica Hesketh stands dead on to a camera, different emotions overcoming her face.  Pachoud creates loops on the video, so we get a juttering overlay of her faces and their transformation.

It is moments like this and the highlights on the hands when the screens are used the best: the audience knows that all of the detail is being projected on the screen, our eyes can easily train and focus. It is moments like these, however, you wonder why Stewart and his company didn’t elect to make a dance film.

As always, the ADT dancers are strong, and when they get a chance to show off the choreography as dancers and not as creatures to be manipulated within a computer system there are fleeting chances to admire their skill.  But ultimately, Proximity couldn’t decide if it wanted to be a film or a live performance, and so never completely succeeded at either.

The Australian Dance Theatre, in association with the Adelaide Festival presents Proximity conceived and directed by Garry Stewart.  Choreography by Garry Stewart and the ADT dancers, video artist and engineer Thomas Pachoud with the support of didascalie.net, composer Huey Benjamin, lighting designer Mark Pennington, costume designer Gaelle Mellis.  With Scott Ewen, Amber Haines, Jessica Hesketh, Daniel Jaber, Tim Ohl, Kyle Page, Tara Soh, Kialea-Nadine Williams and Kimball Wong. At Her Majesty’s Theatre, season closed.

Photos by Chris Herzfeld.