Review: Involuntary

by Jane

In the ongoing spirit of “embeddedness“, I interviewed Lazaroff while she was in rehearsals for this work. You can read my interview with her here at RealTime.

Dancer Veronica Shum is a picture of intense concentration, a devotion to the exacting choreography. These movements aren’t involuntary: they are highly choreographed, highly controlled, highly trained, highly rehearsed.

And yet, as Shum raises her leg to the height of her extension, there is a soft, involuntary shudder which ripples through her strong leg muscles.

As she stretches her foot, her arch is raised, her toes point to their full extent and there is a shiver we can see move through the ligaments as they curl around her bones.

Here, at the peak of a highly rehearsed movement, there is the smallest hint of Shum’s involuntary reactions.

These small moments are just that: small. But in some ways, they are the strongest in Katrina Lazaroff’s Involuntary. Lazaroff’s work, part commentary, more humourous observations, draws parallels between physical reactions which we have no control over and a society which is increasingly regulated to the point where we have no choice but to scroll five pages down and click “I Agree.”

And it is interesting to speak about those things in a work which, as necessitated by its form, are highly structured and measured. While we may feel the pressure of the clocks ticking on our lives as we notice the weeks are getting shorter and the things to be done in them are getting bigger, these dancers have one hour of dance to do in one hour. The lighting will change when it needs to, the projection will shift on the right beat, the dancers will move across the stage the way they have for weeks in rehearsals. And so in a work about the involuntary, the peeks at something small, yet involuntary (even if occurring as an exacting result of an exact choreography) become something amplified well above their usual worth.

Lazaroff’s work is broad. She shows us Ninian Donald pacing, gripping his head, falling to his knees as he watches a sports match; she shows us Jessica Statton in a rousing match on the Wii, before she realises a flick of the wrist will do just as well; as the show begins the audience is asked to agree to an extensive list of terms and conditions; before Tim Rodgers is allowed to retrieve a dead light-bulb he must pay attention to the safety regulations.  Involuntary is a wide mix of these small vignettes of observation: on technology – our dependence on it, our ignorance of it; on the fact that we will sign our lives away on an internet form, but try and use a ladder and it’s all occupational health and safety; on the way our bodies act when they fall, or are engaged in sport, or flirt and fall in love.

And for all this? For all this which could so easily lead to posturing and warnings of ‘where our culture is headed’? Lazaroff’s work is genuinely funny. She has the audience laughing as a collective before we’ve even seen a single dance member, and she holds us comfortably for the rest of the show. The work is comfortable in a familiarity, and pulls on an experience and a want of the audience to question itself, and to laugh at itself.

This comedy is undoubtedly a strength and the heart of  Involuntary, and to find such humour is wonderful. This humour often comes from interstitial scenes between the group dancer performances, but the most gratifying pieces of the work often comes out in the dance.

Through the choreography, Lazaroff shows a deft hand and beautiful composition. To Sascha Budimski’s soft electronic sound design, the four dancers are seemingly in perfect timing, and then through soft, almost unseen modulations, suddenly one dancer is doing the steps a beat behind. Then they are in pairs, and then in different pairs. One dancer leads, as the other three come behind as one. Each of the dancers fall through the music, one after another.

As they dance, behind them is the flickering of numbers on a large clock in Nic Mollison’s projection, as we watch the minutes, the seconds, the milliseconds, count up the time in the work. Along with the clock, the changes in timing of the dancers runs a swift hand of movement through the piece as the audience can feel the driving force of time.

At other times, Mollison’s clock is replaced: a flickering of regulatory signs (Stop; Enclosed Shoes Required) spin by as on a pokies machine; we watch the four participate in online video chats in ways that couldn’t be more different; a conversation in LOLspeak is translated into English. Video work all to often falls into the trap of being overbearing on the live performance, and while Mollison’s work is very occasionally overused, for the most part it is a welcome and integrated addition to Lazaroff’s work. Similarly, his lighting design is subtle, often dim it places the weight of our concentration on the dancers and their movement.

Part of the work did drag and could do with tightening, or were otherwise unclear. An extended interplay between two phones in the dark went on for too long with very little variation. A scene in which two characters interacted by instant messages confused me: as the dancers verbally spelt out the abbreviations of their conversation, projected behind them was the proper English “translation.” Clearly meant to be humourous, I couldn’t quite ascertain why: were we supposed to be laughing at these characters and their crazy reinterpretation of the English language? Or, were we supposed to be laughing with these characters, recognising ourselves in them? The audience who did laugh: were they laughing with? Or were they laughing at some assumption of the “youth” and their internet habits?

In the end, however, you are left with a work in which these quibbles are minor and it’s the strength of the humour, the strength of the choreography, and the strength of the dancers which lingers.  Perhaps outside of wider comments on the work, or perhaps integral to them, is what seeing an older ensemble on stage brings to the work. Dance, by no small accident, is the realm of the young: those who are at their physical peak who have yet to be injured beyond repair.  With the youngest dancer (Statton) graduating from AC Arts in 2004, this cast is perhaps older than that of the average dance ensemble. With that, the four bring a maturity and comfortableness to their bodies and the performance, an understated strength in both characterisations and physicality which really carries the work to new, interesting places.

Adelaide’s contemporary dance scene has long been dominated by the choreography and stylistic interests of  Garry Stewart (with Australian Dance Theatre since 1999) and Leigh Warren (with Leigh Warren & Dancers since 1993, and before that at ADT since 1987). There have been touring shows which come and go; independent artists who might create work here and then are off to live in Melbourne or Berlin. Now, Torque Show‘s Ross Ganf is re-basing himself in Adelaide, and Lazaroff is forming her company One Point 618 here. Both Ganf and Lazaroff seem to have a real commitment to making work in Adelaide while also having a much wider outlook: if that be regionally, interstate, or perhaps further afield – I don’t know. I do know that it feels that Adelaide’s contemporary dance scene is on a cusp of something, and if our new generation of artists can continue to create work with the strengths of Involuntary I think we’re going to be in safe hands.

One Point 618 and the Adelaide Festival Centre present Katrina Lazaroff’s Involuntary.  Directed and choreographed by Lazaroff, performed and created by Ninian Donald, Timothy Rodgers, Veroinca Shum, Jessica Statton, projection and lighting design by Nic Mollison, sound design by Sascha Budimski, set design by Mollison, Richard Seidel, and Lazaroff, theatre and artistic consultants Catharine Fitzgerald, Seidel, and Roz Hervey. At the Space Theatre. Season Closed. 

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