This year marks 50 years of Australian Dance Theatre’s existence, and to celebrate, they’ve brought out their astounding production Be Your Self to tour Australia in 2015. Conceived and directed by Garry Stewart, this exploration of the human body and the concept of the self is as intellectual as it is visceral, as funny as it is frightening, and as erotic as it is grotesque. It changes, morphs and evolves, and becomes far more than just a contemporary dance piece.
We read into its themes and ideas what we will, but Garry Stewart incorporates, in a very literal sense, a thousand notions of what it means to inhabit the human form. On a surface level, we are led to contemplate what an incredible piece of machinery the body is, as the dancers push their muscles, articulations and expressions to the limits. Annabel Giles narrates the impossibly complex process of lifting a leg, describing the split-second messages relayed to and from our brains, nerve endings and muscles.
Accompanied by a Foley artist’s dream soundtrack, the performers move to the sounds of creaking joints, snaps, pops, sneezes, coughs, dings, pings, clangs and other assorted cacophony. The absolute precision these dancers exhibit as their limbs snap in and out of place in time with the seemingly arrhythmic soundscape is something of a minor miracle, given what Giles has just narrated for us in the single lifting of a limb.
We are offered a chance to think about the body as a machine, as an inanimate object, as a reproductive organism; the dancers show us the impulses we try to suppress, the potentials we fall short of, the pains and pleasures of bodily existence. The ideas then move into more philosophical territory, as Stewart brings up notions of gender identity and sexual fluidity, still incredibly timely topics given our current media debates about transgender understanding and acceptance. He desexualises erotic dance by having mixed genders perform moves traditionally seen as either male or female. He makes us question our level of comfort to sexual situations versus violent situations by placing them simultaneously on stage.
The set is one of the most innovative and jaw-dropping inventions I have yet to see in a production. It consists of a white checkerboard ramp set on a 45 degree angle, which we soon realise is actually not solid at all, but interwoven white cloth from which the performers can emerge and retreat into. The effect is extraordinary, surprising, and its full potential is realised in the final, otherworldly sequence where the performers push their limbs through the cloth and join together in various organic formations while graphics are projected onto the cloth to embellish the bodily formations. This is where Stewart’s ideas transcend the mundane to create a language that is best understood in abstraction, best felt or sensed, rather than rationalised.
What an incredible show. I wasn’t swept off my feet like I was at the end of ADT’s 2013 production G, but I was left just as in awe at the supreme quality of this work, which gave me more intellectual food for thought than G. I feel as though I could continue to describe and sing the praises of the piece, its individual performers and its creators, but somehow the words fall far too short of the experience of seeing it live to do it justice.