Award winning dancer and choreographer, Byron Perry was recently appointed as the Melbourne Festival's inaugural Harold Mitchell Foundation Fellow. His first work for the Festival, Double Think, a rhetorical examination of the illusion of opposition, opens next week at the Arts House, North Melbourne.

Byron Perry spoke to Australian Stage's Paul Andrew.

Byron PerryIs the world of Double Think – like Orwell's classic novel – a dystopia dressed in utopian clothing?
Not exactly, no I am not really attempting to analyse the notion of Double Think in relation to the original context from which it sprang or even to apply this concept to our lives in an attempt to illuminate something about the human condition or to explain the struggles and psychology of modern life.

The work is concerned only with Double Think as an abstract thought experiment or a discrete psychological condition. I am attempting to look at the performance itself through this lens of contrast, contradiction and opposition, the idea of the performance as the individual in the throes of Double Think.

I like the idea that this notion can be applied on as many levels as possible, to the structure and style of the work itself, to the scenes and the dance/text within it and also to the performers understanding of what they are doing.

The political and social references are instantly very clear with a topic like this, but those connections are not what I am interested in presenting in the work – I will leave that to Orwell. I feel like many people have examined the idea of Double Think within a social or political framework and that making a dance work along the same lines wouldn’t address anything that hasn’t already been better explained on paper.

As I said what I am trying to examine however is the notion of this psychological condition through the structure and machinations of the performance alone. I feel it is important to explore this concept without reference to anything outside of the performance environment, as I feel like any topical or social reference within such an abstract work will carry more weight than it deserves.

It could very easily seem that the work is somehow about this reference rather than about the interrogation of the subject at hand.

And is the image of 'the state' in Double Think also a controlling one, one of constant war, mind control, surveillance?
Double Think as a performance work doesn’t deal with the broader themes examined in 1984. The work is very singular in its focus, which is how the notion of Double Think might exist on stage – in dance – separated from its context.

The term Double Think entered the vernacular after Orwell's 1949 book became a best seller, simply put it means to know and not know. Tell me about your sense of Double Think today?
The original inspiration came from an article I read titled ‘The illusion of Opposites’. Through some further reading I became interested in the idea that essentially opposites share more traits in common than ones that separate them, that in a sense they are simply two distant points on the same line.

I began thinking about opposing beliefs in this way and remembered there being something about this idea in the book 1984’so I read it again and became interested in the notion of Double Think and how it might exist in a performance environment.

Double Think is defined as the ability to believe two opposing or mutually exclusive ideas at the same time, drawing subconsciously on whichever one most benefits the individual in the moment. This led me to explore references to things like the Heisenberg uncertainty principal that limit our observations of subatomic particles to either position or momentum but never both at the same time. Initially the term Double Think seems to have negative connotations, but it could be a rather unique gift.

The notion that you might be unconsciously deciding what you believe based on who you are talking to and what you want out of a situation seemed quite different from just flat out lying or playing devils advocate. It also struck me as a subconscious act that each of us might well be doing in subtle ways every day. Opinions are normally considered so concrete and I like the idea that it’s quite possible we don’t really know what we think or that we are not in control of things as we feel we are.

I notice the references to a 'shifting world of dark and light', shadow and illumination, sounds almost Gnostic, a mystical work too perhaps – aside from the 'abstract' Orwellian parallels tell me in some detail about your other literary, cinematic or choreographic sources of inspiration for Double Think?
I have been reading some writing by Magritte on his investigations on Object vs Image. I particularly like the series of small ink drawings he produced on this subject for their simplicity.

I have also been reading on the Heisenberg uncertainty principal and quantum entanglement, I would like to think that one day these notions might go some way to illuminating questions of the mind. The short films of David Lynch and Chris Cunningham were something that I was watching around the time of our initial seed development.

The shifting dreamlike scenes and states of Lynch’s work has always been of interest to me, particularly the way he presents his work and the awkwardness and uncertainty it provokes in me when I view it. Chris Cunningham is inspiring, more for his style of editing, which in his hands becomes a sublime choreography in its own right, no matter the subject of his film.

The work I have tried to create is quite minimal and stripped back in terms of presentation. I wanted a work that feels like its oscillating or phasing between states. Small vs big, black vs white, slow vs fast, light vs shadow, learned vs improvised.

The set design was based initially around the units of ten counting rods that I used to learn counting and basic mathematics when I was in primary school. For me they are a metaphor for the way that we tend to divide our space and our time, combine ideas and tackle problems. The word block itself is used both as a description of the unit used to create, and an explanation of why we are having trouble creating. 

Light and sound become the 'the beloved', tell me something of your enthusiasm for light and sound as forms of embodiment and character Byron?
I have become very interested in developing work where the performers have the ability to effect and control their own lighting and/or sound and that the orchestration of these supposedly ‘supporting’ elements can become a kind of choreography in its own right.

It sounds like I am describing a sort of puppetry of objects, and in a way I think I am but that’s only part of it. In order to develop this kind of work it is essential that you have these elements in the room with you as you are developing the material.

I am always thinking of how something will be lit as I am choreographing and often a lighting idea will be the catalyst for a scene and not simply a way to present it. I think that in this work and with this concept especially; the sound, light and set can really become as much a part of the investigation as the dance or text is.

We are dealing with an abstract concept but one that is directly linked with universal themes of opposition and duality so it can be applied to almost every part of the performance environment.

I like the way that localized performer operated lighting can create methods onstage that are akin to things like the close up, point of view and zoom techniques used in film.

Also for me traditional theatre lighting has trouble snapping to or from black instantly, there is always a fade up or down involved albeit a small one; by developing my own lighting techniques for onstage use I can get the best of both worlds.

We often use the expression 'play of light' or 'trick of light' to explain something mysterious or unexplicable – is this something you consider in Double Think?
Yes, but in quite a dry and almost scientific way. The work presents light and the absence of it as an intrinsic part of the study of this concept of Double Think. The work doesn’t utilise theatrical trickery in the sense of traditional ‘illusions’ but light is considered, choreographed and arranged in much the same way that the performers bodies are.

One tall man, one short woman – it’s such a fabulous image and metaphor for the incongruities in relationships, tell me about two examples of the way your choreography develops this metaphor a little further?
I am not dealing specifically with gender roles or relationships in this work.

I am aware of the references and connections that can and will be drawn the moment you place a man and a woman alone onstage, however I hope that the work sits somehow outside this. I am interested in creating a feeling that the work is almost like a closed system, that we are looking at and examining a method of mental processing without any outside input.

I imagine this is sort of like observing the workings of the machine aside from anything you put into it, or anything it might produce. If we are to take something from this presentation of man and woman it is in a very simple and direct way; that they represent one of the most recognisable and ancient oppositions we know and one that we have a direct connection with.

Tell me something humorous that happened during rehearsals?

While we were doing our first cobbled together run and were in a particularly focused moment without any soundtrack and at the very same time the circus show began rehearsing in the adjoining studio and their soundtrack spilled over into our rehearsal. Needless to say that muffled soundtrack is now the audio for that section of the work – sometimes a bit of chance works wonders.

Double Think by Byron Perry plays the Arts House, North Melbourne Town Hall from Oct 12 – 15, 2011 as part of the 2011 Melbourne Festival. Further details»

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