Antony Hamilton and Alisdair Macindoe are giants in Australia's dance scene. Hamilton’s choreographic credits for the likes of Chunky Move and Skånes Dansteater have been positively received, and Macindoe’s self-taught proficiency in sound design and instrument construction are merely asides to his Helpmann and Green Room award-winning dance performance. In Meeting, performed at the State Theatre Centre’s Studio Underground, the performers combine to offer an intense work of extreme focus, that Hamilton describes as “a study in finely tuned physical and mental agency”.
Upon entering the dimly lit space, audience members first encounter a circle of constructed instruments – each appearing to be a small block of wood with a pencil attached. These tiny robots, designed by Macindoe, are tuned to radio frequencies that cause the pencils to tap the ground at perfectly timed intervals to deliver a whirring, melody-less soundtrack to the performance. They are ingenious creations – the least musical instrument you are ever likely to hear, but a perfect aural interpretation of the dance work performed in the circle’s centre.
The choreography of the piece is jagged, minute and highly repetitive. The performers work extreme isolation of movement, repeating and building on a particular shift of limbs and torso until they are taken to the extreme, before switching to the next isolation. It is work that requires incredible focus, and the dancers rise to the challenge incredibly – faces expressionless, not sharing eye contact, each stuck in their own world of movement that just happen to coincide perfectly with the independent movement world of their partner. They give little away in terms of emotion, but the movement is other-worldly – their unison perfect, each move incredibly precise, and there are a number of moments when you, as audience, query whether it is man or machine that you are witnessing in the spotlight. The highlight of the show is an elaborate piece performed to the dancers’ rhythmic counting – off beat, out of sequence, and relentless. It is testament to the commitment and talent of the performers to not only hold it together, but execute it with such spectacular precision and control.
However, for all its genius, Meeting is incredibly difficult to watch. It places the same demands of focus on its audience as it does on its performers, and in the absence of melody in the soundtrack and emotion in the movement, the resulting performance requests an endurance and commitment from its audience that it doesn’t necessarily earn. The choreography is so precise, so minute and so singular that it quickly becomes repetitive. At the fifteen-minute mark it is hypnotic, and by thirty it is draining. Because of the relative silence of the piece, the audience itself poses its own distractions – every shift in seat, cough, or mobile phone vibration echoes through the auditorium like a scream, detracting from the experience as a whole.
While the pencil-tapping robots are remarkable, there are clear limitations to the variance in sound they can create, and even when they are shifted onto bells and blocks to create a new sonic array, the result is less compelling than perhaps the creators believe it to be. The nearly ten-minute closing symphony of the performance, where the dancers leave the space to give the robots centre stage, was quite absurd from an audience point of view, and bordering on self-indulgence from a performer’s.
And that’s the frustration of Meeting. You can see the intelligence in it, the commitment, the talent, the technique. But it is these very elements that conspire to alienate the audience from the material (except perhaps for a very niche audience of contemporary dance choreographers), and prevent us from celebrating what could be an exhilarating piece of dance. It is clearly an extraordinary work, performed by outstanding talent and composed with great thought and precision, but it is less of a shared experience between audience and performers, and more a polarising exercise in insular boundary-pushing. There are choices that could be made to bridge the gap between watcher and watched, both in terms of choreography and accompaniment, but it is also entirely possible that the gap is the intended consequence of the work. If it is, then we also need to consider why the performance exists, and who it exists for, and I would hope that an audience fits somewhere in that equation.
2017 Perth International Arts Festival
Antony Hamilton & Alisdair Macindoe
Director Antony Hamilton
Venue: Studio Underground, State Theatre Centre of WA
Dates: 1 – 4 Mar 2017
An Antony Hamilton Projects production