Writing

'Ever' by Phillip Adams Balletlab

 Image by Jeff Busby

Image by Jeff Busby

Ever continues Phillip Adams’ balletic investigations into Protestant notions of God, transcendence and the sexualised and gendered body through a psychedelic historical eye. Six dancers take us to the landscapes of the American South in a ‘60s vision of pastoral pleasures and fears, before entering the chapel for a mystic ritual involving paint, bodybags and a miniature catapult.

The work is set to music: John Adams’ driving and cinematic minimalist work Shaker Loops in the first half before descending into Richard Strauss’ depressing and disorienting wartime symphony Metamorphosen. The dance begins in full flight, sudden, fast, complex and exultant. Invisible patterns dominate, visual compositions flicker in and then out of life, cycling through the system with delicacy and precision. At times it recalls the dizzying geometric purities of Lucinda Childs’ scores, but with a deliberate element of chaos putting it off-kilter, a little more emotional or intimate. The dancers work hard: the first few minutes are intense enough to generate sweaty exasperation, but they push on, up and beyond. Their bodies are exposed, vulnerable, with a sense of being on the very cusp of mastery and yet wavering with fear and shaking with concentration. The space is intimate and brightly lit. Mistakes are visible and the music doesn’t stop. This is brave work.

The dancers are penned in by a white picket fence, the space itself is also white with LED strips articulating the historical details in the proscenium wall. Geometric fluorescent beams are suspended at an awkward, deliberate angle from the roof: a kind of angelic light-shard. They wear white garments by Akira Isogawa, traditional patterns of shirts and dresses and skirts and coat-tails, meshed together and spliced open with the threads bare. They are puritanical, yet subtly liberated, and slightly romantic.

There are roller skates and lassos, which appear and are gone, a limited set of images with an illustrative purpose, not quite indulging in all the possible circus tricks of dance on roller skates. There are duets, men with women. Soon, Nash Hurley enters dressed all in black, a dark revelation against the white and carefree angel dances. He resembles a medieval plague doctor, broad hat, bird-like, ghostly. He enters the space with careful and articulate movements, and then suddenly bursts into bold and athletic movement, jumping high like a cricket1. The piece at this point seems to tangibly lift in complexity, a refreshing burst of contrast and opposition. Stunning solo work by Lillian Steiner comes soon after. We then move into Strauss, and the piece becomes more durational.

  Appalachian Spring  by Martha Graham

Appalachian Spring by Martha Graham

There is a film, in which ribbons are painted, and many colours merge. Acrylic turns fabric into form.

Whirred up by the agility of the preceding dances, the slow, durational second half of the work feels like a deep disruption of spacetime. We enter a nonrational space of purely material bodies as forms (inflated beds, occupied bags, stuffed skins) emerge and mutate. At the level of surfaces, the permeable, ghostly cotton is replaced by slippery, lurid vinyl: synthetic objects with mass. The broader cultural question humming underneath it all is how religious experience can co-exist with modernity. The two halves are presented in juxtaposition; different material conditions giving way to different experiences of the infinite — one a space of play, fears and subjectivities, and another that almost cynically denies them. 

Adams’ presence is well-felt in this journey, the only apparent subjectivity that could link these disparate investigations. It’s hard not to feel that Adams almost panders to a ‘great man’ model of art history by marked and deliberate association with other ‘great men’, Strauss and (John) Adams, maybe ‘fashion icon’ Akira Isogawa and Matt Adey (House of Vnholy) as well, and then of course there’s also God, the greatest man of all. There is a certain appeal to this and the art is very good, but it was a little disheartening to see Adams and Isogawa come out for bows at the end, while the dancers remained onstage, who due to being in restrictive bodybags were unable to move or even see, as they were gestured towards. I would have liked to have seen acknowledgement of the phenomenal agentive action we witnessed from the dancers as they navigated such a complex and challenging work. Still I had a moving encounter with a spectacular and strange dance, performed with mastery and more importantly heart.

1 I later learned that this character is borrowed from Martha Graham's Appalachian Spring