2 July 2002
The Age of Unbeauty
Welcome to The Age Of Unbeauty, where you literally have to take a breath after the curtain comes down on this spectacular show because the pace, intensity and moodiness of the piece keeps you wired on the edge of your seat from woe-to-go.
Garry Stewart, choreographer of the Australian Dance Theatre, asks a lot of his dancers and they deliver in spades. With movements that seesaw from geometric, almost mechanic-like jerks, to rag doll-like flip flop rolls across the stage; there is artistry in just the riskiness of the program. With his inventive use of video and Luke Smile’s mix of dance music and filmic score, Stewart shows us why he is one of the most exciting artists working at the moment.
Inspired by man’s inhumanity to each other and the information superhighway which keeps us abreast of the ‘cruelty’ tally, Unbeauty features some truly tender moments that almost transcend the ugliness that just preceded it. Garry is able to innovatively use the group collectively in duets and solos to create this eerie twilight world we all live in, where love brushes up against hate on a daily basis.
The dancers combine classic moves with gymnastic routines, martial arts and robotic stick movements. Every piece holds our interest. Near the beginning, the dancers carry on six mats, which are first used as a cover, then a backdrop then mats to bounce off. There is an extraordinarily cinematic scene where in the background a woman lies prostrate on a hospital gurney being carefully cocooned in a wad of bandages, under the glare of a red light overhead. All the while in the foreground two figures clad in white, dance in complete and utter unison that we are transfixed despite the scene behind.
The serendipity of the backdrop, composed of a crisscross of wooden slats, comes into play later on. The darkness of the stage is interrupted by a door sprung open revealing a naked man and woman, looking like they escaped from a Lucien Freud painting, and cushioned from us by a glass partition as they cling and claw at the surface as if their life depended on it. Garry uses a swinging light to create a wonderful sea of movement in one sequence, dancers are trapped in elaborate face cages or their faces are completely bandaged.
Anyone interested in modern dance can’t afford to miss this one.
Justine Shih Pearson
The Age of Unbeauty
Garry Stewart’s The Age of Unbeauty was the company’s offering for the 2002 Adelaide Fringe. In the choreographer’s words, the piece is “a highly personal, emotional response to the terror found in man’s ability to act inhumanely toward man”, and I was left with the feeling that in this “work-in-progress” (as it was billed) lies the potential for Stewart’s most successful work to date.
The piece reminded me of chain gangs, prisoners of war, refugees, and the homeless. Dispossession. Humiliation. The large and small hurts we are capable of inflicting.
Gaelle Mellis has created yet another superbly integral design, lit by Damien Cooper. A giant 10 metre high wooden wall spans the back of the stage. At different points in the piece, nightmare arms emerge from it; a door opens to reveal two naked figures pressed against glass and slowly collapsing in agony; it is use by the dancers to fall against and to roll across. The stark, simple design is full of squares and sharp angles; movements are hard and angular, unaccommodating. Bent elbows and knees are emphasised.
The praise these dancers frequently receive is very well deserved. The breadth and rigour of their training regime is evident in the group’s physical and mental unity. Garry Stewart utilises this cohesion very effectively. So often his movement seems to push the dancers to the boundaries of human capability. In The Age of Unbeauty this works in thematic parallel with the cruelty human beings are capable of inflicting and enduring. There is deft manipulation of the ensemble – ever-changing groupings of dancers move in waves across the stage. Solos lead into duets, duets into trios played against the entire ensemble.
The piece begins with the dancers standing, lying down, lining up, shuffling in a group, strip searched against a wall, and this first enactment of powerlessness is echoed throughout the performance. The notion of freedom is cleverly played with – at one point, with a row of dancers struggling and twitching upstage, hands bound and pants around their ankles, a dancer comes “flying” onto stage. This apparent freedom of movement is quickly turned on its head as we realise she is actually being thrown and pulled around by two others in a rough and complex trio.
A painful duet between Lina Limosani and a bound, blindfolded Fiona Malone explores the manipulation of both the “victim” and the “victor”, confined as they are in the complex relationship of dominance. At one point the company huddles together as a single search light plays over them from above, sending them careening around the stage, repeatedly piling up and blowing apart, scattered by some greater external force. A solo, stunningly performance by Matthew Morris, seems the end result of brutality, whether self inflicted or victimised. He crosses the stage as though unable to fit inside his skin and incapable of controlling his body.
There is some relief amongst the onslaught. We are given glimpses of warmth, of humanity, and they come as a welcome respite. Precious moments of care and caress are shown in a section for three couples, where dancers with faces completely bandaged are gently manipulated by their partners. In another, a couple move across the floor, her hair blinding him as he carries her on his back, her hand caressing his face as they pause. In these moments, Luke Smiles’ sound design also offers some very well timed and poignant relief, releasing us from the harsh electronic soundscape into more melodic passages.
The Age of Unbeauty is a clear response to the terror of inhumanity. However, in the final minutes of the show, the dancers leave the stage and video footage is projected onto the back wall. It is a beautifully made piece by David Evans – images of quiet dignity and beauty in a myriad of human faces are accompanied by the very human voice of Bjork. It seems that Stewart wants to tell us that it’s okay, that the world is beautiful after all. But, after the preceding hour of bleakness and violence, is it enough to simply tell us that everything will be all right in the end?