Sunday, December 24, 2017

Deepspace - Canberra Theatre Centre

Review by John Lombard

Deepspace smashed the boundary between audience and performer, inviting the audience up onto the stage of the Canberra Theatre to become part of a work where the movement of the audience was as important as the movement of the dancers.

This collaboration between choreographer James Batchelor and visual artist Annalise Rees emerged from a voyage to explore distant islands in the sub-Antarctic, with this work the summation of their experiences.  But I struggled to connect the performance with this voyage into the unknown - except in the general sense that space on stage was explored.

The work was instead interested in the complex relationship between performer and audience.  Deepspace rejected the idea that the audience is a passive observer there only to be entertained, and coaxed the audience into active participation in the creation of the performance.

After entering the theatre the audience was invited up onto the stage, falling into a circle around black-clad dancers James Batchelor and Amber McCartney.  With the audience shuffling for space on the stage, it was not clear whether the audience was now part of the show, or indeed whether the performance had actually begun.

At least one audience plant set a norm for how we were to interact with the performers by moving in close and harshly scrutinising the dancing.  This plant provided gentle shepherding throughout the night by showing the audience it would be OK to move or not move.

Early on Batchelor and McCartney rolled a pair of balls at the audience, and this forced the audience members in the way to make a choice - let the balls roll on, or obstruct them and become an active part of the performance.

Yet the audience involvement was never forced, but rather gently coaxed.  At times the performers moved to different parts of the stage, and the pace at which to follow - or indeed whether to follow at all - was left to the audience.  At times the performers brushed thrillingly close, and it was the individual's choice to either stay there or yield more space.

The tone of the dancing was appropriately gentle and intimate, like watching a sleeping child breathe in and out.  Batchelor and McCartney worked as single unit, and some of the forms were genuinely witty - I really liked one moment where their bodies combined to become a cube of black.  In general though there was comparatively little direct interaction, but rather a mutual understanding and silent communication much like the one between the performers and the audience.

However just when it seemed as though the work had reached a climax, the performers instead retreated from engaging the audience with a series of intensely inward-looking acts focusing on balance.

If we take the performance as a commentary on relationships, the first phase showed us relationships when they work, with easy non-verbal communication and harmonious movement.  In the second phase the emphasis was on struggle and isolation, with the struggle to balance representing the difficulty of maintaining a failing relationship.

After inviting the audience to be involved, and with the audience honouring that contract by moving with the performers, the intense focus of the dancers on their own bodies was excluding.

The audience moved in to create a vigil in the final moments, but I found myself watching the audience as much as the performers, who had up until this point been part of the show - with the performers shutting us out, I was more interested in how the audience was responding to this increasingly recondite performance.

Deepspace used unusual staging to great effect, and explored interesting ideas about performance, but after bringing the audience onto the stage of the Canberra Theatre and involving them in creating the show ultimately told them they were not needed after all.