Monday, November 7, 2016


Devised by James Batchelor

Performed by James Batchelor and Madeline Beckett

National Portrait Gallery 5th& 6th November 2016

Reviewed by Bill Stephens

"Smooth Translation"
Madeline Beckett (l) - James Batchelor (c) 

Photo: Jane Duong

James Batchelor’s latest work, “Smooth Translation” was devised as an ode to British sculptor, Barbara Hepworth, and commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery as part of the Design Canberra Festival. It’s a fascinating and intriguing work from a young choreographer who is fast building an International reputation for his highly intellectual, often site-specific, creations.

Batchelor’s program notes describe “Smooth Translation” as “a process of receiving and transmitting form. The work examines carving as an entry point to the interiority of matter -   a choreography of sculpting, building and forming a landscape; a moment of translation from one body to another”.
The individual viewer will make of that explanation what they will, for, as with most of Bachelor’s work, that is part of the fascination.
“Smooth Translation” begins with the tantalising sounds of Bellini, Verdi and Puccini wafting through Gordon Darling Hall. In one corner is a pile of large cloth beanbags. Slowing a hand appears from within the bags, and then another, until eventually, two bodies emerge.

 Batchelor and his collaborator, Madeline Beckett, proceed to attach the tiny sound-sources to their bodies, and then crawl around and through the beanbags, re-arranging them constantly. Then, as if in deep contemplation, they each select a large beanbag, lay back in it, and slowly and deliberately propel themselves, in different directions, around the smooth granite floor.

Abandoning the beanbags they each extend arms, perhaps measuring spaces, then connect from either sides of the marble pillars, occasionally trapping unwary audience members in their sequences. An episode in which Batchelor moves across the floor creating grotesque and beautiful shapes with his body is particularly absorbing.

The relentless pacing of the work, together with the confident demeanour of the two performers, often mirroring each other’s movements with remarkable accuracy, tantalises individual audience members to seek their own answers to the abstractions being performed.

Their final sequence involved Batchelor and Beckett ceremoniously pouring four piles of black stones onto clear plastic sheeting rolled out across the performing area. Lying on their chests, they slowly propelled themselves through the stones, neatly returning the work to where it had begun, in the centre of the stones.

This is a clever and beautifully resolved work, which hopefully will travel beyond the National Portrait Gallery. If it comes your way, don’t miss it.

This review also appears in Australian Arts Review.