conversation, criticism, dance

in conversation: gabriel comerford on critical culture, brisbane and why dance

Gabriel Comerford and I recently spent six weeks living and working together in regional Queensland. Gabe is a contemporary dancer, an amazing artist and a joy to collaborate with. He inspired our students so much and kept me (relatively) sane. Towards the end of this project, we recorded this conversation whilst driving at 100kms an hour somewhere between Toowoomba and Dalby. This follows on from many conversations we had about the state of criticism in Brisbane. He’s not a fan.

Gabriel Comerford and Caitlin MacKenzie

Gabriel Comerford and Caitlin MacKenzie at Melaka Art & Performance Festival, Malaysia 

Fleur: As someone who lives in a city that is almost devoid of arts commentary, how do you think this affects you?

Gabriel: The fact that our reviews that are so emotion-based and lack commentary means that there’s no conversation happening between artists and audiences that goes any deeper than “did you like it? Yes or no.” Good commentary gives audiences perspective and lets them connect with artists. They feel like they can be open about their reactions to and interpretations of the work. They realise “oh, it’s okay that this is how I felt about it” and that goes beyond “I didn’t like it”.

Fleur: I think as artists it puts us on such a back foot to be waiting for the reviews with this feeling of defensiveness. If all you’re getting are those accusatory why-did-you-put-me-through-that responses, it is hard to keep valuing that response time and time again. They’re not giving you the respect you want to be giving them.

Gabriel: I can really only speak for Brisbane. I think that defensiveness has become so ingrained. There’s a great deal of people who say that they want that constructive criticism but, when they get it, their reactions are not those of people who are seeking a dialogue about their work.

I want people to tell me that they love or hate it and then why. That doesn’t mean I’m going to change it but we need to be able to understand why an audience member reacts a particular way… Dramaturgically, we can only see a certain amount of our work because we’re so entwined in it.

Fleur: When you value your audience’s opinions, they’ll discover opinions they didn’t know they had. I find this all the time with the audience conversations. At the start they’ll be a couple of quite vocal people and a someone going “I don’t know what I thought. Don’t ask me.”

Gabriel: “I didn’t think anything!”

Fleur: Exactly! And as it goes on most realise how many opinions they have. Even if they don’t come to the theatre often they know how something made them feel. And you don’t just have to respond to theatre or art within the context of other theatre or art experiences. You can respond within the context of life because you have lived. Sometimes that’s all you need.

It’s also difficult at Q&As mind you because… well we’ve all been in the audience when someone has asked a question that’s not a question. That eye rolling moment of “oh you’re just – ”

Gabriel: “You’re just telling us your opinion.”

Fleur: Yeah! But that’s because the framework is such that we say, “you will sit there and ask us, the undisputed experts on our own art, questions. We have the answers and you have the questions.” It is actually a very different thing to create a forum where we say, “don’t even pretend that’s a question! Put that out there as a statement! Own that!”

Gabe somewhere in a paddock outside of Dalby during the project we just completed.

Gabe somewhere in a paddock outside of Dalby during the project we just completed.

Do you think about stepping up to perform that job of critical commentator yourself?

Gabriel: Yeah, it is definitely something that I’ve started thinking about and talking to people about; how I feel and react to the way art is talked about in Brisbane, particularly in the dance world. There are really only two dance reviewers in Brisbane that get published. Often I don’t agree with their views. Perhaps they write great reviews but they can be so out of touch with contemporary dance and what’s happening with the independent work being made around Australia. I don’t know if it’s a generational gap thing or something that comes from our isolation in Brisbane. I’ve definitely started talking to my peers and saying, “this is something we need to take ownership of.”

In the last two weeks I’ve seen two or three theatre shows, some circus and some dance. Obviously I have opinions about everything I see and I have experience and exposure to all three of those genres but I don’t know that I’m situated to review or critically respond.

Fleur: Fuck that. Do it.

Well I say, “fuck that” and “do it” but when a reviewer is coming at it with a very conservative expectations born of ballet, like you mentioned, they can end up with a defensiveness when they talk about contemporary forms. “I didn’t get this! Why didn’t you make my kind of work?” I wish they would declare their bias. Don’t go in expecting one art form to be like another.

But I also, I do believe whole-heartedly that you don’t have to have done a theatre degree and post-grad to be able to respond to theatre.

So moving away from critical responses… Why dance?

Gabriel: Biggest question in the world. For me.

Fleur: Good. It should be. Otherwise why are you doing it.

Gabriel: I think all of the reasons and none of the reasons.

The dance that I am passionate about is guttural and emotive and incredibly raw. I appreciate beautifully crafted, technical dance but it’s not what moves me. I want dance that feels human. It doesn’t feel like these crafted, chiseled bodies: it feels like the imperfection of humanity. You put that onstage and give the audience the power to connect to that humanity and see something of themselves onstage. The majority of your audience see and understand beauty but they don’t relate to those lithe bodies with legs flying everywhere. But they relate to this guttural, human clashing of bodies and running and jumping and power.

Fleur: What it is to have a body.

Gabriel: Yeah. It’s that ability to express things that can’t be put into words. There are a thousand adjectives to describe an emotion but sometimes not one of them can express it the way that a simple movement or gesture or moment of connection with another human being can.

Fleur: What do you think that Australian dance needs more of?

Gabriel: Money would be nice.

Gabriel in The Danger Ensemble's CALIGULA

Gabriel in The Danger Ensemble’s CALIGULA

Fleur: What do you not see happening?

Gabriel: What I don’t see is the work that I love. So many of the European companies like Ultima Vez and Ballet C de la B make these big, unpolished productions. They are amazing and the dancers are amazing but they don’t need to be a clean-cut show. There’s ugliness. I think there’s a lot of perfection and beauty put on stage in Australia at the moment. I don’t know where that comes from. I think it’s Australia trying to find its own voice, which is great. I don’t want us to be trying to copy the great European companies or feeling that we have to mimic but –

Fleur: But Australia as a culture is also not this refined, pretty, abstract thing. It can be all of those things (because we are fucking complex) but it is also raw and rough and comic. This isn’t getting onto our stages?

Gabriel: Not the mainstages, anyway. There’s this sense of making dance for the upper-echelon crowds, who perhaps are the clean-cut and the refined, and not for the general public: not for the masses. I guess what I want to see is stuff that reflects that Australian culture a little more organically. I think there are choreographers who are doing that stuff in Australia. I think Antony Hamilton’s work is not necessarily the guttural thing but it has a connection to its people – its audience. You leave going “that was about me!”

I think there’s great work being made in Brisbane and there’s an incredible bunch of artists who believe in great work. At the moment our lack of infrastructure makes it so hard to make the work we want to make and need to make. Lizzie and Zaimon Vilmanis at Prying Eye Dance Company just did their first show as independents. They’ve been building it over about four or five years. It was fantastic. It had that sense of human-ness and ugliness balanced with some beauty. I think we need more work like that in Brisbane.

I think there’s a growing audience that loves the break in narrative and not having had their hand held through a story and through a show. The Danger Ensemble’s Caligula was a really good example of that because it really divided audiences. Some absolutely loved the lack of narrative and the lack of clear progression through the work and some hated it for the same reasons: “Where’s my story? I didn’t understand what was going on!” People will find their niche and that will dictate what they go and see but I think there is a big mix in Brisbane as far as work that crosses the dance and theatre line – the music line. Multi-disciplined work. But what Brisbane needs is just to make more work.

Fleur: I’m going to stop this because I literally need to eat some chips.

Gabriel: Yeah, you haven’t eaten yet!

Fleur: No, I haven’t.

Gabriel: I see you speed camera. So discreet.

Gabriel Comerford is part of MakeShift Dance Collective

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dance, Dramaturgical Analysis, Theatre

on anachronistic movement, urgency and one big silent scream

“It felt a little like the Hofesh Shechter Company’s Uprising, which begins with its seven male dancers marching to the front of the stage and solemnly striking a pose – arms in first, feet in passé – which they hold for a good minute as if to say ‘this what you want? Some mother-fucking ballet? There. Done.’ From that point on, there is nothing remotely traditional about their movements.”

I wrote that in August as part of my response to Einstein on the BeachI was referring to a piece I had seen in 2009. That’s the thing about Hofesh Shechter: he stays with you. When I speak to actors about suppressed movement, (as opposed to standing still) I talk about In Your Rooms. When I talk of defying our expectations, physical humour and the ultimate dissatisfying ending (and I love dissatisfying endings in theatre, I’ll tell you why some day), it is Uprising. When I talk about an inarticulate scream for action, it will be his newest work, Sun to which I turnYou’d be surprised how often this comes up in conversation.

I’m not saying that Sun does not possess the other elements, which are so recognisable in the work of UK-based Hofesh Shechter: its wit is biting and charged, the suppressed movement is magnetic and its ending ultimately dissatisfying. However, for all the incredible action of Sun – percussive, visceral, anachronistic, masculine, grounded, limbs simultaneously fluid and tight – what I will retain most is the inaction. The stillness. The silence. The moments when the bodies and the overwhelming cacophony of sound ceased and the dancers turned to the audience and stared us down. Oh the urgency of that stare! The silent challenge: ‘do you get it yet? Do you get it?’ You know, I’m not quite sure I ever did get it but I sure as hell got something

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The Hofesh Shechter Company is the ultimate global dance ensemble. Shechter himself is from Israel and his dancers hail from all over the world: Egypt, Bolivia, South Korea, Amsterdam, Albania, France, England, Taiwan, Germany, the USA, Hungary, the Netherlands and Portugal. The choreography is as eclectic as the company. I am an unskilled amateur when it comes to identifying dance traditions but even I could spot Greek influences, Afro-pop, belly-dancing and traditional courtly moves. Even heavy-metal thrashing and twerking got a look in. Add to this gesture, pedestrian movements – movements which individually the average punter could almost mimic – and Shechter’s own brand of slippery, aggressive Fight Club-esque dance and the cumulative affect becomes a sweaty heaving, urgent mass, somehow both primal and deeply refined.

Individually, the elements are inadequate to express the pulsating insistence of the piece. The company highlights this by opening the show with perhaps twenty seconds of the final movement to let us know that “everything will be alright in the end”. The glimpse we get is perhaps the most stiff and traditional twenty seconds of the work and, by the time we reach them at the climax, they feel utterly impotent. The ringmaster figure – for Sun is a sort of mad, political circus – screams in frustration at the audience and his fellow dancers. How inadequate, how frustrating are those simple movements and yet, and yet, and yet… And yet the cumulative affect of these many disparate styles and images create a truly articulate voice and a truly significant work. A work which encompasses a global history: a history of dance, of praise, of race, fear of the wolf, fear of the coloniser, fear of the kid in the hoody, fear of the unknown, of rage, of what it is to rage without a voice, to rage against a government and against being human. It encompasses all of this and looks to a future without borders; to a global society. 

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A moment: Five dancers, in a disarmingly simple single movement, leaped onto the bodies of five of their companions, wrapping themselves about them and are carried by slow deliberate steps across stage. The carriers are vulnerable, their bodies weighted, their arms wide, faces passive.

Another moment: Four men beat a fifth man, who curls in on himself for protection against their truncheons. They beat him for too long. There is no sound except the striking of the sticks. The ringmaster shakes his tambourine. They all stop, turn to the audience and bow.

Another moment: Nine sheep head bang.

Another moment: A woman screams.

Another moment: Three women painfully try to recall how their bodies work.

Another moment: In two spotlights, two men gesture as if trying to impart to us a piece of crucial knowledge.

Another moment: The wolf is behind you. It is behind you.

Another moment:

Another moment:

Another moment:

Clapping felt inadequate. I wanted to riot.

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Note: my response to Nicola Gunn’s In Spite of Myself is up on aussietheatre.com.au if you want to read it. 

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