Looking/Seeing/Being/Disappearing: Uncomfortable & Not Easy

Looking-seeing-2-e1466800471767It isn’t often I’m short on what to say about a dance-theatre work. But after Looking/Seeing/Being/Disappearing, I’m left in a rather uncertain space. It’s an incredibly difficult work, uncomfortable to experience, jarring to the eyes and ears, so I’m split between congratulating choreographer Nadine Joseph for pushing conceptual envelopes in all directions, or asking who this work is made for given its inaccessibility?

Alright, this kind of work will always be a contentious talking point, because we’re opinionated in the arts world. Which is good. But at the risk of sounding hypocritical (see here) there’s a difference between getting your audience thinking and alienating them. Sure, you can’t please all the people all the time. But if someone who’s fairly familiar with theatre practice (I’m unashamed to admit) struggles to piece a reading together… how will someone who is not?

Which begs the question, is this type of work for the theatre elite: arts practitioners, theorists, academics, who have the niche knowledge to ‘understand’ it?

The stage is set with a woman (Nadine Joseph) seated centre stage behind a huge phallic pole dancing pole; a trio of men (Fana Tshabalala, Thulani Chauke, Craig Morris) in business suits are positioned upstage right, and musician Daniel Nubian is downstage left. Hers is the stage position of power, yet from her stillness, we’re drawn to looking at the trio or at Nubian.

Nubian’s score is an ongoing mishmash of noises, drum solos, and a couple of songs I couldn’t put my finger on – a burlesque sound, a love song etc. – and over this recording he sings or makes atonal sounds that creates a discomforting atmosphere.

There’s a sense of danger from the trio; they’re quite menacing at points. There were a few moments where the choreography confounded me… but I did enjoy the flow of their development through the work.

In the beginning they are composed, in line, performing pedestrian movements, although all evocative using gesture/mime to create varying masculine-feminine stereotypical imagery. We see the bicep gun show, a rounded belly, tippytoes walking with hands on hips, a leopard crawl.

They become increasingly energised in movement. The sweat drips as they mime smooching and groping and rubbing up against a curvaceous, invisible, body. Later, they aggressively fight each other to get to a peephole.

All the while Joseph stays at her pole. Her dress design (by Jenni-lee Crewe) is amazing. In a rich fire orange, silky satin, ball-gown layered skirt, complete with heavily rouged cheeks and powdered face, Joseph evokes ladies of days gone by, ladies who knew how to behave in public. Around her midriff, the dress blends what looks like a corset yet the straps behind it resemble those of a straitjacket. In this we see the control exercised throughout the ages over women’s bodies – the reshaping of waistlines in order to be more appealing to the male gaze; and the once common diagnosis of ‘female hysteria’ seeing women removed from society for the most outrageous reasons. Although no longer a medical diagnosis, women are daily painted as hysterical, emotional, irrational beings – and the patriarchy subsists.

When Joseph moves it is in reaction to the men. When they’re lined up in front of her, gyrating, grimacing, staring ahead, or on all fours… she slowly thrusts against the pole, deadpan as if half asleep. Her performance is ingrained and unrehearsed; and it’s for their pleasure. When they near her, fluttering eyelashes become a contorted exaggerated eye-rolling. It’s disquieting and most certainly it’s meant to be.

These elements are all interesting in their own right, yet it feels overall like there’s no room for interpretation or metaphor. We’re instructed on what to think, what the piece is about, and we’re told how hectic it is too. And this is perhaps where I’m still not sure that the general public could find any accessible point in the work to be able to take away a feeling or understanding. And if that’s the case, the market is niche, and the message is contained for those that (mostly) are already in the know.

Regardless of that issue, Looking/Seeing/Being/Disappearing is an avant-garde, experimental, stirring work. Nadine Joseph maintains her reputation for going as far off the theatrical reservation as possible, working to challenge, challenge, challenge us all, and keep us on our critical toes.

– Sarah Roberson

Looking/Seeing Being/Disappearing is on today 07 July at 14.00 and 20.00 only. For more info & bookings click here.

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