There is something primal about moving to a beat. The body itself consists of multiple rhythms – heart beating, blood pumping, muscle pulsing – expressed in movement. Situate the rhythmic body in percussive culture and you have Stephanie Lake’s Manifestoa kaleidoscope of sound and movement that was performed at Malthouse Theater as part of the Rising festival.
The curtain rises to reveal nine drummers seated on high, a pantheon of percussionists poised beside a symmetric assortment of drums, cymbals and snares. Each drummer sits on their own level, rising to a peak then descending again. Their elevated presence is godlike – and very rock’n’roll.
Charles Davis’s set harks back to the brass band era of the 1930s. Crenellated curtains create a wall of pink beneath the stepped percussionists. At ground level sit nine dancers, dressed in white with black braces. A speakeasy atmosphere wafts across the space punctuated by the sudden, sonic interruption of the drums. Loud, percussive and assertive, the drummers oscillate between sound and silence. For their part, the nine dancers jerk and freeze, jerk and freeze, trawling through a range of seated postures.
Manifesto explores a range of relations between movement and sound. Dancing must decide its relationship to its music – at one extreme, movement conforms to music’s lead; at the other, the music follows the rhythms of the body. In the middle lies a world of opportunity, the basis of this work.
Manifesto is dialogical, a series of conversations between drum and body, each with its own character. For example, the jerky movement of the nine dancers in the first section is purely reactive, a reflection of the drum’s staccato sound. The freeze-frame effect of the dancing is crystal clear, as if there were no movement in between.
And yet movement is intrinsically durational, an extended displacement of space over time. The success of the crisp transition is testament to the dancers’ skills, which are made more explicit in the following series of balletic variations. Classical arm positions give way to increasingly virtuosic moves. High leg kicks are used to signify a mode of facility grounded in classical ballet’s idiom. These dancers are stronger and limber, more than able to achieve the requisite leg extensions, jumps, arabesques and partnered lifts. Ballet is the base but it’s also a site of departure. Movement is inverted, turned inwards, disjointed. Solos and duets give way to a series of group formations. Each tableau is made to be seen from the front, framed by the spatial logic of the proscenium arch familiar to ballet lovers.
Lake’s long-time collaborator and life partner, Robin Fox, has composed a series of powerful sonic vignettes. It’s a rare experience to see and hear multiple drummers on multiple drum kits. Their collective power is awesome. At one point they perform a series of solos not unlike the style of The Rolling Stones’ Charlie Watts or Keith Moon from The Who. At another, they eke out a quirky phrase with its own character and musical logic.
I am reminded of the seductive nature of repetition. Upon hearing the same phrase again and again, expectation is rewarded: pattern recognition plays its part in the invocation of pleasure. Repetition also forms a basis for difference, played out through the dancing, which pursues a series of high octane variations. Dancers burst onto the stage to perform signature moves alone or in small groups, and then leave to make space for the next and the next. Flying leaps that land straight into rolls suggest a degree of circus training. The movement is speedy, the drumming measured – two intersecting logics.
Humour is welcomed. Drum rolls initiate an ensemble of rolling heads, balls on a stalk. Booties are shaken, hips shimmy and snake, spirals and bounces suggest a kinaesthetic jamboree. Bodies writhe on the ground, a St Vitus dance of musical possession. Having partied hard, the drums give way to a rhythmic heartbeat, lifelong companion to every body. A trio forms an organic whole, whose successive folding is almost intestinal.
A syncopated ditty introduces a languid beat that allows for a series of movement vignettes whose elastic temporality recalls traditional Korean dance. Here is a stronger sense that the dancers can assert their own sense of timing, within, but also despite, the beat. There is a degree of improvisation in all choreography that speaks to the encounter between body and script in every moment. Performance bridges the gap between the body in this moment and the demands of choreography.
The Korean aspect is in the pause just before the commitment to a movement. It is a palpable pause that’s pleasurable for dancers and audience alike. In Manifesto, a comparable temporal gap was established in the repeated rhythm, slow enough to stretch time during movement. In Korea, audiences throw money on the stage. That didn’t happen at the Malthouse, but the audience was extremely appreciative, clearly enjoying the spectacle.
It’s hard to do justice to the many sonic-movement combinations and creations produced over the course of the show. Drummers and dancers worked hard throughout. It didn’t feel like it reached a climax: more that a sense of difference and repetition was discovered in the music from one composition to the next.
Others might disagree but I feel that the tone of the choreographic sketches was largely led by the drumming. Although one of the dancers performed the role of conductor, her gestures seemed to reflect the drumming rather than to lead it. Perhaps it’s a side effect of the volume, but the dancing mostly appeared to depart from – rather than dictate – the rhythm.
There are so many ways in which sound and movement can combine. Manifesto‘s distinctive form is a tribute to the artistic skills and aesthetic preferences of its two key creatives, Lake and Fox, as well as the focus and dedication of its 18 performers.
To what extent is Manifesto a manifesto? This work doesn’t express an activist agenda – rather, it’s an enunciation, an event, the performance of relationship between sound and movement, action and reaction, individual and group, group and audience. Manifesto is an expression of possibility, of connection, and the transmission of joy and dedication in a singular work of artistic expression.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 18, 2022 as “Beat poetry”.
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