Notes on a Secretive Dance Event

Issue #10: The Many & The Few - Assembling the political

We need dance that initiates revolution not Orphic neophytes. We need dance that emerges from a clear practice of social and political engagement. what value is a momentary liberation of the senses? Why not work for a permanent liberation?

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The Secretive Dance Team
creates site-specific live performances incorporating urban and natural landscapes and found interiors into expansive if enigmatic dance dramas full of strenuous and fantastical posturing and passages of anarchy. Miracle in Aisle 6 was the group’s third production, it was performed only once, and was not supported by any funding or presenting organisation. And it was free.

We go to a place, not to an institution.

Or, if the place is an institution,
It is not that sort of institution.

It is a library after midnight.
It is a park in the pouring rain.
It is a busy street corner.
It is a pedestrian overcrossing.

Others will say, in the foyer, or at the bar,
Or later, in the car, that there is no new thing
Under the sun, or in the theatre.

We go anyway. A waxing moon. Grey buildings.
An audience that does not recognise itself.
And then – a tableau no-one could anticipate.

And then –

Movements, thoughts, feelings, actions.
Encounters. I will not say: new sensations.

I will only say: something is created,
And we did not expect it.

It is 9pm, Monday 28 December 2015. We’ve been instructed to meet at the tram stop at 258 Smith Street in Collingwood. There are about twenty people waiting. Rohan Forster is there. He’s a short, solid man with close-cropped salt-and-pepper hair. He wears black cargo pants and a long sleave black jumper. On his wrists, there are dozens of brightly coloured rubber bracelets. He is excited, talking loudly, pacing back and forth. “My favourite tram route is the number 86,” he declares, addressing no one in particular. Is he part of the show? There are always plenty of excited people talking to no one in particular on Smith Street. But, yes, probably. A tram arrives. Two or three climb aboard. It moves on. The audience is revealed to itself.

“Look,” cries Forster, with a theatrical flourish of his bangled arms, “at the architecture.”

Across the road from the tram stop is a single-story supermarket. Bolted to the top of the supermarket, obscuring a rooftop car park, is an ornate three-storey nineteenth-century façade: the carapacial remains of pre-Federation inner-city Melbourne. It’s a fine example of how not to preserve a city’s architectural past. Antique arches, pilasters and fancy cornices hang over the busy street like a ghostly manor house arrested mid-vanishment.

Looking up from the street we can see the evening sky through windows of the façade. Blue, purple and gold. It suggests, if only for a moment, a kind of universal hollowness, an infinite emptiness, a falseness at the heart of all things.

SIDELIGHT: Built as a coffee palace in 1881, the original building to which the façade was attached was bought by Henry Ackman in 1890. Ackman was a pawnbroker before turning to the second-hand furniture trade. From furniture, he moved into general merchandise. He died in 1895, but the business continued to grow. By the end of the century, Ackman’s Monster Furnishing Arcade and Exchange was one of the largest department stores in the city, dealing in everything from go-carts to ironmongery. One of their slogans was: ‘The public have no conception how immense the stock is.’

And then, thrilling surprise: movement on the first storey. Three bodies. Three dancers. Each one framed by an arch. Languid silhouettes. Slender figments. Apparitions drowsing in a niche of pale sky. It’s the revelation of a surreal collage: the ruined façade, the busy shopping strip, the figures in the air and the exotic evening colouration.

Geoffrey Watson, one of the dancers, descends from the car park and begins the somewhat laboured process of shepherding us in small groups across the road and into the supermarket. Waiting at the pedestrian crossing, I find myself standing next to a Russian-born actress. We talk about interventions by artists into public spaces. We talk about Pussy Riot, Femen and Voina. She tells me about Pyotr Pavlensky, a performance artist who last month set fire to the entrance to the secret police headquarters in Moscow. I ask her if we are participating in an intervention right now. She shrugs. What has Ackman’s to do with Lubyanka? We shall see.

SIDELIGHT: 7 September 2008. Moscow City Day. Voina staged a series of mock executions in one of Russia’s biggest supermarkets. They lynched three volunteer migrant workers from Central Asia and two volunteer homosexuals. The action was described by the group as a special gift to the country’s fascist authorities for inciting homophobia and xenophobia. This was the first of two actions the group performed in a supermarket. The other was the notorious How to Snatch Chicken.

Inside the supermarket, in aisle six, Rohan Forster stands with one hand outstretched, head thrown back, staring upwards. He is reaching for a can of condensed sweetened milk on the top shelf. Theatre maker and choreographer Nana Biluš Abaffy, the group’s founder, enters the aisle with a trolley. She grabs at bits and pieces of whatever, carelessly tossing them into the trolley as she makes her way toward us. Fina Po, another of the dancers, appears by her side. We all gather around Forster. Several shoppers have stopped to watch. Others continue to shop.

Chaos is a key ingredient in all Secretive Dance Team performances. Dancers sometimes appear carried away by the thrill of performing somewhere they shouldn’t be performing. There is much recklessness and occasional bursts of violence. Things get knocked over, smashed, thrown around. This tendency, however, is counterpointed by the group’s careful attention to documentation. Like Voina, the Secretive Dance Team stage their actions as much for the cameras as for the live audience. The visibility of these cameras during live performances is integral to the group’s aesthetic. Indeed, this is why there are always multiple cameras: so that the presence of cameras is visible in the documentation.

Watson creeps up behind Forster and hugs him close, murmuring in his ear. And then, abruptly, a straight lift. He thrusts Forster towards the top shelf. “What’s happening,” cries Biluš Abaffy, clutching her head, watching. She throws herself against Watson’s back, hugging him tightly for a moment before pointing toward the registers. “There was a sound over there” she says, walking away. “A voice…” Indeed, there is a voice: a disembodied voice over the PA.

“Merv to aisle six, please. Merv to aisle six.”

A guard approaches. Biluš Abaffy whispers something in his ear as she glides past with her trolley. He hangs back, watching the performance unfold, arms crossed, head tilted: the default posture of live art audiences around the world. What is happening! White walls. Bright lights. So many sensual invitations. We have stumbled into a zone of doubtful resemblances. Condensed milk and contemporary art. Is this a supermarket or a gallery space? It is a question that has been asked before.

“I just can’t do it,” groans Forster. He is again reaching for the can of condensed milk. “Why is it up so high?” Fina Po stands silently next to him holding a bottle of Coca-Cola as if it were a sacred urn. Geoffrey Watson leaps and struts and twirls around them, occasionally crashing into bystanders. Forster then recites a short poem, full of yearning and the expectation of failure. Nana Biluš Abaffy tries to comfort him. “The lights in here are terrible, Rohan,” she says. “It’s like an x-ray!” And then the four bodies pile together, forming a kind of rampart behind Forster, as if to launch him toward the desired can. It’s a moment of climax. He strains, then finally reaches the can. The three dancers reel across the aisle, bumping into shelves and knocking over bottles. Still no one from the supermarket intervenes.

“To the meat!” they cry, as they sail out of the aisle on a trolley.

The performers move rapidly to the meat and dairy section. Nana Biluš Abaffy clambers on top of an island freezer and manically thrusts her pelvis over the meat. Behind her looms the word MILK. Watson and Po lean into the long bank of refrigeration cabinets, gyrating and grooving. They perform beneath the word BUTCHER. Here we have more miraculous collages, albeit this time with a Carolee Schneemann inflection. With a kind of satyric lewdness, the three dancers again pile together, humping and shaking. Now it is definitely time to leave. Abruptly the dancers break off and point the way out. As we saunter through the checkout, the verdict among supermarket staff members appears mixed. Registers two and six are clearly amused. Seven seems less so.

HYPOTHETICAL: What did the checkout operators say about the performance after we left?

Operator #7: My question – were they responding to a specific cultural or political situation?
Operator #6: The supermarket as neoliberal utopia? That’s a situation.
Operator #2: They interrupt the protocols of consumption. They offer a momentary liberation of the senses. They de-normalise all this brightness and buying and selling.
Operator #7: Not much of an interruption. We just now had that guy with the roast chicken in his pants that he said was to keep it warm.
Operator #6: That wasn’t art.
Operator #7: So? It was disruptive. We all stared when he started shouting. This other thing, this art thing, well, what sort of interruption was that?
Operator #6: Merv liked it.
Operator #7: It didn’t block the ordinary flow of store business.
Operator #2: They did jump all over the meat.
Operator #7: Yeah, and then they left.
Operator #2: What do you want – occupation?
Operator #7: No, I just want to know what it was it about.
Operator #6: Maybe it was inexplicable.
Operator #7: I say – this is no time for the obscurity and apoliticism of the old avant-garde with their playful imitations of the sacred.
Operator #6: But I liked the obscurity, the difficulty, it forces you deeper, under the surface of accepted meanings.
Operator #7: I say – we need dance that initiates revolution not Orphic neophytes. We need dance that emerges from a clear practice of social and political engagement. What value is a momentary liberation of the senses? Why not work for a permanent liberation?
Operator #2: Was it so obscure or difficult as all that? They left the building. That, at least, is a clear statement of refusal.

Out of the supermarket and off up the road. The performers scurry and scatter. The evening is now quite dusk. The audience is led by Geoffrey Watson on a round-about journey west, up the hill into Fitzroy. Or not led, but hectored and shepherded, a refreshingly inefficient form of crowd control.

We end up in the garden out the front of the St Mark’s Anglican Church on George Street, a small grassed area with some small trees and shrubs. The dancers are already there, waiting, lying on the ground. We settle as best we can on the grass facing the church. The pervading light of the supermarket has yielded to the huddled light of stars. The four performers take off their shoes and beginning jogging around the church garden. Sirius hangs above the steeple. The performers again lie down in front of the church.

SIDENOTE: The hall attached to St Mark’s was at this time the home of the Victorian Ballet School.

REFLECTION: It is good to be outside. It is good to be outside the supermarket. It is good to be outside the church. It is good to be outside the community centre. It is good to be outside the ballet school. It is no bad thing to be waiting on a grassy margin, watching cosmic secrets unfold, outlined bodies radiating to the stars.

(Of course, secretiveness will not impress everyone. We have heard them shout: down with the acts of refusal! down with strategies of disengagement! Let them shout.)

Watson jumps to his feet and prances into the foliage of one of the trees. Biluš Abaffy jostles him, trying to take his position. Fina Po walks with quick shuffling steps around and around the enclosed garden. Watson and Biluš Abaffy face off, circling warily, an ironic animalistic duet of lunges and feints. Then, an energetic free-for-all, with flailing limbs and spasmodic leaps. Watson flings himself across the grass with back arched and long blond hair streaming every which way. Biluš Abaffy settles into a deep crouch, nestling into the lawn, disappearing for a moment, before springing upwards in an explosion of knees and elbows. Meanwhile, Rohan Forster stands by one of the trees. A plastic shopping bag hangs on one of its branches. He plucks and shakes and tears at it until its contents, fruit and bottles of soft drink, spills softly onto the grass.

The dancers stop and gather at this unexpected and liberated windfall.