The darkened stage space is set with bright spots, rectangles of amber light like windows on the floor. One is vertical and longer than the others. It is a doorway or portal, hovering.
A man storms his way into the space from behind what turns out to be a thin piece of something like plywood, and Australian choreographer Lucy Guerin’s “Structure and Sadness” begins. With tiny holes cut out of it, the plywood is able to curve sensuously. Man and object, an organic and foreign relationship. It’s the age-old story of Man manipulating his environment to serve his needs and perhaps to conquer. Yet every once in awhile there’s an opposite image: Man hangs over object, defeated.
From the program notes we know that this dance is about the 1970 Melbourne West Gate Bridge collapse when 35 men were killed. The choreographer and the original dancers conducted extensive movement research based upon notions of support, tension, balance: things that go into bridge building. As it happens, these ideas are inherent to dancemaking too. And so the challenge becomes how to tie together a very literal idea while retaining the poetry of dance. That’s where collapse comes in, and emotion erupts from the physical.
Five more dancers enter in workaday wear and they do indeed set to work, constructing structures large and small with a-frame folders of plywood, wood blocks and poster-sized boards. (Dancers as workers. Dancing and Constructing are one and the same here. A sly wink perhaps, making the point that dance is work?) Tiny dances emerge and the seed ideas are right there: this one’s about building structures with two bodies intertwined, that one’s about all the physical possibilities with two bodies and two sticks. To literal-minded folks this piece will be deeply satisfying. One can track the movement ideas because we understand the context.
A stunning female duet ensues far stage left. Its robotic precision takes the dancers dangerously close to both one another and the delicate structure that lies at their feet.
The giant structure that now fills the space (one part of which requires a 14’ a-frame ladder to construct) topples. From the bottom up, the inevitable is set into motion in Mouse-Trap-like fashion. One block tips over and a proverbial match lights.
Watching something collapse is one of the most satisfying sights ever. Viewed with neutrality, with no emotional attachments or repercussions, structures collapsing are beautiful. Viewed within a specific historical context, they are harrowing and throat-chakra-closing. And still, they are beautiful.
A woman wearing a long black dress stands manipulating blocks at a table downstage right. She sings snippets of “Crimson and Clover” while two similarly clad women stand close together upstage on a sort of balance beam. They too vocalize, in flat mono consonants and in unison. As the song escalates and aurally turns into footage recounting the actual bridge collapse, the upstage duet persists. They bounce on the metal beam, gesturing in tandem and allowing the vocalizations to travel. Their voices are manipulated by the momentum of their movements. It is the wail of widows, the cry of mothers outliving their sons.
A requiem dance slowly begins, a sextet of three couples. Literal again with the black clad women and dead men moving with the smallest amount of physical density possible. Liquid mourning motions beget partnering manipulations and occasional spasms burst like rigor mortis.
A backdrop of lighted tubes flickers. The ladder is engaged again, this time by a crew person turning off some lights, leaving others on. The bridge is rebuilt in glowing yellow.
Dancers, the women back in danceable work clothes, retrace dance material from the first section. Structure regenerates and is now executed in exclusively dance terms. Three simultaneous duets of different choreographies now become a brilliantly organized blink of unison. Two dancers down, four up, then all down, now all up. It is a celebration of Structure and also renewal. Sadness is still here too, of course, but this is a living monument to things that span space and also time.
Structure and Sadness indeed, and I would add something like Redemption.