Sunday, March 8, 2009

Review: No Success Like Failure

Arts House
North Melbourne Town Hall
Season ended

I saw this work in 2008 and it was one of my favourite performances of the year. When I saw it had been collected for the sublimely programmed Dance Massive I rounded up a posse to attend.
I, you see, am a fan.

The Fondue Set is somewhat unique in the Australian performance landscape, in particular, the Australian dance landscape. Akin to Wendy Houstoun (who directed No Success Like Failure), the ubiquitous Forced Entertainment, Lone Twin and even perhaps Panther’s recent work, The Fondue Set position themselves, with panache, in the realm of the amateur, that is to say they embody the joy of performance - the naff-ness of it. Their choreography sits somewhere between a jazz ballet class in 1989, a school formal and a drunken party. Yet it skilfully transcends kitsch for the sake of it.

Aesthetically, this work is very much a part of the current zeitgeist, as is, say, this:

I find its aesthetic disarmingly familiar and comforting. I know what I’m getting. And I like it.
(Interestingly, isn’t the zeitgeist as a concept itself becoming a part of the zeitgeist? What happens then? How can it objectively select movements, works and things to become a part of it, if it, itself, is a part of it. Perhaps it operates like the Freemasons, or Rotary: entry by invitation of another member.)

Positioning itself loosely as a dance company and No Success Like Failure as a dance work, in Dance Massive, certain fundamental elements of their work come as a surprise. For me, a pleasant surprise, for others, perhaps disconcerting, or even tiresome. There is an overwhelming amount of text, and much of it is situated within the oeuvre of post-modern performance. For myself, with little to no dance background, this works.
Their comedy, arising from the tension between the performance act and the performers’ inherent self-awareness, is masterful and wonderfully executed.
The position that they inhabit, somewhere between dance and comedy is unique, and I must say it’s refreshing to see women embodying both dance and comedy without any particular nod to femininity. The role of women in comedy is dubious at best and The Fondue Set has carved their own niche, outside of the norm. They have a supreme self-awareness that never results in self-consciousness. There is an absolute humanity to their self-revelatory routines, the comedy arises not only out of awkwardness and irony, but recognition. There certainly would have been more room for abstracted movement, without irony.

Bear in mind that I have seen this show twice. Upon a second viewing there are certain fundamental issues at play. What I had taken to be an extremely live event (by which I mean: fallible, susceptible to change, dangerous) now seemed much less so. In fact, I saw a lot more polish. Which isn’t a good thing where No Success Like Failure is concerned. There was a live-ness that was faithfully mimicked but somewhat disingenuous. The event that the audience is attending is always going to be roughly the same. Which is a shame. I can see how this work could genuinely fail, how many or even most of its sequences are journeys into endurance for both the performers and the witnesses, how many of its parts are journeys into failure, or at the very least uncertainty. But the thing is, they no longer are. They are very rehearsed. Some sections of direct address were hurried through without any real sense of the audience being read and responded to legitimately. This is the adversary of a live event. The creators must design mechanisms open to pure chaos. To achieve the desired spontaneity they must include the purely random and expose themselves to its inherent danger.

This is all upon a second viewing, remember. After seeing it the first time, I exited the theatre on a kind of taffeta and spandex induced sugar high. This time, I just had a bit of a come-down.

What resonated most was its genuine emotion: the ability to stimulate pure, atavistic emotional reactions from uncontrollable laughter (quite close to the beginning of the piece I heard one of my companions whimpering, not wanting to be the one audience member with the weirdly overzealous laughter) to extreme pity and grief. Even at its most self-reflexive it is offset by the inclusion of some movement, or some external stimulus that runs in counterpoint to the potential intellectual feedback loop and at one point leaves you in tears as your mirror neurons are working full time mimicking the performers’ induced emotional states.

And this is their genius: embodied by the truly confronting and hilarious nature of staring into their faces, contorted with grief and sadness, as they dance their way through an instrumental version of Everybody Hurts. It is something that begins purely as a mechanism (and is hilariously antithetical to jazz ballet) and is completely disingenuous tapping into our emotional cortex whilst we are forced to be absolutely aware of the intellectual conceits being utilized.

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