Thursday, March 12, 2009

Tanja Liedtke's Twelfth Floor

In a typically passionate manner Andy Field blooged recently over on the Guardian about the potency of dance. I've also been finding that some of the most memorable and exciting things I've seen recenly have been movement based - dance. I don't always write about them though, not here; I think I watch dance in a different way - or at least I tell myself I do, I suspect it's more to do with the worry that there is a particular way of writing and discussing dance and I might expose my gaping ignorance of such things more so than normal.

But. Anyway. The most recent thing I saw and enjoyed was Twelfth Floor, choreographed by Tanya Liedtke, a compelling, frequently amusing and ultimately rather disturbing hour of dance set in an unspecified institution.

The walls are painted a muddy mix of cream and green and the lone window is shuttered. Two men, clad in sloppy T shirts and track-suit bottoms, spar and play-fight while another chalks words onto the walls seemingly lost in a private world – it is possible to glimpse the word ‘escape’ among his scrawling.

A nurse-like figure escorts a fourth person into the room, a young woman. Though there are obvious parallels with One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Liedtke’s piece does not mirror it too closely. Her nurse is not nearly as formidable as the Big Nurse of Ken Kesey’s novel. As danced by Amelia McQueen, she is a skittery, jittery thing in a pink uniform with neat little socks. Her movements are intricate yet jerky: robotic and repetitive. Her finger constantly jabs the air as if independent of the rest of her, seeking out transgressions, admonishing her charges.

The remaining characters sometimes stand up to her but at other times they cower in the corner, jiggling like pepper pots left on a washing machine during its spin cycle. A battle of wills plays out between them – inmates and nurse – and small victories are celebrated on either side. There is much humour in Liedtke’s work – especially during a well-timed sequence involving a revolving door and, later, when the inmates mock the nurse’s mannerisms – and at times it feels cartoonish, even approaches slapstick in places, but, always, there is this sense of tension just beneath the surface: the under-toad is lurking.

The piece makes clear that while it is possible to win in the short term, a certain status quo remains: there are lines that can’t be crossed and the consequences of attempting to do so are severe. The caged human has a capacity for aggression and violence and as the piece progresses the levity of earlier scenes is replaced with something much darker and more unsettling. The power games cease being games.

Though Twelfth Floor is walking on oft-visited ground and at times it tip toes fairly close to cliché, is in places formulaic, it manages, in the main, to remain fresh and exciting to watch. The production as a whole isn’t as successful as some of its individual moments, but there is much to revel in: Liedtke’s ability to convey character through movement, to build a rich and complex world, is considerable.

Knowing this, it's all too tempting to be side-tracked by Tanja Liedtke’s own poignant story (she had just been appointed Artistic Director of the Sydney Dance Company when she died in an accident in 2007 - this was her only full length piece) but the work stands on its terms and that is the important thing. However one can't quite escape the feeling that this is an early work - shot through with youth - and that hers was a talent that would have, given more time, matured and evolved and created even better things.

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