Clan (Hardcover, en-Latn-AU language, 2013, Allen & Unwin) 3 stars

Clan explores the world of Bangarra Dance Theatre and the extraordinary Aboriginal and Torres Strait …

mere flex

3 stars

[12 Jan 2023]

Dancers communicate so profoundly with the mere flex of a foot or hand, a shift of focus, the roll of a head, the transfer of weight within their body.

⸻ Stephen Page, opening page

Yet considering all that is going on in the images which fill almost the entire book, Barrett’s photography (as paired with Page’s art direction?) tends to be rather lifeless. Murky, flat, depleted of momentum, almost clinical, for all the heavy‐ink, gloss and phenomenal energies gone in.

I couldn’t help but contrast the pronounced underwhelm at a first glance through 21st century, prestige project Clan with my memory of alternately squint‐goggling at a juddery, blurred few‐second clip of anthropologist–choreographer Pearl Primus’ 1950 solo dance Spirituals, rolled and buoyed and awash with awe, utterly.

Like [Isadora] Duncan, [Primus] danced with — not against — gravity, but in her case the gesture tied her to the dances that she had researched in the Gold Coast, Angola, Liberia, Senegal, and the Belgian Congo, among other countries on the African continent of the late 1940s. She describes the earth in African dance as “an extension of the dancer’s own feet, as if it were a stage of rubber from which he can bounce to the skies, as if it were a soft bed upon which he could roll and be protected.” Primus incorporated this Africanist vision of oneness with the earth into her choreography.

[In Sprituals,] Primus leaps, legs in a V, arms open to the sky, then drops to the ground to execute a breathtaking series of forward rolls. Moving in a tight circle, she falls face‐first onto the stage floor, rolls, and then quickly pushes herself back up to her knees — her centre of mass low to the ground and her chest high, as if ascending from the deep. She does this over and over again. It’s an image of redemption expressed in movement, and gravity is her guide.

⸻ Emily Coates and Sarah Demers, Physics and Dance, pg. 19

Though drawing on different traditions, Bangarra’s performances are also closely integrated with a cultural research approach to choreography, running along strong seams of spirituality overtly embodying kinship with the physical world; and enact some remarkable relationships with gravity (if perhaps sometimes more balletic in dynamic, which I suppose could be part the problem).

Film and photo may be different media, but I do not reckon the comparison unfair. One can picture a Barrett take on Primus, given his Bangarra. There they are, even bound in deliberate sequence, these bemusingly bland shots belying incredible somatic precision, sheet after sheet after sheet of them. Palpable poses somehow the strange exception, making it seem there’s really only the material here for a short pamphlet, a few grammes of promo. Indeed even the most fleet‐shuttered micromoments do feel very close to posed and promotional, the dense fields of ink somehow detached from the dances they represent, the depiction of dancers; and showing such scant sense of spirit. Book as tight proscenium; bodies planar and forcedly forever folded faceforwards, choreographic forebears of these fast twenties’ frontal fashions.

Sure enough, going through sketching, searching out toe tendons in the gloom, eyes meandering around shapes pulled and reimagining them multidimensional and dancer‐felt as they might have really been in the moment — a hand riding a heave of the ribs, the dipped chin tucking hot breath into the shoulder, the soles’ clap to the floor and the thigh and each other in moments of stunning suspension… That force of appreciation came through much stronger, and closer to consistent, once given active analysis.

I’d like to see more books of this ambition, but I’d most like to see lots of dance photography that dances itself, or at least seems to respond to, to live in the same world as, the dancing.