INSIGHT INTO CONFUSION FOR THREE BY JONATHAN W. MARSHALL
26 NOVEMBER, 2018
Jo Lloyd’s extraordinary collaboration Confusion For Three opens with Rebecca Jensen on her back, body raised, as her hands reach slowly and carefully behind her, shifting the weight and subtly re-orientating body and posture. Her gaze is contemplative and absorbed, reflecting deep concentration. This opening gambit defines the major themes of the work. Lloyd, Jensen and Shian Law offer an open-ended exploration of what it is to occupy and move through a space wherein repetition or indeed the re-enacting of anything with clear formal precedents is largely eschewed.
Lloyd established herself in Melbourne during the 1990s as a superb, thoughtful dancer of the often very formally precise or sparse work of Sandra Parker, Shelley Lasica and others. Beginning with Melbourne Spawned a Monster in 2008, Lloyd’s own work has become increasingly distinctive and, one has to say, deliberately messy. Confusion For Three is not devoid of sharp lines and long, elegant arcs of the limbs, but it is more frequently frenetic, jarring and electric. It is what I have described in some of my academic writing as “nervous,” or almost neurologically disturbed. It may be likened in this sense to the Japanese avant-garde dance form of butoh—although few of the actual poses here adopted recall butoh per se. Like butoh artists and some Australians (Martin Del Amo comes to mind), Lloyd seems preoccupied with activating almost preconscious, stochastic movement. As other reviewers have observed, Lloyd and her collaborators often embody a near spastic childishness, a sense of wild play in which not yet fully coordinated bodies strive to explore what might yet be possible.
The piece is performed across a crisply lit, white square marked out on the floor by tarkett (beautifully lit by Jenn Hector). The dancers march about its margins, looking across to each other, or along the sides, meeting each other’s gaze within clearly marked-out intervals of time. These otherwise empty preludes or ellipses give structural clarity to what is otherwise something of a free-form aesthetic. Moreover, much of the choreography is defined by how these periods on the margins generate alterations in the relative weight or distribution of fleshy masses within the space. When two out of three dancers stand at, or walk near, the far right corner, for example, it feels we have entered a different kinesthetic realm from the freer sense of spatial expansion expressed when a lone dancer poised near the front left of the stage. It is as if the tarkett is hanging suspended at our feet, and canyons of affective depth tilt or open up, as these relative weightings shift in response to the clustering or dispersal of bodies.
Given this sculptural subtext, it is not surprising that those dancers dressed in easily removed tops (Lloyd and Jensen) later remove their clothing to present us with their unadorned flesh. Although I have seen Jo dance many times, I was personally surprised and struck by both how tall she is, and how powerful and wide her shoulders are. The dancers’ bodies are vitally at stake, and while this is true in most dance, Lloyd and her collaborators offer an especially fleshy and muscular performance.
The choreography was developed through collaboration, and Confusion For Three is improvised around a set structure. Lloyd functions like the bandleader within the ensemble. Structural pivots and cues often emanate from her, and are expanded and reconfigured by her collaborators. Composer Duane Morrison performs live on laptop, adding to this sense of and shared responsiveness.
Confusion For Three has a number of sections where the movements blur into near chaos, and bodily energies reach spectacular, sweaty peaks. Hair is sometimes shaken loose, and gesture exceeds conscious control. But the choreography does not rest in this space of ecstatic freedom. Confusion For Three is quite unlike the work of Lloyd’s Melbourne peers Lucy Guerin and Gideon Obarzanek (Attractor, Perth Festival, 2018), despite sharing with them an interest in flailing limb movements and crisscrossed jolts across the torso. Lloyd’s focus is rather on novelty itself. Each time the dancers come on to the tarkett there is a new beginning. The performance does not work according to principals of accumulation. That which is produced is repeatedly discarded. This, together with Hector’s beautifully precise but surprisingly warm square of light presents the space as above all empty. The challenge is to fill it over and over again in acts of transitory, willow-the-wisp act novelty.
This conceptualization of space as a problematic also imparts a fascinating sense of both stasis and curiosity to the production. The dancers’ strange, wriggling, shaking, off-balanced, and sometimes semi-hopped trajectories do spring from a place of pure invention. But absolute novelty is impossible. As the work develops, ghosts of the past, and especially modernism, arise. Law in particular takes on the ghosts of Vaslav Nijinsky or perhaps Kurt Jooss in his sprite-like movement. At several points he bounces his body in parallel lines, bent arms held up at his sides in a W, while bending at the knees to make a rhomboid with his lower body. It is an almost jarring moment of historiographic recognition, where the various histories, traditions and choreographic precedents otherwise denied or avoided in this work are suddenly recuperated into a single and very famous image from early 20th century choreography, namely that of Nijinsky and his peers. This then is the tension which repeatedly emerges in Confusion For Three. Repetition is unavoidable. Bodies carry histories (and hence meanings). The confusion of the title is never absolute.
Lloyd produces two other moments of historiographic ghosting. At one point, the three dancers run forward, their torsos held upright and stable, with the opened-out chest of each forcing the body through the space before it. This is another classic image from modernist dance. Martha Graham, Hanya Holm, Ruth St Denis, all incorporated this pose into their work and Lloyd’s hair flowing out behind her emphasizes this sense of corporeal filiation. Yet if this is in fact a quote, it is a highly distorted one. Lloyd also has one arm folded awkwardly against her chest, while the other reaches behind to rest in the same position on her back, squashing the flattened torso of the modernist dancer into something less elegant and more convoluted. Corporeal memories are thereby smashed and reconfigured into another form of confusion.
Other moments, such as where Lloyd herself holds her arms up parallel to her shoulders, and gently looks from side-to-side as though she is part of a moving ancient frieze (shades here of Isadora Duncan) provide similar anchor points within an otherwise formalistically diffuse palette. There are therefore both moments where specific gestures cohere into poses from dances past, and in much the same way, brief repetitions of movements briefly swim into view before being given up as yet more new configurations arise. This provides markers and salient guide-points within a piece which otherwise has a tendency to deny both form (clear gestures) and structure (repetition). The overall effect of this structure-within-anti-structure is a kind of energetic drifting.
At two key points the bodies are piled into each other to cohere into a single and almost unmoving unit. The first time is quite literal: the bodies fall to the ground, before scrabbling, pulling, and rolling, at, over, and across, each other like some kind of angry, groaning afterbirth. In the second tableau, a strap with footholds and handholds swings out from the roof and into the space. The performers grab this to awkwardly clamber over, or at, each other, forming a lumpy, swinging pillar dangling from this structure. This pose is not quite the end of Confusion For Three. The uncomfortable looking performers have a few more gambits. But it does represent the climax, and after a slight return, the audience is left again with the empty venue, in all of its messy lack of structure. By now even the tarkett has been pulled away from the floor, leaving a kind of theatre degree zero in its wake. A bunch of flowers to celebrate the dancers’ achievements is thrown from off-stage and we are done.
Confusion For Three is not particularly confusing for attentive audiences. Its structures are amorphous and the choreography tends towards the chaotic—yet it is not just “a mess.” It makes a surprising amount of sense. It is therefore a superb example of what can still be made anew out of nothing when thoughtful bodies and minds confront the angry void of theatre and its histories.
By Jonathan W. Marshall
West Australian Academy of Performing Arts at Edith Cowan University / freelance critic
Confusion For Three ran at PICA for a limited season 15 – 17 November 2018. Find out more here