Thursday 21 March 2019

You Animal, You - Dance Review

What: You Animal, You
When: 19 - 24 March 2019
Where: Main Hall, Arts House
Written by: Danielle Micich and Heather Mitchell
Directed by: Danielle Micich
Composed by: Kelly Ryall
Performed by: Ghenoa Gela, Raghav Handa, Lauren Langlois, Hayley McElhinney, and Jack Riley
Lighting by: Damien Cooper
Stage Managed by: Brooke Kiss
Lauren Langlois, Jack Riley, Raghav Handa and Hayley McElhinney - photo by Pia Johnson
Sometimes the advertising for a product is not the thing you end up getting. This is far too often true in the Australian performaning arts industry because concept pitches which have to be formed for funding and presenter applications often have to be done before the work is ever crystalised. You Animal, You which is being presented at Arts House this week for Dance Massive is one of those shows.

Based on the publicity blurb I was expecting a feral, visceral Lord Of The Flies style affair but instead a got a very cerebral Waiting For Godot/The Complexity Of Belonging hybrid. To be honest, once I understood what I was in for across the (just over) hour long show, I was quite happy to settle in to a highly abstracted Beckett style production about power shifts and ladder climbing.

I was not as pleased with the parallels which were forming for me with The Complexity of Belonging. I was not a huge fan of that particular MTC/Chunky Move production and for similar reasons - some rather uncomfortable meta politics at play in the works. Enough about other shows though. Let's dig into what Force Majeure have given us.

You Animal, You is an investigation of socio-political heirarchies and what it takes to get to 'the top of the ladder'. Yes, there is a ladder, a real ladder which is wheeled around, climbed, danced with, etc. I hated that ladder. In a highly abstracted work to see such a literal prop being so dominant was annoying (and lazy?).

One of my biggest criticisms of You Animal, You is the apparent reluctance of Micich (director) to do what all directors must do and 'kill your darlings'. I will note, based on reviews I have read from the Sydney presentation there have been some significant changes to the work for the Melbourne season but I don't think any of those changes have solved the problems of focus and clarity, or creating a stronger connection to the stated intention of the piece.

The overarching conceit is potentially intriguing and conflates family politics with social politics. There is a dominant matriarch Mum (McElhinney) who has a son, Boy (Riley) and a daughter, Girl (Langlois). Boy is naturally gifted and is second on the ladder (after Mum). Girl sits third and then their is Bottomfeeder (Handa). They compete in a series of games which Mum changes at random just as she changes the rules and conditions of play at random to keep everyone off balance and in motion ensuring her place at the top.

You Animal, You is a dance theatre work layered in micro and macro politics which does make it exciting. I also think in dance casting cannot be blind and the bodies of the people engaging in the story telling informs how we, the audience, read the messages.

Within this frame I loved the racial politics of You Animal, You as it speaks to our current Australian situation towards ethnicity. Handa as Bottomfeeder speaks loudly to how we treat non-white Australians. Bottomfeeder out performs everyone included the annointed heir, Boy. Because Bottomfeeder will always out perform Boy, Mum keeps changing the situation and the goal posts to distract Bottomfeeder so that Boy will always win.

Mum is the master of the carrot and the stick approach of control. Intriguingly, this aspect of the conversation behind You Animal, You reminded me of the current controversy in the USA where rich parents have been indicted for paying the way for their children to enter elite colleges. How timely is that?

I also loved the interventions of Yellow (Gela). As a Torres Strait Islander, Gela's interventions to support Girl to survive Mum speak strongly of how we need to look outside our own white tribe to see if there are better, kinder, stronger ways to live with each other. Her solo dance down the centre of the arena style space is fierce and had me thinking back to Le Dernier Appel/The Last Cry.

The politics which had me angry and lost was that of the female. Mum, as the woman in control is a total bitch. Mum also never lets Girl compete on an even playing field. When others are blind folded, she is not, etc. I felt the rage I feel whenever our right wing politicians make comments about how women aren't natural leaders and you can't have quotas because that would deny promotion based on merit.

Girl doesn't seem to want to even want to play the game, and then is never allowed to compete fully and fairly. It is even harder to watch when it is women doing this to women and in You Animal, You the statements which seem to emerge around both Mum and Girl seem to embed all of the negative female stereotypes. Gela is the only counteractive force but must she be the sole saviour for all of humanity?

I wish I could tell you the significance of the colour yellow in You Animal, You but to be honest it is unclear to me. Mum is in a gold dress (not torn and tattered like the Sydney production which is a shame), and Gela is called yellow because that was her competition colour when she played in the games previously apparently (I only know this from reviews of previous iteration). The flutter spewed across the stage is yellow too.

In colour theory yellow can represent happiness, warmth, divinity, and caution. Across the world yellow has symboliseed courage (Japan), adult movies (China), insanity (Russia), death (Mexico), treason (Spain), Judaism (Germany), and cowardice (USA). I was unable to pin down how You Animal, You was using the colour except in one small piece of text which states "The number 4 is yellow." It feels significant to point out there were only ever a maximum 4 performers on stage at any point in time.

The text element of the show involved random monologues written by Mitchell (who played Mum in Sydney) and Micich. Micich was playing with the concept of syneasthesia and perhaps the most intriguing monologue was spoken by Girl about colours looking like numbers, food tasting like sensations, and smells being like sounds, etc. Some of the writing tries too hard, but it is intriguing.

Overall You Animal, You has been set up to represent an arena spectacular and Cooper's lighting does all the heavy lifting in this regard. A simple circular rig of moving lights create the architecture of the outer and inner arenas whilst Ryall's magnificent soundscape keeps movement, energy and complexity in what is, in places, a thin piece of theatre which is just a tad too slow.

The dancing from all of the performers is masterful and everyone does get to showcase their skills. Given that most of the team are themselves choreographers it goes without saying they have all been involved in the creation of this work and it is a collaborative achievement. It is just a shame that a reworking has not strengthened the work and the creators need to consider whether they are looking at the right things and perhaps changed the wrong things? I would love to have been a fly on the wall for the conversations with dramaturg Sarah Goode...

It is not often I find myself saying I liked a show and also didn't like a show. Perhaps the fact I can separate those ideas out is why the show doesn't quite work as it could and should.

2.5 Stars

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