Thursday, 6 February 2020

Rehearsal For Death - Dance Review

What: Rehearsal For Death
When: 6 - 9 February 2020
Where: La Mama Courthouse
Created and performed by: Rebekah Stewart and Sophie Thompson
Lighting and stage management by: Jordan Carter
Rebekah Stewart and Sophie Thompson - photo by Mischa Baka

You may recall in 2018 the Melbourne arts scene was rather obsessed with the question of death - what it is, how we approach it, how we deal with it, and many other permutations on the theme. Death is always a favourite topic though, and Rehearsal For Death, playing this week at La Mama Courthouse, is the latest iteration on the theme.

Rehearsal For Death is a contemporary dance work which gets its genesis from the gothic/surrealist photographic portraiture of Francesca Woodman. Woodman shot in black and white and investigated life amidst decay and had an extremely strong femme erotica edge to her work. Whilst not having lived long enough to ever see success (she killed herself at 22), her photos have developed a posthumous fame.

Stewart and Thomson are dancers who seem to be at opposite ends of their artistry. Stewart is a well-established mulit-disciplinary artist who works with visual mediums as well as her body as art scape. Thomson is an emerging dancer who is yet to make her mark on the industry.

This gulf is evident in their dance styles, with Stewart being strong and animated every second, her body sinuous and energetic across the whole journey. Stewart, on the other hand, has still to develop that full body awareness - the kind which zings right through to finger tips and toes. On the other hand, she does bring an air of that physical ennui which envelops youth today which brings an intriguingly different reference point to the story of Woodman and her youthful depression. This aspect of her performance really becomes powerful in the nightclub scene!

Both dancers have high level dance skills and are well versed in the tropes of contemporary dance and this comes through in the compositional construction of Rehearsal For Death. I am just not sure that the dance actually speaks to the content. It feels a little bit form over function for me, which means the art gets lost in the craft.

In the program notes the women call the show their '...memento mori... a reminder that you will die'. There are certainly strong references to death across the work - the car crash, Thomson's body strewn in a casket, Stewart's replica of the photo of Woodman staring at a black body silhoutte on the floor. The subject of death is not at issue here, it is more a question of what the 'rehearsal' aspect of the work is.

I would have like stronger references to the actual style of Woodman's work. The erotica is completely ignored although there is so much scope there, especially with auto-erotica. Woodman was also fascinated with mirrors and whilst I am happy they didn't go so far as to have a mirror on the stage, I felt the duet could have/should have referenced that. Instead it just looked like a tick box section for a vocational dance class.

I want to go back to the night club scene. For me, this was a glorious moment of brilliance. It spoke so loudly to the banality, repetition, and loss of joy in life as we march inexorably to our demise. Amidst it's strident message of doom though, humour breaks through and releases us, for just a moment, to laugh at ourselves and remember there is joy in life.

There is a spoken section of the dance but it adds nothing to the experience in either the story telling or the art. It is part of a meta construct - rehearsal for death, rehearsal for performance - that tired old horse. It is a sad dip in the show not only because of its derivative nature, but also because neither of the dancers have evidently ever trained their vocal chords in the way they have trained the rest of their body.

This is so common with contemporary dance which includes voice. Why use a part of your body you haven't trained in performance? This is actually a complaint I have about many modern actors I might add... The vocal chords are a muscle. Learn how to use them!

Rehearsal For Death is an intriguing nugget but it is not ready yet - mostly because it needs stronger dramaturgy and production. Unfortunately the Courthouse lighting grid is not really capable of dance lighting and if you are going to reference photography in your work you really do need an agile lighting set up and design. Carter (lighting) does a good job with the resources she has - especially in the second half of the show - but Rehearsal For Death needs more to really work.

I think there is a lot of potential in Rehearsal For Death. It's just needs to be braver and bolder and probably needs some resources invested in the aesthetics of the piece. The sound track is amazing, by the way!

2.5 Stars

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