Using dance, Shelley Lasica’s ongoing collaborative project The Design Plot maps the space between the performers and the audience, examining the macro and the micro as part of a whole. By Lisa Radford.

The Design Plot

A scene from Shelley Lasica’s The Design Plot.
A scene from Shelley Lasica’s The Design Plot.
Credit: Jacqui Shelton

The 10th iteration of Shelley Lasica’s The Design Plot appears to start in the middle. The ongoing collaborative work by the choreographer and dancer has no linear entrance and the stage has no edges.

Set in the round, at the Immigration Museum, Melbourne, a brace of IKEA-Alvar Aalto ripoff stools surround a globe-like form that angles out of the tiled floor of the room. Sixteen Neoclassical Ionic columns frame the space. It seemed poignant to learn that a female character is ascribed to the Ionic, a direct contrast with the masculine Doric form. The height of the ceiling is accentuated by a low-lying typographic playground-cum-sculpture, designed by architectural firm Sibling, which acts as an interventional score for guests programmed by Amrita Hepi, the museum’s current artist-in-residence.

During her 30-year career, Lasica has worked in and around performance, art, installation and theatre, in forms that accommodate solo presentations, ensemble works and collaborations. Dance was central to her formative experience, growing up as the daughter of Modern Dance Ensemble founder Margaret Lasica. Rather than pursue classical training, Lasica “danced her way” through an art history degree at Melbourne University, unable to decide between studying architecture, dance or visual art.

Her reference material remains decidedly broad, her practice sharing concerns with conceptual practices emerging from the 1960s and ’70s that looked to move beyond the boundaries of verbal language and the limitations of expression. In this way, Lasica and her peers could be considered practitioners akin to William Forsythe, Yvonne Rainer and Simone Forti, all of whom share an acknowledgement of the correspondence between art forms and a desire to communicate beyond the limitations of our logocentric culture.

The difficulty in relating to dance as a layman, or perhaps with any contemporary art form, is the lack of an authoritative notation system to register what is seen. What am I looking at, where is the narrative? Perhaps this is not unlike negotiating the terrain of the contemporary image and news world, but with this lack comes a sense of self-doubt and perceived ignorance, which can impact one’s ability to trust their reading of the space.

Watching The Design Plot, I am unsure if the dotted white lines mapping undisclosed territories on the blue sphere interspersed with green wedges emerging from the form are supposed to describe the world, but in the context of the museum, they do. I am emotional upon arrival: reading the narratives of fellow settlers, it is impossible not to draw parallels to friends and family, past and present – people fleeing conflict or looking for prosperity, the space between needing and being forced to leave, narrated through time and impact on Indigenous land and histories. An intersection, of people, bodies, movement and space.

There is a quiet buzz in the room. I notice other artists – writers, musicians and dancers – alongside museum visitors who have happened upon the event. A mixture of intrigue, boredom and anticipation permeates.

There is a prelude by Alexander Powers, whose short work includes four movements interspersed with spoken reflections. As a sort of overture to Lasica’s three-act performance, Powers’ work introduces our role in physical engagement. The labour of the body is emphasised in repetitive movements – 100 jumps; five steps, carefully lunged; marching up and down a ramp; lifts. Through the spoken reflections, delivered after heaving breaths, Powers expands on the relationship between frame of mind and the body framed.

I have since read a reflection by another Australian dancer and choreographer, Adam Jasper, titled “Why no one watches ballet anymore” from an excellent collection of texts reflecting on contemporary dance that was published by Campbelltown Arts Centre in 2009. In it, Jasper narrates ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev’s sellout appearance on The Muppet Show in 1978, alongside a narrative of Jane Fonda’s starring role in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969), her critique of America’s involvement in the Vietnam War and the birth of “aerobics” as we know it. Jasper points to the military-esque nature of aerobics and its affiliation with endurance. Paralleling Powers’ work, the politics of the body is evident in its movement – repetitive-factory-line gestures, Uber-delivery cycling and running-on-treadmill marathons. The body at work, at play and in pleasure: repetition generating exhaustion as a metric.

The Design Plot begins. There is no music, per se. The dancers are dressed in monochromatic jumpsuits and their sneakers form the soundtrack to their movement, cause and effect. Outside the round, in a moment that has no marker, they scatter around the room in pairs and alone, adjusting lights and marking out territory with their limbs and glances.

Some rearrange the room, impacting and implicating the audience. Someone slides, as does another, the function of the ramp in direct contrast to the horizontality of the floor. I don’t have enough eyes in my head to see how they have scattered: crawling as if in a Korean horror film, accentuating gravity with weight, holding another’s limb. Like protons in a Hadron Collider, bodies react to one another – in line, in conflict, against, with. Slow-motion wrestling becomes territorial musings, the sound of sneakers accentuating proximity and resistance.

In the distance, Lasica – at least, I think it is her – twirls as if a whirling dervish. The pairs become mirrors of each other, there are synchronous pauses and changes in tempo: solo adventures become knots of bodies. As temporality disappears, the different personalities of each dancer’s gestures become more evident, and the forms shift between the pictorial and the abstract. The slow-motion wrestling transforms into slow-motion brawl, careful steps becoming a jog, turning into a jig. A seduction? A trapping? That iPhone alarm marks time and shifts the pace – cluster, attraction, contortion, meditation, twist. Bodies high, bodies low, or dead – six bodies moving as one, one body moving with six.

The Design Plot emerges not from a script but from conversation. A document that Lasica has compiled informs the narrative – an archive of articles about somatic practice, navigation and orientation is shared with the dancers to inform their movements, as well as a podcast about emojis. Lasica’s document acts as an interpretative vector that analyses the space and time within which it is performed and to which it is responding. In some ways, it is a melancholic space, the dancers performing a language that is simultaneously articulate and absent. But The Design Plot is definitely of the present: its impossible multiplicity, its articulation of minutiae, the macro and micro as part of a whole that is not able to be consumed from one viewpoint.

The title of that Campbelltown Arts Centre compilation – What I Think About When I Think About Dancing – riffs on Murakami. The last essay is a collection of notes by the artist Charlie Sofo. His observations, almost banal, are like textual versions of his work. One of them reads: “I think dancing can be a way to imagine possible futures. It has something to do with articulating how to be, how to move and what stance to take. Moving is immediate, and so dancing is everywhere.” Like him, I wonder if some of our contemporary problems might be related to a disengagement with our bodies. When watching Lasica’s work, we are presented with a vernacular of movements and gestures mapping space between us – whether we are dancer or audience – a design plotting desire through temporality and tension.


Arts Diary

FESTIVAL Garden of Unearthly Delights

Rundle Park, Adelaide, until March 15

DESIGN Carolyn Eskdale: Memory Horizon

Heide Museum of Modern Art, Bulleen, until June 14

VISUAL ART Ry David Bradley: Transmission

Sullivan + Strumpf, Sydney, until March 5

FESTIVAL Can't Do Tomorrow

The Facility, Melbourne, February 20-29

VISUAL ART The Long Kiss Goodbye

Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery, Perth, until May 9

THEATRE Emerald City

QPAC Playhouse, Brisbane, until February 29

MULTIMEDIA What is Chinese? Xiao Ke x Zi Han

Arts House, Melbourne, February 20-29

MUSIC Kate Tempest

Factory Theatre, Sydney, February 20

CINEMA Transitions Film Festival

Cinemas throughout Melbourne, February 20—March 6

THEATRE Short + Sweet Theatre

Tom Mann Theatre, Sydney, until April 26

CULTURE High Rotation

Museum of Brisbane, until April 19

THEATRE As You Like It

Royal Tasmanian Botanical Gardens, Hobart, until February 28

Last chance

THEATRE Black Ties

State Theatre Centre of Western Australia, Perth, until February 16

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 15, 2020 as "Whirls colliding".

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