Chunky Move’s new dance work, Yung Lung, drops into the ecstatic emptiness at the end of the future. By Pip Wallis.
A digital sun rises repeatedly around the ring of screens as an operatic scene unfurls over the podium. The seven dancers in Yung Lung – the new Chunky Move work choreographed by Antony Hamilton – strike poses redolent of history painting. But “all that is solid melts into air” opined Marx and Engels, reflecting on Modernism’s voracious post-Enlightenment hunger for the new. And after the melting, new forms of ecstasy.
As the monuments of communism fell in the late ’80s and early ’90s, dance music intoxicated a generation of Brits who had been promised the social democratic dreams of Modernism but instead experienced the ravages of Thatcherism. As capitalism was enforced, they escaped into euphoric collectivism to see out the final decade of the 20th century in the newly emptied factory warehouses from the Fordist era.
And then the future died. As cultural theorist Mark Fisher observes, the forward motion of the previous era in which cultural moments gave way in quick succession to new cultural moments slowed, and time clotted. “What is it to live in the 21st century?” he asks. “It is to have the 20th century distributed on high-speed internet.” He puts this clotting in the mid-aughts, as the future definitively disappeared when the internet became ubiquitous. From beneath the now ever-accessible history, nothing new can emerge.
Marx himself melts in the set designed by Callum Morton, who continues his ongoing excavation of our collective aesthetic relics. The monument-scale heads, forming a stage in the round, are submerged in spray-painted rubble that could be shards of the Berlin Wall or Los Angeles’ Sunken City. Marx’s enormous moustache becomes a foothold for the dancers, his eyes glowing with a radioactive mist. Steel bannisters curl over the mound like leftovers from ’80s civic infrastructure, and a tunnel through the middle of the mound takes us from cave clan to The Lost Boys. All of it is bathed in nuclear/binary-code-chartreuse and Purple Drank-violet lighting by Bosco Shaw.
With a glitch the work shifts into gear and takes us from the stage of Western history to the podium of the club. The warriors (Madeleine Bowman, Rachel Coulson, Marni Green, Samuel Harnett-Welk, Cody Lavery, Summer Penney and Damian Meredith) menace with Mad Max scowls. The soundtrack by Chiara Kickdrum rolls in with a collective heartbeat and subterranean groans and then faces down the dancers with an hour of hard techno. The bpm doubles and doubles again; then comes the machine-like synchronicity of the dancers, almost weapon-esque, with the smooth but jarring movements of robots. Raving, waacking, modern dance touchstones and moves born of digital platforms – Mortal Kombat, Dance Dance Revolution and TikTok. Mechanic duets are fentanyl for the eyes – just tip your head back slightly and let the mesmeric precision flow. Like a work by German artist Anne Imhof, the performers emit disdain for the audience: eye contact is returned with sustained blank stares that distil the ambivalence and dissociation of contemporary communication.
So here we are in a zombie state, gorging on the past in a frenzied retromania of recycled cultural touchstones. The ring of screens on a rig above the stage, like score screens above a boxing ring, cycle through endless cultural detritus arranged by Kris Moyes, Nickolas Moloney and Hamilton with a glibness that makes postmodernism look like child’s play. Xena: Warrior Princess, ’80s glam rock, dinky sci-fi, cigarette-smoking red lips, the atomic bomb, schlock horror, cartoons, a dog pissing on itself. There’s a voyeuristic sense of being at a club night we’re not invited to, awkwardly watching from the edge as cultural signifiers get candy-flipped faster than we can swallow.
But this isn’t the flawlessness of contemporary digital Slip’N’Slide. Rather, the work revels in the cultural crumbs and aesthetic detritus of yesterday. It’s the ghosts of Modernism specifically that haunt us now. The constant images on the screen distract and fracture focus, ushering in an insomniac state of forever-anxiety. And then comes the mundanity of exhaustion, a kind of phone-it-in malaise on the dance floor when the body is flagging and the drugs are waning, but we lurch on because the beat, the beat.
It’s not only cultural recycling that marks the end of the future but political sequels that suggest revolutionary political shifts are no longer imaginable. Trump revivifies to make America great again again, Brexit undoes the EU dream, Putin – who features heavily on the screens – ensures his own power until 2036 and we revert to border-bolstered nationalisms in the face of pandemic. Ozploitation clips, a Ned Kelly re-enactment and a viral clip of a septuagenarian crowing profanely about VB longnecks for breakfast recall the cringe of Australiana as we awkwardly entered globalisation 30 years ago.
Costumes by P.A.M are collaged from dead stock into hotpants, midriff tops, arm stockings, bike shorts and baggy hole-ridden T-shirts. The week Yung Lung opened in Melbourne, a new episode of streaming series Euphoria featured the elfin Jules wearing a P.A.M-designed top branded with “New World TM”, suggesting futures are a figment of our consumerist desires. The shirt is sportswear for the digital Gaia who communes via shrooms at the psy-trance rave – or at least looks the part. Euphoria gestures to an empty transcendence accessed through downers and porn, a salve for information overdose that plays out in Yung Lung.
Just as with Modernism, the performance – which begins with clear phases and identifiable shifts in style and tone – slowly flattens out into endurance. The monotone of the base is soothing and mind-emptying and yet I hunger for the variation that marks the beginning of the work. There’s no time to be bored as we drift through the seamless micro stimuli. As Fisher put it, no one is bored, everything is boring.
After exhaustion comes trance. With a billowing of fake smoke and white noise on the screens, the bodies slow into a languorous ripple of supple limbs. This level is completed and, in a pause as the next one loads, a light beam picks out the dancers’ faces, each alone in the punitive personalisation of our era, where you either perform or cease to exist. If taking personal responsibility for the malaise of an era means filling a Zoloft prescription or enrolling in cognitive behaviour therapy, these creatures have chosen instead to check out with the meditation of trance. The adrenalin required brings the dancers to a mesmeric state, a k-hole of cognitive dissonance and fatalist submission to Fisher’s quippy “nihiliberalism”. Yung Lung isn’t a return to the transcendent dance floor – it offers ringside seats for the cold euphoria of this non-time. As Jean Baudrillard wrote of the networked era, “We are no longer part of the drama of alienation; we live in the ecstasy of communication. And this ecstasy is obscene.”
Dissatisfaction is on point. The screens return to the sun which, as it turns out, wasn’t rising. Now it’s not even setting – rather, it’s hovering on the horizon in a perpetual dawn-dusk, here at the end of the future.
Yung Lung is playing at The Substation, Newport, Melbourne, until February 12.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 12, 2022 as "Nihiliberal trance".
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