Dance

Angela Goh’s dance work Sky Blue Mythic challenges us to shake off anthropocentric ways of being. By Anador Walsh.

Sky Blue Mythic

Angela Goh, Sky Blue Mythic, 2021, at the Sydney Opera House.
Angela Goh, Sky Blue Mythic, 2021, at the Sydney Opera House.
Credit: Prudence Upton

Both times I’ve seen Angela Goh’s Sky Blue Mythic, it’s been in eerily appropriate contexts. The first, Goh was performing at the Sydney Opera House. It was May last year, the eve of the blood moon. Maybe the Covid-related lockdowns caused me to look for some sort of greater meaning, or maybe I was under the influence of the intrinsic connection that folks with menstrual cycles have to the moon. But I left feeling strongly that Sky Blue Mythic was touching on something significant.

The second time, on the opening night of Sky Blue Mythic’s current season at Dancehouse in Melbourne, I sat in the dark of the theatre as images of the northern New South Wales floods flashed through my mind. It was as if the two were inextricably intertwined: Goh’s performing body and the decimation of a region in the throes of a “once-in-100-years” climate disaster. I could not separate the two.

Originally commissioned by Carriageworks, Dancehouse and the Keir Foundation as a short work for the 2020 Keir Choreographic Award, Sky Blue Mythic was expanded in 2021 as a Sydney Opera House New Work Now commission. In her artist statement, Goh writes: “Sky Blue Mythic approaches dance as a non-human entity” and says that it employs non-humancentric ways of sensing as an embodied strategy. This is clearly evident throughout but is showcased in a particular scene in the final third of the work.

Kneeling on the ground, Goh transforms her hands in a startlingly childlike way into a butterfly. Extending her limbs in front of her body and interlocking her thumbs, Goh flaps the butterfly’s wings – her hands – and floats the insect over her head. Soon afterwards, Goh pulls herself with one hand by the teeth to the front of the stage, before creating an optical illusion with her hands that seemingly separates her lips from her face. Her fingers crossed in front of her face to form a second mouth, Goh slowly extends her arms out towards the audience, transporting her new lips with them, so that they appear to hover almost a metre out from her face. In this moment, the possibility of separating ways of being from the historically entrenched restraints of the human mind and body seems close to being realised.

To say that Sky Blue Mythic is referentially dense is a gross understatement. Goh’s stated influences include, but are not limited to, the Romantic ballet Giselle, Jorge Luis Borges’ The Garden of Forking Paths, Sadie Plant, Xenofeminism and the song “Dreams” by The Cranberries. In a recent conversation, Goh told me that this doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of the “rabbit hole and thinking loop-de-loop” that has informed this work.

Beyond Goh’s referential framing, it’s hard as an audience member not to bring your own lexicon of experience and culture to Sky Blue Mythic. As I watched Goh compost, recalibrate and regurgitate her cultural touchpoints, I found myself doing the same. When Goh reached into her pocket to pull out a blue gemstone, I thought of Sailor Moon harnessing the powers of the cosmos to fight forces of evil. When Goh blinked or winked for uncomfortably long periods of time or repeated the same phrases of movement twice or more, I thought of the potential for computational glitches to act as catalysts for sociopolitical change, as proposed in Legacy Russell’s 2020 manifesto Glitch Feminism. And when Goh repeatedly opened her mouth to utter a protracted howl or performed a sequence of balletic movements, I found myself thinking of her entire choreographic catalogue, particularly Body Loss (2017-22) and Scum Ballet (2017).

Goh inspires these wormholes of thought in two key ways. She is a technically brilliant dancer. The control she holds over her body while it is in motion attests to this. In Sky Blue Mythic she moves in ways that oscillate between being so mechanically precise and so seemingly physically impossible that it’s best described as being inhuman.

In one scene, she rotates her kneeling body so slowly I find my gaze moving out from her towards the stage’s edge to check she isn’t on some sort of moving platform. In another, she orientates the lower two-thirds of her body over her arms, neck and head in a series of movements so complex I keep half-expecting her spine to snap.

Goh is also adept at amassing the right team to realise her vision. Sky Blue Mythic’s stage design is minimal, populated only by a sundial and the occasional appearance of other objects – a papaya milk can and a gem. The costuming is casual and almost normcore in nature. Corin Ileto’s electronic score is at times sparse and haunting and at others jarring. Govin Ruben’s brilliant white lighting design is broken up in moments by a strobe-like procession of RGB – red, green, blue – colours. All these staging elements coalesce into an experience that captures the zeitgeist and draws you in to the work’s conceptual underpinning, while leaving enough space to bring your own understandings to the work.

Lately I find myself regularly in conversation with peers and friends about post-pandemic life and the cultural vibe shift we’re currently experiencing. Discussions on the adaptation of urban areas to deal with climate change, the threat of nuclear war and the future of labour with increasing automation and the growing integration of artificial intelligence into everyday life are mingled with musings on the future of art, music and fashion.

Disappointment that the “hot vaxxed girl summer” didn’t really eventuate, the changing nature of desire and the idea that culture today is deeply shaped by an impending sense of doom are all real, valid concerns but are ultimately futile in the face of war and large-scale climate collapse. There is, after all, no culture without life. Angela Goh’s choreographic practice at large is grounded in exploring these concerns, but Sky Blue Mythic particularly brings them into focus.

In exploring alternative ways of being and doing outside anthropocentrism, Sky Blue Mythic asks us to tap into our social, technological and ecological surroundings, to consider how we could do things differently. What we’ve been doing to date clearly isn’t working: we need something more than human. 

Sky Blue Mythic is showing at Dancehouse, Melbourne, until March 19.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 19, 2022 as "Beyond human".

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Anador Walsh is a curator and writer predominantly concerned with performance and conceptual art practices.

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