Lucy Guerin Inc’s body of dance work is movingly elaborated in the retrospective exhibition/performance NEWRETRO. By Philipa Rothfield.
Performance’s only life is in the present. Performance cannot be saved, recorded, documented … once it does so, it becomes something other than performance. – Peggy Phelan
Lucy Guerin has been making dance for 21 years. If, as Peggy Phelan suggests, dance is here today, gone tomorrow, how can it be appreciated after the fact? How to articulate its legacy? Lucy Guerin Inc’s retrospective, NEWRETRO, finds its own solution to this problem by offering several modes of encounter: reiteration, video documentation, live rehearsal and recombination.
These are staged over four rooms at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art (ACCA), called the Duet Room, Video Retrospective, Choreography Transference and NEWRETRO. Guerin has chosen 21 dancers of differing ages and backgrounds, including several who have performed her work before but also many who haven’t.
The Duet Room offers the most faithful, visceral mode of encounter. Over three hours, five duet works are shown in full, some performed by the original cast, some not. Split, for example, is powerfully rendered by its original performers, Lilian Steiner and Melanie Lane. Other than covering up the nudity of one of the dancers, the piece is performed more or less as I saw it at Arts House, North Melbourne, in 2017. Split is a forensic examination of part-selves divided in two. It successively halves the floor with tape, reducing the space and moving inexorably towards a destructive climax in a claustrophobic square where one part devours the other.
Guerin’s early works are a more abstract expression of her distinctive demeanour and training. This is evident in the persistence over time of certain movement preferences: a serial gestural logic (strings of movement pearls, one after the other); a refined exploration of the legs in the hip socket, legs turned in, legs turned out, leg lifts, jumps, landings every which way; nuanced combinations amid fine variations.
Mining her own movement palette and inviting the input of her dancer-collaborators, Guerin has over the years turned her hand to some meaty topics: global issues in Human Interest Story (2010), Weather (2012), historical events such as the collapse of the West Gate Bridge (Structure and Sadness, 2006), intersubjective relationships (The Dark Chorus, 2016), communication and convention (Conversation Piece, 2012) and our existential moment in the time of Covid-19 (Flux Job, 2022).
These works are all available on small screens in the Video Retrospective room. Although it serves as a thorough mode of documentation, the experience of watching the videos feels like looking down the wrong end of a telescope. Being in the room with the dancers is so much more engaging.
Robbery Waitress on Bail (1997) was originally performed by Lucy Guerin and Ros Warby. The live experience in the Duet Room is exquisite, beautifully performed by Rebecca Jensen and Georgia Rudd. Jensen and Rudd are from an entirely different generation to Guerin and Warby. What are the implications of restaging this piece with dancers from a very different time and place?
The nostalgic desire to be transported back to the origins of a work stands in the way of opening up to difference. After all, each performance is a little bit different from the next. Dancers must find a way at each moment to re-create choreographic material in their bodies, bodies that vary from day to day, that develop, get tired, manage injury. Bringing in a new generation of dancers inevitably affects the performance of a work because their training and backgrounds are different, their artistic context and working conditions not the same.
In 2014, I saw a re-presentation of Yvonne Rainer’s groundbreaking postmodern work Trio A (1966) as part of a retrospective of Rainer’s work in London’s Raven Row Gallery. I felt at the time that the young dancers, coming from such different circumstances, could not possibly carry off the task, as if their age would somehow corrupt the performance. Trio A signals the birth of postmodern choreography – without spectacle, in the round, requiring a worker-like absorption on the part of the dancer. Its re-creation many years later opens up a different field of experience for audiences and performers, who are able to look back at the 1960s rather than live through it.
We sometimes imagine that when we go to see a work we encounter a fixed entity, a time capsule reiterated in full. The Australian Ballet recently performed Don Quixote, a homage in part to Nureyev’s restaging and film of the work in 1973. On the night I went, one of the dancers in Don Quixote gripped her partner’s hand as she endeavoured to find her balance. The leading man performed a series of virtuosic jumps, provoking breathless applause. The precarity of these moments belongs to the event. We witness the unique rendition of a work every time it is performed, which calls into question the notion of repeatability. What is it that is being repeated? The choreography. Yet that very repetition produces a unique form of variation, the singularity of this performance. It lives in the present.
The notion of a dance retrospective that spans 21 years expands the present moment to incorporate an awareness of the passage of time and the labour involved in making work. The NEWRETRO room amplifies this inevitable mingling of past and present. Twenty-odd dancers enter the large gallery space one by one, introducing themselves with the same movement phrase. They gather, they crawl, they perform in unison or split into small groups, duets and solos. Over three hours, we encounter Guerin’s mash-up of her extensive movement archive in this neutral space.
The concrete floor, white walls and fluorescent strip lighting (Paul Lim) feel cool. Often the soundscape (Jethro Woodward) consists of a pared-back beat, allowing for the juxtaposition of multiple segments extracted from their original context. The dancers crawl towards the centre, becoming an organism. A body leaves the hive to perform a solo. The delightful poetry of many bodies repeating a short phrase is demonstrated to music that speeds up and slows down. Some look hurried, others not at all.
Although much of the choreography is performed without emotion, there are sections that show Guerin’s engagement with emotional intensity. A selection of screams, grunts and aggressive barks reminds us that Guerin has made work in a variety of registers – depicting interpersonal, conflicted, messy human interactions. Humour too. A small section of Conversation Piece is shown, with three dancers miming the same telephone chat. Elements from The Dark Chorus stand out for a costume change into black Victorian dress. A square is delineated by tape – four dancers try, one after the other, a variety of movement tasks with varying degrees of success. The audience responds in kind to the rawness of trying, making rare noises in this three-hour collective experience. Dancers come and go, sit and watch and gather again into the collective.
The Choreography Transference room draws attention to the fact that many dancers had to learn material from video documentation. We witness dancers doing while watching. In the process, we can see the gap from one body to another across the passage of time: what is taken up, what is missed or lost. We also see the dancer’s investment in the image, originally a duet and now a trio between the spectator, the dancer and the image. Whatever the origins and manner of acquiring material, the actual performance belongs to each body.
The Duet Room and NEWRETRO space offer two ways of resolving the performance retrospective – through reconstruction and recombination. They share a circulating form of reference to the creative materiality of Lucy Guerin, allowing us to appreciate 21 years of artmaking. The choice to (re)enact her choreography in new and old ways gives the audience two modes of insight into the problem of retrospection.
The mere presence of 21 works on video lends weight to the extent of Guerin’s artistic output. When you consider the many dancers she has collaborated with, you get a sense of Guerin’s corporeal generosity. NEWRETRO is a moving celebration of Lucy Guerin the artist, a testimony to her decades-long investment in dancers and dancing and the field of artistic creation.
Lucy Guerin Inc’s NEWRETRO ran from March 25 to April 2 at ACCA, Melbourne.
BALLET Don Quixote
Sydney Opera House, until April 25
EXHIBITION Other Horizons
Fremantle Arts Centre, until April 23
VISUAL ART North by North-West
Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane, until March 2, 2025
CULTURE Heritage Festival
Venues in and around Canberra, April 11-30
TEXTILES New Exuberance: Contemporary Australian Textile Design
Jam Factory, Adelaide, until April 23
EXHIBITION Freedom of Movement: Contemporary Art and Design from the NGV Collection
NGV International, Melbourne, until April 10
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 8, 2023 as "Making it new".
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