Both honouring and expanding its legacy, the 40th Liveworks brought the ghosts of past performance to startling life. By Cassie Tongue.


Two performers on stage.
Branch Nebula (Lee Wilson and Mirabelle Wouters) perform Sentimental Reason at Liveworks.
Credit: Matthew Miceli

On entering Carriageworks during Liveworks 2023, you are greeted by a site-specific work in the venue’s public space and foyer by Bay 17. It’s both a visual treat and a vital work of orientating and affirming your entry into a new space. Elvis Richardson’s Performance Artist 4Eva is a repurposing of 40 years of Performance Space programs, flyers and advertisements to create a striking journey through typographic trends – and, movingly, artistic histories.

The title is a message spelt out in a rainbow of colours and, when you step closer, the work sharpens and crystallises. It’s an invitation to lean in and investigate the sum of its parts: to consider the names – Judith Wright, Vicki Van Hout, Jill Scott – and titles of shows and events – The Pornography of Performance (1989), Cats Step Softly (1992), Our Frozen Moment (2012), to name just a few – as they build in tribute to the collective. Taken as a whole, this is a love letter to performance artists made from the organisation’s old marketing bones.

Nothing could be better as a welcome to Liveworks 2023, the festival of experimental art that this year celebrates the 40th anniversary of its curators, Performance Space, or PSpace, as it’s affectionately known. It takes the ghost of performance art past and brings it back to startling life.

Originally based in Redfern and founded by Mike Mullins – this year, the company’s guest co-artistic directors are Rosie Dennis and Daniel Mudie Cunningham – this shifting collective of radical interdisciplinary artists has been instrumental in shaping postdramatic theatrical performance in Australia.

Since 2007, PSpace has been a resident company at Carriageworks, and Liveworks, which this year ran from October 19-29, places the company front and centre. Bays, foyers and public spaces play host to video installations, large-scale multimodal artworks, queer raves and independent, experimental choreographic works. Notable PSpace artists featured at Liveworks past include vocal artists Rainbow Chan and Marcus Whale; multidisciplinary artists Nat Randall and Anna Breckon (The Second Woman), S.J Norman, and Seann Miley Moore; DJs and sound stylists Stereogamous and Charlie Villas; dancers and choreographers Angela Goh, Sue Healey and Joel Bray; and ballroom artists Bhenji Ra and the House of Slé.

This year, Liveworks is looking back on this legacy to both honour and expand it. New works – Chan’s The Bridal Lament, Brooke Stamp’s Mickey, Latai Taumoepeau and Rosanna Raymond’s K’ainga CommonWealth – are mixed with re-showings and restagings of archival works; even POST, the groundbreaking performance group consisting of comic and performer Zoë Coombs Marr, Mish Grigor and Natalie Rose, is back on the bill.

While PSpace’s annual 24-hour queer party/ceremony, Day for Night – usually a cornerstone of the festival – took place earlier in the year as part of Sydney WorldPride, this element of party-as-art-and-transformation was not neglected. In its closing weekend, Liveworks hosted a new iteration of its queer performance evening cLUB bENT, which originally ran from 1995 to ’98.

Also returning to the Liveworks bill is Antistatic, a PSpace initiative for fostering independent choreographic practice. Now labelled Antistatic Redux and split into two events, these captured something of the spirit of Liveworks 2023: they offered art that was thrillingly, sometimes unexpectedly, alive.

The bill featured Lucy Guerin’s 1997 dance piece Robbery Waitress on Bail, a two-hander of brilliant clarity that plays on tabloid story aesthetics, anchored by text from a news report of a waitress who acted as a hostage in a diner robbery committed by her fiancé. It was scheduled alongside Branch Nebula’s Sentimental Reason, a 2001 work also inspired by a news report that brings to mind Peter Shaffer’s Equus and might be the more incisive text. These works are provocations that resist titillation, although Sentimental Reason found a new life in 2019 when its archival recording went viral among German nudity-in-theatre enthusiasts.

The soul of Liveworks this year might be Antistatic Redux: The real time it takes… Described as “Rosalind Crisp brings us her version of the retrospective”, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that, not quite halfway through the performance, Crisp herself makes a proclamation that “this is not a retrospective”. After all, this is not a festival known for linearity and conventionality and Crisp herself has no interest in presenting something so simple.

The real time it takes…, she says, is really something else. She offers us a tumble of words that might encompass the production: it’s a selection, she says, a snippet, some snippets, or some tidbits. Of what? “The bits that fell off while I was dancing,” she finishes, a disarming twinkle in her eyes. It’s an arresting, immediate image, and perhaps the perfect one to describe the production, which I might also call a riot of memory aimed squarely at the present.

As you walk into the space, you’re handed a card that encourages you to move around and take everything in. This is not a passive experience. Crisp – frequently billed as the “Mick Jagger of Australian dance” – is a Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres and founder of the Omeo Dance Studio, named after her home town in regional Victoria. The space nods to her earlier years: there’s an achingly small Victorian Ballet sweatshirt on a hanger above a dresser; the drawers spill open, stuffed with ticket stubs and boarding passes; a small bouquet of native grasses rests atop it.

On screens – flickering up in front of us, behind us, on the side walls – these recorded snippets of her work don’t stretch back quite as far. Later, when Crisp enters the space – shifting the mood immediately from museum viewing to kinesthetic experience; we move when she moves, following her movement and words – she tells us why. For the first 20 years of their career, she says, any dancer is just figuring out if they have something to say.

As she dances, she admits that she’s still figuring that out. Even when she is talking, she is dancing – an extension, an amplification, of her words. “Maybe,” she says to us, dancers move so much “to get away from their bodies”. Her dance is conversational, gestural and deeply embodied. Once you’ve trained to do it, how can you stop?

But Crisp wonders aloud to us, too – how can she continue? She has always found her practice of dance and her practice of being in her home town to be equally essential to her spirit. But when she returned home from living in France and was confronted by environmental disasters born of the climate crisis, she tells us that she wondered how she could dance while this was happening.

Performance art and experimental art – like Crisp, like PSpace, like Liveworks – responds to political, social and environmental concerns. Rather than stop, Crisp evolved. Her latest works are grounded in trees and earth. Her movement is elemental, closely connected to the environment. It’s dance as conduit to conversation, dance as pastoral elegy and alert.

Crisp’s retrospective looks back but urges us to look forward: to the environment and critical change needed; to how artists are nurtured, produced and developed; to how dance, like dancers, never stops moving. It is a conversation. She dances in and out of darkness, but there is no real stopping point – endings are false constructs, anyway. We could have lingered there forever: it’s only her simple, soft “okay” that jolts us into applause and out of the theatre, blinking into the light of the foyer.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 4, 2023 as "Collective vitality".

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