Mira Calix and Sydney Dance Company at the Sydney Festival
Inside There Falls
17 January 2015
We start off in a kind of darkened antechamber, a narrow rectangular space with one wall lit blue. There are about twenty of us and we are asked to put on a white over-garment from racks of these items lining another wall. Mine looks a little complicated to put on — it has to go over the head. So I put it back and choose a long, shirt-like garment instead. Looking a little like shimmering ghosts, or in that penetrating blue light like some kind of human x-ray, we are handed a crumpled white paper bag with some kind of ball-shaped object inside. The paper bag begins to talk, recounting a strange, non-linear narrative in which I keep hearing the word ‘cinnamon’. After some moments of listening to this rambling story with no centre we hand back the talking paper bag and are invited into the next room. Our major interaction with Mira Calix’s installation, Inside There Falls, begins.
The second room is much larger and is filled with concentric rings of large sheets of white paper. After the experience in the antechamber the intensity of the colour white is confronting, but the paper is beautiful to look at. Some sections are smooth, but others are rumpled and crumpled, so the room is a celebration of texture. The hangings are also structured like a maze, with which we engage. The sheets of paper are of different lengths so it is possible to slip under a sheet of hanging paper, walk along another route and then slowly reach the inner area of the installation.
The inner sanctum is large, and of course circular, and is lit from above by fluorescent tubes of light that splay out from the centre of the ceiling, also in a circular pattern. Suspended from the ceiling is a large ball. It seems to be made of painted or printed paper. Its surface is smooth yet at the same time ragged. Small bits of paper hang from it as if they have been torn off the main shape, or pasted on to it quite randomly. The ball is a kind of burnt amber colour — with touches of much darker and some lighter colours. It hangs over a large white bowl with smooth and perfectly-shaped sides. The bowl itself sits on a circle of crystalline material — salt perhaps — and is filled with a mound of brown powder. Getting closer, a scent wafts through the air. The bowl contains cinnamon.
Voices and music permeate the room. The twisting, winding collection of words continues, no longer from a paper bag but, eerily, from many sources — the walls, that large ball hanging centre stage, the sheets of paper. The words are by Brett Clegg and the title of the installation is a line from his writing. Sadly, we are not ever given an opportunity to read the words so they slip from memory or wash over me, except for ‘cinnamon’, which remains with me.
Then, after about fifteen minutes two dancers appear. At first we see only their feet and lower legs as they make their way through the maze. But we know they are the dancers. Their shoes and long white pants have a certain elegance, and they seem to prowl invitingly through the maze. As they enter the inner sanctum we notice they are wearing close-fitting, gold helmets; their shirts are layered at the front like the paper that surrounds us; and as they turn their backs to us we can see a kind of feathery ruffle of fabric extending down the costume. They continue to prowl, touch, look beyond each other, embrace, brush past each other and twist their bodies, and especially their fingers, into various positions. They are elusive creatures and we follow them into the maze and watch and follow as they disappear briefly behind a sheet of hanging paper only to reappear in another circular pathway. Then they embrace and slowly return through the maze and exit.
Inside There Falls is a multi-media experience, and an immersive and sensory one at that. It is complex in the ideas that it encompasses. It plays with texture, patterns, surfaces, circularity, light, movement, words, sounds, permanence and impermanence, how all of these concepts might be understood and how we the audience might react with and acknowledge them. And looking back, the antechamber experience sets us up beautifully for the experience.
It is, however, the dance that brings the installation to life. Calix has said that the dancers are ‘an intervention’ in the installation, and it is true that they represent a passing moment in that they are not a continuous feature of the installation. We are even told in the antechamber that there is a ‘temporal dance’ to be experienced during the visit. But in this instance the dance, choreographed by Rafael Bonachela, changes the nature of the work. Rather than the work being an installation in the sense that we might understand the word in the visual arts, once the dancers appear the installation changes into a piece of performance art.
The dance also gives the installation an added layer of meaning. Bonachela has always said that his works are not inherently narrative but are driven by emotional responses to a particular stimulus or inspiration — in this case the Clegg poem. And his dancers are so accomplished and his choreographic process so intense and detailed that there is always a clear sense of focus in his work, which demands an equally focused response, albeit a personal one, from the viewer. The dancers gave the work such an immediacy and their dancing was so clearly articulated that I found myself creating a story or asking myself a series of questions about what lay behind their dance. Once they had left there was a sense that we were now bereft. What was the paper, what were the words and the music without them?
Postscript: Inside There Falls ran continuously from 12 to 8 pm over a ten day season during the Sydney Festival. The dancing segment of about twenty minutes per hour was shared by six dancers from Sydney Dance Company. I saw Sam Young-Wright and Laura Wood. Young-Wright talked to me after his session and explained: ‘We have a choreographic score that we work with but, because it’s an installation, we have to take account of certain variables — having people in the performing space! And that’s lovely because rarely as a dancer do you have that interaction and instant feedback.’