Lucy Guerin’s Split, seen at the Place as part of Dance Umbrella 2019, is an intense, dynamic meditation on the female body. Fascinating for the duration of its 50 mins, Split focusses on duality – charting the shifts between Ashley McLellan and Lilian Steiner as they negotiate their space, timing, movement and relationship. In close proximity to each other, the women work in unison with a fierce urgency, morphing between an abstract and literal language. They pause only to mark out the boundaries of the space they inhabit, reducing it each time with thick white tape, forcing them closer so by the end they become one body.
There’s nothing else on stage to distract us – only the ebb and flow of the women’s action, a sense of tension heightened by Scanner’s fluctuating drum score which continuously builds and retreats in volume. As if to emphasise the split between them, McLellan is clothed, Steiner naked, a bold decision on Guerin’s part but it makes sense, accentuating the meanings we attach to women’s bodies either clothed or unclothed. Indeed, as they move in an unbelievable act of synchronicity, layers of signification play over the surfaces of their active bodies. Inspite of its choreographic sharpness Split is full of ambiguities. Do the women represent the body and mind of one woman, a split personality? Are they family members, lovers, friends? What is the story they wish to tell through their complex interactions and physical codes? Or are they purely excavating choreographic form and structure?
Both women embark on a journey of conflict and resolutions. They remind me of the Mexican painter Frida Kahlo’s The Two Fridas which depicts the two sides of the troubled artist herself – an exterior and interior. Steiner and McLellan engage in rounds of competition, aggression, submission and affection without arriving at any resolution, constantly swapping roles and power. Through their embodiment of varied dance techniques, pedestrian movement and athletic articulations they play around with motifs of control and abandonment. A compact, tight unit they seamlessly exit and enter these two states. Layers of movement and gesture build on the pulsing, circular rhythms generated by their bodies, which flow from feet to head. Sometime they perform intricate hand gestures which suggest ritualistic tasks or animalistic instincts as they devour each other but we’re fed only morsels of meaning as no one action or phrase lasts long enough to digest. There’s a disconnect between the abstract movement and the narratives of these woman – something that makes the reading of them difficult but then again it’s refreshing and liberating to see how two bodies resist being fixed.
I soon forget that Steiner is naked. With nothing to hide behind, her confidence in her nakedness seems to expose McLellan’s self-consciousness. Wearing an elegant, blue satin dress, ironically she is more vulnerable than Steiner, trapped in this symbol of femininity. Guerin’s work engages on many different levels and she’s successful in delivering a work which thrills visually, teases emotionally and disturbs politically. I want to know more about these women but I resign myself to enjoying their generous performance and their tantalising provocations.