James Batchelor Deepspace - photo by Gregory Lorenzutti AARAt a time when choreographers are constantly challenged to come up with new movement styles and arresting images, James Batchelor stands out for the individuality of his deeply intellectual approach to imagery and movement.

His works are always demanding on his audience, sometimes confounding, occasionally frustrating, but rarely boring. Therefore the opportunity to see how he interpreted his response to a two month voyage in the Antarctic on the marine research vessel, RV Investigator, was particularly compelling.

Deepspace was performed by Batchelor and his long-time collaborator, Amber McCartney, on the stripped-back stage of the Canberra Playhouse. On entering the auditorium the audience was directed on to the stage, where they took up positions surrounding Batchelor and McCartney who were posed motionless, each dressed in black and holding aloft a white ball.

The two performers began to move very slowly, in unison and in silence. Their faces remained expressionless throughout the whole performance. Some movements were repeated constantly, occasionally, unexpectedly, changing direction, so that audience members had to step out of the way, to avoid being stepped on.

An ominous creaking soundscape, reminiscent of the sound of icebergs, was introduced, while the performers continued their slow, unison movements. Occasionally they would rock from side to side, and it was easy to imagine the deck of a rolling ship.

When they strung two ropes off some stage rigging, one could imagine the rigging of a ship. But not all their movements were so easy to interpret, and as they became more obscure, the audience was left to make what it could of the blank-faced, self-absorbed duo moving ever-so-slowly, butoh-like, from sequence to sequence.

There was an engaging sequence where the pace quickened and the duo unexpectedly performed a deconstructed waltz sequence, and another, late in the performance, during which McCartney stood on Batchelor’s back while he crawled slowly towards the back wall, where he slowly stood up, balancing her on his shoulders.

It was at this point, that this reviewer caught himself wishing that McCartney would do a backflip off Batchelor’s shoulders, and realised that he had lost interest in trying to fathom how all this relentlessly slow movement related to a voyage in Antarctica. McCartney didn’t do a backflip, but was lowered gently to the floor by Batchelor, where they formed an impressive cube with their bodies.

Despite his admiration for the tenacity and concentration of the performers, your reviewer decided to succumb to the protestations of his own body to the discomfort of standing for so long, to find a seat in the auditorium from which to watch, through the legs of those still standing, or around those already sitting around the stage, the responses of the audience to the final sequence, which involved ball-bearings being rolled from Batchelor’s bare back.

Deepspace may not be Bachelor’s most successful work to date, but as a personal and studious attempt to seek artistic expression of a significant experience, it is certainly worth your attention should you get the opportunity to see it.

The Playhouse – Canberra Theatre Centre, London Circuit, Canberra
Performance: Saturday 23 December 2017

Image: James Batchelor and Collaborators present Deepspace – photo by Gregory Lorenzutti

Review: Bill Stephens OAM