One of the more interesting young choreographers on the current Australian dance scene, James Batchelor demands as much from his audience as he does his dancers. His works are invariably intense, complex and challenging.
For his latest work, Faces, Batchelor has drawn inspiration from letters that his great grandfather wrote to his family while serving in France in the First World War. The work veers more towards performance art than pure dance as Batchelor incorporates elements of butoh, dada and surrealism to achieve a series of compelling images, the intent of which is left to the viewer to interpret.
The work commences promisingly with Batchelor standing motionless, facing his audience, at one end of a strip of long, narrow, shiny plastic sheeting. As he begins to move in slow, deliberate marching steps, two other figures emerge from behind him, Chloe Chignell and Luigi Visio, each dressed in identical white paint-splashed trousers, tee-shirts and sneakers. Slowly, rhythmically, the three figures advance towards the audience, interweaving and taking turns to lead the march.
They don white masks and as they continue to walk the figures begin to distort, their ankles rolling from side to side as if about to fall to the ground, perhaps struck by gunfire or land mines. When they reach the other end of the road, they turn their backs to the audience, revealing faces, their own, emblazoned on their backs.
The rhythm of the marching changes, the rat-tatting sound now produced by their feet, suggests gunfire. The figures face the audience and raise their hands in a surrender-like gesture, before dropping slowly to the ground. Batchelor then takes one end of the plastic sheeting and slowly pulls it towards himself, causing the other figures to roll about suggesting bodies in water.
The three then turn their attention to a stack of heavy sandbags, which they utilise to form a series of tableaus suggestive of battleground images, while slowly and deliberately transferring the sandbags from one side of the performance area to the other.
The work continues in this vein with episodes involving the performers binding each other in string, then using the string to form triangles, and another in which Batchelor covers himself in a huge bag on which is imprinted a face, which distorts as he moves inside the bag.
However as the symbolism of these later images, particularly the figure who covers her head in a traffic cone as the other wraps his head in white plastic, become less decipherable, the potency of the work ultimately drains away without fulfilling the promise inherent in its opening sequence.
While not as well resolved as some of his earlier works, Faces was never-the-less superbly performed by the three dancers to a haunting soundscape by Morgan Hickinbotham. It contains many original and compelling images which will haunt the viewer long after the performance has finished. This is a quality that is becoming a signature of Batchelor’s work, and one which stamps him as an original and important theatre maker.
Choreographer: James Batchelor Performers: James Batchelor, Chloe Chignell, Luigi Vescio Sound Design: Morgan Hickinbotham Producer: James Tighe
Courtyard Studio – Canberra Theatre Centre, London Circuit, Canberra
Performance: Wednesday 6 April 2016
Season continues to 10 April 2016
For more information, visit: www.james-batchelor.com.au for details.
Image: Faces – photo by David James McCarthy
Review: Bill Stephens