James Batchelor in DeepSpace. Photo: © Gregory Lorenzutti

Deepspace. James Batchelor & Collaborators

23 December 2017. The Playhouse, Canberra Theatre Centre

How to write about Deepspace, the work James Batchelor has created as a result of time spent aboard the RV Investigator in the Southern Ocean? To begin with, we were not seated in an auditorium but, in Canberra anyway, we found ourselves being ushered onstage to wander the space and surround the action. Batchelor has used this technique before in Island when, just as an aside, I think it worked better, perhaps because of the smaller audience and the more intimate space of the Courtyard Studio on that occasion? Deepspace is an extremely introspective work with a lot of very fine detail in the movement. Sometimes it was not easy to see the detailed action with 50 or 60 other people crowding to get a closer look. It was also quite tiring standing onstage for around 60 minutes, to the extent that some members of the audience left the stage and sat in the auditorium, while others took to sitting cross-legged on the stage. Neither ideal for seeing the action.

Nevertheless, as we have come to expect from Batchelor, who worked on this occasion with one of his long-term collaborators, Amber McCartney, there was much to ponder upon. The opening section reminded me of Merce  Cunningham and his notion of ‘body time’. Morgan Hickinbotham’s soundscape seemed not related specifically to the movement, although I enjoyed the ‘distant’ and somewhat surreal quality it had. But Batchelor and McCartney moved together in the opening section with the kind of unison I have always seen from Cunningham artists who understand so well the concept of body time.

Other sections reminded me of the practice of artists like the American-Japanese pair Eiko and Koma, who always declined to say that their work was Butoh (out of respect) but who moved with an intensity, an emphasis on tiny details and a slowness that was Butoh-like. Butoh-inspired movement came to mind at various times throughout Deepspace but especially in the closing section when McCartney placed a series of small stones on Batchelor’s back and he proceeded to change position and allow the stones to move along his back, and eventually on to the floor. It was certainly mesmerising, but of course one couldn’t help wondering if they would fall off at the wrong time. (They didn’t).

Another section with the same feel came midway through the work when Batchelor, on all fours, moved slowly upstage with McCartney balanced on his back. On reaching the wall at the end of the stage space they both proceeded (very slowly indeed) to stand up, with McCartney eventually reaching Batchelor’s shoulders. In this stacked up position they moved sideways along the wall with McCartney feeling her way with spider-like hands. As well as the Butoh aspect of it all, the notion of balance and support was paramount.

Other sections were somewhat obscure I thought, although I suspect they related to things that may have happened, or discoveries that may have been made on board the Investigator. I rather enjoyed a fast ballroom/waltz-like episode with Batchelor and McCartney moving quite speedily in a circular pattern. But were they skating? On thin ice perhaps? I think that the emphasis that has been placed on the fact that this work grew out of Batchelor’s trip to the Antarctic has led us to ponder too much on how the dance and the expedition relate. What I have enjoyed about Batchelor’s earlier works is that we have been left to ponder meaning without such an obvious lead-in. But then perhaps I was just irritated by the discomfort of having to stand up and often peer through groups of people to see properly.

Michelle Potter, 24 December 2017

Featured image: James Batchelor in a Melbourne showing of Deepspace. Photo: © Gregory Lorenzutti

James Batchelor in DeepSpace. Photo: © Gregory Lorenzutti

James Batchelor's METASYSTEMS, 2015. Photo: Anna Tweeddale

Metasystems. James Batchelor

12 February 2015. Courtyard Theatre, Canberra Theatre Centre as part of Canberra Multicultural Fringe

James Batchelor began working on Metasystems in 2014 for the inaugural Keir Choreographic Award, an award dedicated to commissioning new work and promoting innovation in contemporary dance. Batchelor was a semi-finalist in the award. A longer version of Metasystems was recently performed in Canberra as part of the Canberra Multicultural Fringe, and in conjunction with ‘Pulse: reflections of the body’, an exhibition at the Canberra Museum and Gallery. I have briefly commented on Batchelor’s involvement with Pulse elsewhere. Below is an expanded version of my review of Metasystems, originally published in The Canberra Times on 14 February 2015.

James Batchelor’s Metasystems appears to be an austere work about construction and deconstruction. Four performers spread two piles of concrete bricks across the floor of the performing space. Two different kinds of bricks, both concrete, are used during the performance—regular-sized house bricks, and Besser blocks. They are arranged in meticulously laid out but changing patterns. Part of the handout as we enter the theatre is a card bearing a plan by architect Anna Tweeddale of potential arrangements. Visual artist Madeline Beckett also worked on the design of the system of stacking and unstacking the bricks.

Anna Tweeddale: plan for 'Metasystems' 2

Anna Tweeddale: plan for 'Metasystems' 2

 

Drawings by Anna Tweeddale for Metasystems, 2015.

We usually hear a deliberate thump as each brick is placed in position, although at times the performers move the bricks as silently as they can. We watch as the bricks are rearranged over the course of the performance. It all seems to be working according to a mathematical formula, although one or two minor mishaps spoilt the purity of the arrangement on opening night.

Two of the performers, James Batchelor and Amber McCartney, have a dual function. They not only assist the other two performers, Madeline Beckett and Emma Batchelor, in laying out the bricks, but there are times when they dance between and around the rows and piles of bricks. Their movements take on an expressive function, often mirroring in dance the construction and the shape and placing of the bricks. Particularly absorbing is a sequence in which the bricks are arranged into long channels—lines of single bricks placed upright on the floor. James Batchelor and McCartney squeeze themselves into the channels and worm their way down the narrow spaces from top to bottom while occasionally balancing parts of the body precariously on the top of the bricks.

Two aspects of Metasystems stand out. Firstly, inherent in this work is a powerful understanding of body time. With no music and not always even the steady thump of bricks on the floor to guide them, Batchelor and McCartney frequently dance in unison without obviously watching each other. They sense the timing of the other and rarely falter.

Secondly, the work ends in an unexpected way. Having watched some 45 minutes of walking and brick-carrying, it is something of a shock when, as the work is concluding, the dancers separate out an individual space for themselves within the final arrangement, a tightly knit square of bricks. They then snuggle down into the construction. Suddenly something personal is injected into the show, even a hint of emotion. It is the human element inhabiting the built environment and disturbing its mathematical precision.

It occurred to me only later that the earlier confrontation with the bricks, as McCartney and James Batchelor wriggled their way down those narrow spaces between the bricks, touching them occasionally and taking care not to disturb them, that this too was part of a human engagement with the built environment.

That Batchelor can surprise like this is what makes his work so worth following.

Michelle Potter, 18 February 2015

Featured image: Final scene from James Batchelor’s Metasystems. Photo: © Anna Tweeddale, 2015

James Batchelor's METASYSTEMS, 2015. Photo: Anna Tweeddale

FACES publcity

FACES. A work in progress by James Batchelor

I had the pleasure recently of seeing a work in progress by James Batchelor. Called FACES, Batchelor describes it as:

…a study of humans in transforming spaces and temporary constructions. From the trenches of the First World War to modern urban utopias, the work analyses sites of rapid evolution, a fluid interface of body and space. It is a portrait of anonymous faces; soldiers, refugees, nomads, vagrants, boom dockers, train hoppers and the homeless; bodies temporarily held in the relentless passage of time.

As with other explanatory notes relating to Batchelor’s works, I had to wonder how such a statement would (or could) translate into dance. Perhaps this is part of the fascination of Batchelor’s choreography? He arouses our curiosity, without being so abstruse as to alienate us, before we even arrive at the performing space.

The first section we saw was for three dancers, Batchelor himself, Amber McCartney and Chloe Chignell. The slow, careful, even meticulous moves made by the dancers as they progressed down the length of the studio space, moving along a pathway of silver coloured cloth, was transfixing. (It reminded me a little of a show I saw in New York several years ago by Butoh-style performers Eiko and Koma where they moved down a ramp covered in leaves taking the full performance time to reach the bottom). Then we watched as Batchelor, McCartney and Chignell manipulated the cloth in various ways and eventually tied it up with string, again with meticulous accuracy, into a package that to our surprise became a kind of long, joint backpack with images of the dancers’ faces attached to it.

In the second section Chignell and McCartney were joined by eleven dancers from Canberra’s youth ensemble, Quantum Leap. The standout moments of this section for me were in the highly complex yet seemingly simple structure of the choreography as rows of dancers moved up and down the room crossing past each other in simple lines. It had the repetitive feel that one experiences with a piece of music by Philip Glass, or from the look of a grey, grid painting by Agnes Martin, both Americans working in a minimalist manner. The apparent repetition in the works of Glass and Martin repays careful listening or looking when small variations or gradations indicate that there is greater complexity in the structure of their works than first meets the eye. Bouquets to the dancers for being in control of the mathematical intricacies of this section of choreography.

It is hard to know at this stage how the work will unfold. The first section shown in this preview had clear overtones of wartime, but the second had no such obvious context for me. How will they connect? Or will they? Where will they be performed given the apparent links, including through specific funding bodies, to the centenary of the ANZAC landing in 2015 (indoors or outdoors or both)? How will the connections with Canberra’s Quantum Leap dancers develop?

But full marks to Batchelor for having the courage to show FACES in its current, early stage of development. I look forward to future showings.

Michelle Potter, 22 December 2014

Featured image: Publicity shot for FACES

Island. James Batchelor

30 April 2014, Courtyard Theatre, Canberra

James Batchelor’s Island is a fascinating look at what dance can encompass when it becomes an immersive experience. The work is performed by three dancers, Batchelor himself along with Amber McCartney and Rebecca Lee, and it deals largely with perception. I have to admit to feeling slightly frustrated by dance that purports to deal with highly abstract notions. Often it’s only the words on the program that have anything to say on the subject while the dance is just a series of steps. But Island is different.

James Batchelor and Amber McCartney in 'Island', 2014. Photo © Lorna Sim

James Batchelor and Amber McCartney in Island, 2014. Photo © Lorna Sim

The first hint that Island might be an interesting work comes early, as we enter the performing space in fact. Architect Ella Leoncio is the designer. She has decorated the small black box space that is the Courtyard Theatre of the Canberra Theatre Centre with bright white tape stretched in lines and geometric patterns across the floor and up the walls. A bank of mirrors is attached to one wall, six movable glass (or perspex?) screens are arranged in the centre of the space in two groups of three and six circles of small bright lights are on the floor. What we don’t know immediately is that some of the screens are slightly convex/concave, a little like those Coney Island-style mirrors that distort the image of those who look into them.

The work itself is in three parts performed without interval. It begins with a solo for Lee, which is followed by a duet for Batchelor and McCartney. All three dancers join together for the final section. Batchelor’s choreography exists in many small movements, sometimes quite subtle, other times forceful in response to Morgan Hickinbotham’s score, which is confronting and yet listenable in its diversity of sounds. I especially enjoyed the performance of McCartney who had absorbed Batchelor’s movement style and added something of her own—a strength of purpose perhaps? Her dancing was certainly strong and well-defined.

But what makes Island so interesting is that the audience is encouraged to walk around the space and see the dance/installation from different viewpoints. Again this is something that I usually find annoying as it is more often than not a meaningless exercise. On this occasion however, the mirrors and screens, which were moved into different positions at the end of each section, came into their own. There were some totally absorbing perspectives on Batchelor’s choreography. Depending on where one went it looked enlarged, minimised, stretched out, and any other number of shape distortions. Occasionally Leoncio’s striped walls and floor became an integral part of the dance when they too were reflected into the screens. Then as a foil there was the clean, precise look of dance undistorted when one moved to other positions. Not everyone in the audience was on the move, which was a real shame because they missed a lot.

Leoncio continued her black and white theme in her costumes and make-up with the white extending beyond the costumes themselves to hair, face and even fingernails in some cases.

I really enjoyed this show. Batchelor has an enquiring mind and his work is definitely worth looking at and analysing.

Michelle Potter, 3 May 2014

Inwonderland. James Batchelor

6 April 2013, Courtyard Studio, Canberra Theatre Centre

James Batchelor’s dance and multimedia installation has already been seen in various manifestations, often as a work in progress, in Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra. This particular Canberra showing was, however, my first taste of the work and in fact my first taste of Batchelor’s approach to making art. It is an impressive production showing Batchelor’s strong film making skills—he has been mentored by Sue Healey—and some beautifully detailed costumes and settings. Overall it is a remarkably cohesive show.

Amber McCartney in 'Inwonderland'Amber McCartney in James Batchelor’s Inwonderland. Courtesy James Batchelor

The title, Inwonderland, evokes of course Lewis Carroll’s Alice in wonderland and there are many clear allusions to that story. At the beginning of the work we enter a darkened space with our camp stools (shades of an art gallery installation) and notice that there are several separate areas where the work will unfold. At first we encounter a circle of toy rabbits with a dancer dressed in a long Victorian-style dress moving in the middle of this ring. The rabbit-hole of course! She engages in conversation with one rabbit, she twitches and twists—in fact circles seem to be a choreographer signature here. And as the work continues and we move on with it to other parts of the performing space there are other allusions to Alice in wonderland. The most obvious comes when the work takes place around a long table set up for a grand tea party.

But we can spend a lot of time searching for connections with Alice in wonderland when in fact the work goes beyond that. It’s an expressionistic work where ideas are subjectively presented, where experiences are exaggerated, removed from reality and often distorted. A scene where Amber McCartney, the ‘Alice’ of the piece, sits reading in the glow of a Tiffany-style lamp is a case in point. As she does so film footage of the Inwonderland characters moving through a hedge maze and a tangle of branches appears on a screen that looks as if it is made from unspun wool (in fact it’s wadding). This screen distorts what is in fact beautifully crisp footage (see the excerpt at the link below). The dream-like quality that emerges as the footage is screened in this way is mirrored by McCartney who moves in slow motion, sometimes almost imperceptibly.

The tea party is a great example of Batchelor’s approach as well. It becomes almost a slapstick adventure for the three characters: a schoolmarm, ‘Alice’, and a brightly dressed, crazy character, all of whom wreak havoc at the beautifully set up table. Stretched above the table is another screen on which footage is again distorted, both as a result of the screen’s location high above the table and because the screen is not stretched taut.

Inwonderland falls down slightly in terms of choreography, which I thought needed some pruning particularly in the opening rabbit-hole sequence. And a stronger movement vocabulary is needed I think. I’m not sure if Batchelor works in a particular manner in creating his vocabulary but it looks like he needs a firmer foundation from which to build and develop his movement ideas. I would have liked to know more too about the sound track and the scenic and costume design. The hand-out missed giving these credits.

Inwonderland is, however, a wonderful example of how dance, film, and scenic and costume design can work together, and its presentation as an installation is beautifully thought through and thoroughly refreshing. It is a dreamscape of the mind. I look forward eagerly to seeing more of Batchelor’s work and hope that he doesn’t move entirely into the area of dance film, although he is clearly talented in that area, but keeps a live component in his works as well.

Michelle Potter, 7 April 2013

Here is a link to the footage filmed at Berrima, New South Wales.