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.

(UPDATE August 2020. Link no longer available.)

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