Choreographer and teacher Paige Gordon will speak in March 2019 at BOLD II, the Canberra-based festival directed by Liz Lea now in its second manifestation. I was more than interested to hear that Gordon’s talk will have connections back to a work she made in Canberra in 1994, and which was subsequently restaged in 1996. Gordon suggests that her future pathway in dance was affected by the reaction she got, and that she herself felt, from that work—Shed. A place where men can dance. It was part of the National Festival of Australian Theatre and was made for her small but very vibrant project company, Paige Gordon and Performance Group (P G & P G). I was writing extensively for Dance Australia at the time and my review of the 1996 production of Shed appeared in that magazine in the December 1996–January 1997 issue. Here is what I wrote:
A gem about men
Shed begins slightly chaotically. Four male performers dressed in paint-splattered overalls hammer, saw, plane, paint and chisel loudly and with undisguised enthusiasm. Immediately we know that this can’t be anything but real Aussie suburban stuff, four blokes in the shed up the back, making things. With swift, deft strokes, choreographer Paige Gordon sets the scene.
The chaos subsides and the opening activities give way to a perceptive and moving exploration of a male space and its emotional landscape. Set against a wall of painted corrugated iron sheets, a design by Cherylynn Holmes, dance sequences and personal ‘shed stories’ sometimes alternate and sometimes occur simultaneously.
In one section John Hunt, tall and lanky with a winning expression that suggests he could talk his way out of anything, suddenly reveals himself as vulnerable and even romantic as he explains how his father used his hands to make an assortment of things for his children. In the background James Berlyn, Martin O’Callaghan and Jonathan Rees-Osborne roll gently from one side of the performing space to the other, pausing occasionally to become involved in gentle and intricate movements that focus on the hands. The hands clench together, they press onto the floor, they cut through the air. Dance and storytelling comment on each other and, while the choreography is simple, sometimes setting up apparently naive connections, its quiet subtlety speaks volumes.
Other sections are less romantic. One, led by James Berlyn, is full of anger and frustration. Stories about projects gone wrong are followed by a cathartic passage in which the four dancers hurl themselves at the corrugated iron walls, banging, shouting and kicking. But this hot-tempered scene is followed by another in which these men seem gently aware of their innate capacity for tenderness as they slowly run their hands and bodies along the same corrugated iron that had just served as a whipping post for their anger.
Shed, made in 1994, is a work of rare rigour. Tightly structured, it sets the scene, gets on with it and doesn’t get bogged down trying to say the same thing for too long. I guess it’s laconic in a good Australian way. And its unselfconscious and unpretentious simplicity seems very Australian too. The work is also unusually personal. You almost feel like talking to the performers and telling your own similar stories, yet you know the work is, rightly, too self-contained and theatrically coherent for that. But the extent of involvement that the piece allows is remarkable.
Humour and pathos, laughter and sadness, insight and much self-recognition spill though the piece. Shed is a gem, a distinctively Australian gem.
James Berlyn from P G & P G in Shed. A place where men can dance, Canberra 1996. Photo; © Loui Seselja, National Library of Australia
I also spoke to Gordon for a Dance Australia article published in the issue of April-May 1995, and for a story in the National Library of Australia Magazine (March 1997). In both instances she spoke of making Shed, stressing that she had been involved in a number of works with an all female cast and that she was interested in working, by contrast, with an all male cast. ‘I wanted a chance to come up with things that were as magical and as gentle and as emotional as was possible with the female-inspired things I had been involved in,’ she said. Shed. A place where men can dance won Gordon a Canberra Critics’ Circle Award in 1994.
What will Gordon say for her BOLD presentation? Registration for BOLD II is via this link.
Michelle Potter, 29 January 2019
Featured image: Dancers from P G & P G in Shed. A place where men can dance, Canberra 1996. Photo: © Loui Seselja, National Library of Australia
Images published with permission of the National Library of Australia.