Body Dysmorphic Disorder, or BDD, is the starting-point for this work, which has sisters collaborating. The sisters are choreographer Fiona and Dr Julie Malone, a clinical psychologist specialising in body-image issues. She, I imagine, has no shortage of work and isn’t likely to be hard-up anytime soon.
It would be tedious to reiterate the obvious, inasmuch as the negative impact, or otherwise, of media touting arbitrary ideas about the proportions and appearance of the ‘perfect’ body. And it’s never as simple as we’d prefer it, in any case: as the good doc pointed out, there are numerous websites that are very helpful in connecting young people especially, providing a safe community in which to share thoughts and anxieties on the subject. So the media is hardly a one-dimensional pariah. More symptom perhaps, than cause. Besides, what of, say, the expectations of parents and financial ambitions of knife-happy surgeons? The point? There are other culprits.
Alarm-bells ring in my head when an artwork takes on the mantle of being educative, or informative: while art can be a potent expression for the political, it stumbles more when it tends too much toward the medical, overreaching, past the psychosocial. Fortunately, Picture Perfect substantially avoids these pitfalls and trapdoors. It brings a cynical, biting humour, all the better to ‘sell’ the messages. And since its mission, or part thereof, is to tour schools, I s’pose it has to have messages.
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But I can’t help feeling that with this work, and many others, even when backed & authenticated by educational experts, or particularly when backed by them, the messages tend to be rather patronising and heavyhanded, delivered in a literalistic, narrative manner which smacks of the patronising and paternalistic. Yes, I fear we gravely underestimate the intelligence of our audiences in general and young audiences in particular. And I hardly need start on my view narrative, in dance, isn’t its strongest suit. (If you listen to the pretentious, but compelling, rants of Peter Greenaway, you may even be swayed by his view that narrative doesn’t even make for a worthy use of cinema.)
The early scenes were a little slow for mine, though a relationship was established, between a woman obsessed with her appearance, but chided, in the most compassionate possible way, by her friend. The friend, of course, might well have been read as a part of herself. Either way, this ‘voice’ of reason surrendered, repeatedly, to the obsessive will of the woman. Thus, my theoretical concerns about dance as narrative subsided, in practice. The representations were clear. So much so, however, that movement seemed almost secondary to storytelling.
But things warmed-up considerably. The appearance of a plastic surgeon and bevy of lab-coated nurses drew topically on the aesthetic of Robert Palmer’s much-referenced music video, Addicted To Love. A gaggle of leggy mannequins easily make the point about the ephemeral, transient nature of ‘beauty’. A number of the procedures undergone by the ‘victim’ (of her own thoughts, principally) were very graphically presented: even my typically hypo-squeamish partner cringed.
Along with the highly-stylised, robotic movement of the Barbies, and very much complementing it, were shining accomplishments in set, sound design, costume, makeup and, by no means least, Marrian Abboud’s filmed imagery, representative and allusive in just the right measure, a montage of the surgical and psychological. Composer Adam Synott’s bespoke music responded intimately and synergistically, at no time sounding like an afterthought; rather, an element integral and inseparable to the piece. Beats the hell out of dance works that try, in vain, to simply string pre-existing songs together.
The most central and powerful recurring metaphor in the work was the idea of the dressing-room: while trying on many and various frocks off the rack was, for a short time, satisfying, the woman began to want more from her mirror-image. So she tries on excessive exercise and, finally, cosmetic interventions. Predictably, none of it eases her anxiety over her appearance. To her, in her, nothing shifts.
Important. Sobering. You can almost reach out and touch the sincerity and good intentions of creators and dancers. But does that make for a great piece of performance art? Not necessarily. It can be the death-knell. More often than not, I suspect, it is. Not in this case, however. Thanks to the talent, vision, vocabulary and expertise of Fiona Malone, who’s worked with the likes of the Sydney Theatre Company and Meryl Tankard, it cuts a swathe in one’s consciousness which lingers post-performance.
And if it does that, it’s doing something.
Curtain Call rating: B+
The details: Picture Perfect completed a short run at Riverside Parramatta on February 19.