Breathing Monster | Cell Block Theatre

From the sublime to the ridiculous. Such is the lot of the hapless theatre critic. One night, it’s the éclat of Nederlands Dans Theater in the Joan Sutherland Theatre at the Opera House. A couple of evenings later, the abject posteriority of Breathing Monster.

Performance Space, whose ventures I typically admire, didn’t create this monster, but it did breathe new life into it. It hasn’t been a good season. First a man in a silver lame body suit on a dialysis machine. Now, a “figurehead of choreographical research” and her colleague who, if I didn’t know better, I might assume made up their resumes and scammed a couple of free return plane tickets from France.

If ever there was an emperor’s new clothes performance, this was it. NDT is internationally renowned and it’s easy to see why. As one of Europe’s leading choreographers, Miriam Gourfink is of comparable standing and, on the strength of BM (perhaps there should be a “u” wedged in there), it’s hard to know how. OK, so her partner in choreographical crime, the electronic musician and composer Kasper Toeplitz contrives a compellingly dark, “data noise” soundscape that’s like Berlin (or maybe Warsaw, since he originally hails from Poland) distilled into the aural. And I can’t argue with the assertion that the work is abstract. Nothing wrong with that. But “hypnotic”? I don’t think so. I remembered I need to buy toilet paper while there.

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And who can buy the following? Gourfink “uses internal visualisations to meticulously manifest an evolving, interconnected series of micro-movements”. Of course, it’s impossible to verify, one way or another, whether MG uses “internal visualisations”. I’ve no particular reason to doubt it. She began in an affected pose of complete, concentrated stillness, sitting on the edge of a catwalk extending from the main stage of the National Art School’s Cellblock Theatre, eyes closed tight. She looked meditative enough, if not particularly tranquillised.

I only wish the visualisations were a little more external since, ostensibly, nothing happens. Micro-movement is right. I wouldn’t mind, were there any lyricism or precision to it. But, strenuous as it may be, it has neither. Frankly, I’d have derived more aesthetic pleasure and, for that matter, meaning, from spectating at a suburban yoga class. This isn’t to say I condemn her work outright. I’ve caught glimpses of previous, recent work, such as Spider (Araneide), which makes sudden sense of the micro-movement, given the patient stealth with which such creatures often move. It has a narrative thread (no pun intended), with the artist suspended overhead, enmeshed among a network of black cables. With it, her ideas, research and techniques are in sympathetic relationship.

Apparently (and ironically), Breathing Monster is predicated on the idea of a woman negotiating an invisible maze. Conceptually, I’m on board. And I like the symbolism. But it just doesn’t translate, in the flesh. It’s one of those unfortunate cases of curatorial notes subsuming the actual performance. Hype surrounding and anticipating it talks of Gourfinks body gently gliding through this long, narrow unseen labyrinth. Good on paper; inelegant in actuality. There is no gentle gliding. Only awkward straining. There was much talk, also, of motion-sensing technology. I saw no evidence this was in place (‘though it may’ve been craftily concealed). But at the end of the day, I’m saddened to report, this work will likely resonate in my memory only because it stands as an object lesson in snake-oil publicity doing more harm than good to an undercooked experimental performance, which should never have exited the rehearsal space; at least not without further development, to make it edifying for an audience.

The Performance Space program directly contradicts itself. Having just claimed the piece as “evolving”, a paragraph or two later it insists “the 50 minutes do not build a trajectory, or suggest evolution, or resolve”. Semanticists may argue the movement can be “evolving” and yet not suggest evolution, I suppose. But overwrought language is the problem here: the work just doesn’t star on its own two feet. A “suspenseful journey through the void”? “A wonderfully original narrative about abstraction, time and space?” I think I was in the wrong place.

“As her body propels forward with the stillness of time itself, it gathers incredible momentum, and her gestures become a gravity-defying feat. With prodigious precision, her bodily contortions alter the surrounding musical landscape, breathing new meaning into everything that we see, hear and feel.”

I don’t think so. This is a monster alright. But not breathing. It was practically dead on arrival.

The details: Breathing Monster played the Cell Block Theatre, National Art School on July 14-16.

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