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dance massive 2013

life in a puff

carl nilsson-polias: ashley dyer, life support

Tony Osborne, Life Support, Ashley Dyer Tony Osborne, Life Support, Ashley Dyer
photo Rachel Roberts

The politics begin in the foyer. When we collect our ticket we are asked three questions for which our answers are noted:

1. Are you a smoker? (2 out of 39 respondents said yes)
2. Can you hold your breath for 60 seconds? (29 respondents said yes)
3. Have you ever saved a life? (28 respondents said yes)

The statistics on smoking were inconsequential; the statistics on breath holding were empirically proven to be highly inflated; but the politics lay in the heroic nature of our audience. Two were chosen by the artists to volunteer the nature of their life saving story. Then, having heard the tales of their heroism, we, the citizens of Dancehouse, voted on who would be our leader. They would determine when the show ended—a form of representative audience participation.

In the theatre itself, the work begins with a prolonged scene of a man (Tony Osborne) smoking in a pool of light. It is impossible to escape cliché here: the practiced precision of the rollie; the sensuous intake of breath; the smoke drifting listlessly into the spotlight above; the deliberate poking of the ashtray; the fetishisation itself. One of the few clichés missing seems to be smoke rings. But on that, Dyer is ahead of the game.

Entering with what looks like a small drum, a performer stands behind the smoking man. Tapping, the drum, filled with smoke, exudes perfectly formed smoke rings. Their sticky consistency, perfect curve and persistence through the air draw approving murmurings from the audience but, though the technical achievement and ingenuity of the method are laudable, it is the incurrence of bathos that is most effective. As the smoker adopts various arch poses, the smoke rings break on his head, his fist, they surround him and undercut him, undoing the vanity of his opening scene. Caught in the shafts of light, clusters of rings seem like visions of autoluminescent jellyfish. Thus, despite the bathos, the smoke itself never loses its primal appeal nor its mystery. It is as though Dyer is suggesting: smokers come and go, but smoke itself is eternal.

Tony Osborne, Life Support, Ashley Dyer Tony Osborne, Life Support, Ashley Dyer
photo Rachel Roberts
The magic of smoke and its visual elasticity are perhaps too enchanting. Life Support lags when it too overtly presents smoke as effect, rather than smoke as visual language. For instance, the smoke rings are followed by smoke bubbles, which are undeniably stunning as an effect, but in terms of affect offer nothing new. At times like this, Dyer’s formal investigation and his political enquiry have not fully melded.

However, the formal enquiry is important to the political one. Initially, the lighting reveals the smoke. Later, when the smoke is denser, it reveals the lighting; it makes visible the rays, cones and striations of the design. Similarly, speakers rigged to buckets of smoke create automated smoke rings on beats. Dyer is making the invisible visible and, in so doing, draws our attention to how much we are otherwise able to overlook—how are those lights and speakers powered but for smoke?

The smoker from the opening scene is present, if not pivotal, throughout. He is eventually, with solemn ceremony, plastic-wrapped into a cage filling with smoke. The image is haunting and affecting. The choking opacity of the smoke is broken at first by a disembodied hand pressed against the plastic. At the same time, smoke machines above the audience are turned on for the first time and the back wall of the set pushes in towards us. It is a nightmarish vision of asphyxiation and I wondered if this was the time to end the show. Was our representative leader, elected on the basis of her life saving abilities, to cut short the mesmeric display to save the performer’s life?

No. At least not this time.

Instead, the performer himself aborts his gassing with a slash of the plastic wrap. The back wall of the set closes in on us further, cutting off our view of the stage and, then, an object descends from the ceiling above our heads—a jaunty deus ex machina in the form of a glowing plastic sea urchin playing glitchy reggae as it descends. Apparently now was the time to end the show, though I cannot help but feel that the political agency of the citizenry might have been more seriously put to use two minutes earlier. But maybe that is the answer to Dyer’s political enquiry: you get what you vote for.

Dance Massive, Dancehouse: Life Support, lead artist Ashley Dyer, collaborators: lighting, projections designer Travis Hodgson, designer Matthew Kneale, dancer Tony Osborne, performer, sound and objects: Sam Pettigrew, designer Clare Britton, production support Bek Berger, performer John Possemato, writer, performer Sime Knezevic, presented by Dancehouse with the support of the Keir Foundation; Dancehouse, Melbourne, March 12-14;

RealTime issue #114 April-May 2013 pg. 30

© Carl Nilsson-Polias; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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