In my twenties, the television reality series So You Think You Can Dance Australia took the country by storm, and my housemate Erika and I were swept right along with it. We were not dancers, and would never even imagine to be, but we were obsessed. While we enjoyed all of it enormously, there was one style of dance that we consistently struggled to understand – the dreaded form of ‘Contemporary’.
What exactly is ‘Contemporary’ dance? Erika’s answer to this question has stuck in my mind ever since: each time a contemporary routine would be announced, she would declare, “hippies in the park on pills!”
This isn’t exactly the most eloquent description, but I think one that probably best encapsulates how most of us average Joes feel when we see the gyrating, lilting, frenetic oddness that is modern dance. What on earth are we to make of all the swaying and jumping, the holding of legs in the air and longing gazes into the distance? What on earth does contemporary dance actually mean?
While Nothing To Lose is undoubtedly a contemporary dance performance, it is also a significant cultural response to our society’s continued fascination and demonization of the human form. Directed by Force Majeure’s Kate Champion (her last project as Artistic Director with the company) and with an Artistic Associate in fat activist and artist Kelli Jean Drinkwater, this collaborative and experimental piece actively sought out, not professional dancers for it’s cast, but people of size, people who identified as larger bodied or fat. And they weren’t asked to dance in traditional ways either – no high kicks or pirouettes or jazz hands. During the rehearsal process, the performers were asked instead to experiment with their bodies, to experiment with how a larger form moved. In fact, at the core of Champion’s interest in pursuing this project was the desire to explore how big bodies moved, where artistry and dance are found when the traditional form is no longer the focus. So, using this non-traditional cast in non-traditional dance, Nothing To Lose turns dance theatre into political and social statement. A dance performance that forces its audience to recognise, gaze upon and ultimately embrace a type of body that is more often than not held up to ridicule or just plain ignored.
The performance opens with the cast lying about on stage in the semi-darkness, crawling to one another, embracing each other, languid. We are asked at one point to come up onto stage and physically touch and feel the performers flesh – their thighs, the wobbly bits under their arms, caress their stomachs. We are questioned when performers climb the stairs between our seats and repeat over and over the dizzying array of condescending and demeaning words they’ve been subjected to as people of size – ‘have you tried putting your fork down between bites?’, ‘It’s a shame, you have such a pretty face’, ‘what do you actually eat?’
Much of the show is confronting. We are asked overtly and metaphorically where we stand and how we feel about fat bodies, excess flesh and the people who are occupy that space. One of the highlights of the show is an electrifying sequence set to a screeching, synthetic, industrial soundtrack. One performer stands on a podium, mouth open in a silent scream as she sways her head side to side so that it looks like the grinding metallic squeal of the music is in fact her own terrified and terrifying voice. A second performer literally throws her body onto and around the stage as the grinding squeals play out, over and over slamming herself into the floor in a frightening physical study of self-hate, self-harm and rejection.
But at the opposite end of the spectrum, there are moments of light and sensuousness. One vignette, set to a stirring, energetic classical strings piece, has the performers pull their brightly coloured t-shirts up over their heads as they shake freely and vigorously in time with the music. It is truly joyous, and the crowd erupted in inclusive laughter as a result. Frankly, I wanted so much to get up on stage and join them in their jiggly delight, it looked so fun. At other moments, there was a distinct eroticism as the dancers wrapped themselves in fabric and rope, contorting their flesh and revelling in the spectacle of their skin and the movement they could garner from it.
Nothing To Lose is not a perfect piece, but it is a captivating and deeply meaningful work that embraces the human body in a way no other mainstream artistic performance has been prepared to. It is a challenging but ultimately satisfying experience too, leaving its audience with new perspectives to ruminate on and hopefully many questions to ask of their own prejudices, blind spots and assumptions.
Taken in a broader context, the piece is fundamentally disruptive. We, in our developed nations, are in a crisis of identity, information and apathy. We know so much yet have no idea about ourselves, and despite everything we have in our power, we feel powerless. Nothing To Lose is timely, it is a striking exploration of a cultural affliction and hatred we have created for ourselves. Overwhelmed by images, knowledge and choice, we have turned in on what we think we know best, our own bodies. We shame, curse, revile, demonise and make invisible these things none of us can get away from and that which is most fundamentally human. We haven’t quite worked out that the human body remains a marvellous mystery, and may well stay a mystery forever, and so we struggle with this silly infatuation that it is fundamentally changeable, that people can put on a new body as easily as one puts on a new dress or gets a new haircut. It is ridiculous. In the same way that ignoring, shaming and ostracising larger bodies (or any bodies for that matter) is ridiculous. But a body is not a dress or a haircut, nor is it a playing field upon which a culture’s pernicious fears can be played without consequence. It is just a body – big or small or lean or not – and when you look no further, you risk losing the value, the human and the humanity, that it holds.
If you get a chance to see Nothing To Lose, I urge you to do so. It is a reminder that dance and performance need not be confined to a regimented status quo, and it is a genuine antidote to the poison of unquestioned social and cultural hierarchy.
The show is now touring, with it’s next stint at the Malthouse Theatre in Melbourne in March.