Review: Blank Canvas
At what point does movement go beyond impulse and function, toward an expanse of possible meanings and into a kind of speech?
In a new documentary by Australian filmmakers Joanna Buggy and Tim Slade, we are offered an insightful glimpse into the creative body-soup of the Sydney Dance Company, and this question is never far from the mind. The film picks up the troupe’s story in 2007, shortly after the sudden and tragic death of Tanja Liedtke, who was to assume the position of SDC Artistic Director, previously held by Graeme Murphy for some 30 years. It culminates in the final movement of We Unfold, the company’s most recent show, which met with much critical acclaim earlier this year.
It is Rafael Bonachela who comes to take the SDC creative director’s chair. Bonachela’s appointment has injected new vitality into the company, and Blank Canvas gives an insider’s glimpse as to why. His unconventional and passionate creative processes draw directly on the distinct and diverse bodily flows of each of the dancers, and much of the film’s interest arrives in watching him sculpt these distinct energies into a choreographed unity.
When we see the role that free-movement and improvisation have in the initial creative push, we understand why this individual dynamism is so palpable in his work. We Unfold gestates with his engagement in, and observation of, these improvisation sessions. Bonachela picks up and builds on impulsive movements from different members the troupe, guided by the music of Italian composer Ezio Bosso, which provides the score to the work. The dancers take their bodies through a diverse range of motion, from the more recognizable formal dance moves into the animalistic and bizarre. It’s interesting to see such a significant role being given to chance within the creative process, and one thing that it highlights is the intuitive nature of dance as an art form.
No doubt this is true of many of the arts—the need to stay open to randomness and contingency within the moment of a work’s emergence, a melding of technical skill with fertile impulse. What sets dance apart is the need to create a language as part of its process, and its insight into this moment of creation that makes this documentary especially fascinating. The language of dance is a poetics of skin, a speech built from muscle and bone. At times hard-edged, at others soft, frequently exquisite, we watch these dancers rehearse and perform, and as we do so something is communicated, something is understood.
In a sense the act of audience understanding occurs when we imaginatively take up this movement with our own bodies. Certainly dance is partly a visual aesthetic, partly conceptual, but such understanding is also corporeal. It speaks to us of that way our bodies meet the world, and each other, and it is only by sharing the same embodied states that we take up the language of the dance. It’s here, in this interplay, that the foregrounding of improvisation seems so vital, for we see a choreographer communicating with his troupe—a group deep in a conversation that is entirely embodied.
An implicit language of movement and sensuality, we see an expressiveness that extends beyond the body into a world of meanings, and back again. This sensual tacit language is one of the significative spaces that dance mines, and there is a kind of hovering that occurs here between explicitly symbolic and non-symbolic expressivity. Certain gestures have specific meanings, sedimented through usage: a fall of the head references sorrow; differently angled, perhaps betrayal. Touch between two dancers may be suggestive, sexual; or it may be an aggressive act of rejection. Such meanings arise within the context of the dance, the music, but they extend beyond this context also. There is a constant sense of interplay between such meaningful gestures and established pathways of signification, but inasmuch as we can think of this as a language, it is one that is constantly resisting resolution.
Highlighting this uncertain ground, in an early sequence that leads to the 2008 work 360, Bonachela has each dancer ‘dancing their names’—not, as he puts it, in a YMCA kind of way, but choreographing them all an individual moment that is drawn from a phonetic melding of word and world. Again we see a focus on the harnessing of individual energies, as phonemes, ‘raw’ sound-shapes, find new, original, structures of meaning.
The French phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty writes extensively about this interplay of body and world, describing how it constantly leaves our corporeal state ‘beyond’ the explicit. The unity of the body, he writes, “is always implicit and vague. It is always something other than what it is, always sexuality and at the same time freedom, rooted in nature at the very moment when it is transformed by cultural influences.”
In watching Bonachela’s creative process we seem to peer into that moment of flux: two figures pull and respond, shaping one another and being shaped. They bend together, merge into a single shape, then fly apart. Their gestures describe joy, mourning, confusion, madness, sensuality and loss; we follow them through a sea of physicalised emotion that is constantly shifting shape. It is a curious paradox, for this sea is constantly ‘other’ than what it is: it suggests an array of meanings that extend from the body to the cultural world; and yet such meanings find a firm ground of signification within that body. We, as viewers, pick them up there also, continuing the exchange that began between Bonachela and his troupe.
In the Phenomenology of Perception, Merleau-Ponty takes the gesture of anger as an example, writing that it does not signify anger, but rather is anger itself. When facing another angry human, we do not read some psychic disharmony behind the gestures of the body, some hidden sign; rather, the screwed-up face, the clenching of the fists, the puffing of the chest: these gestures are anger, expressed through the body. Likewise, if we reverse his example and turn the spotlight on ourselves, when we feel the tightening of the chest and throat, the raising of the shoulders, small spasms of the muscles, we do not need to experience some moment of reflexivity from which we identify the emotion: “Ahh, yes, this is anger…” Rather, we live those moments as anger, as the emotion taken physical form within (and with-out) the body.
So this is the space of meanings that contemporary dance enters into: between symbolic and non-symbolic, abstract and determinate. It reaches constantly towards the symbolic realm, but there is an ever present engagement with a language that is only written in the body, which in some sense can only be understood there. The kind of language that cannot be translated into words.
There are some large questions at the back of all this to do with models of meaning, both linguistic and otherwise, and the more general je ne sais quoi that dance taps into. These in turn trace a line toward the abstractions of the arts more generally: the question of why non-figurative paintings and sculptures, dance or abstract poetries, should suggest landscapes of emotion. Buggy and Slade’s film opens us toward this space of inquiry, but not obtrusively, and this is one of its strengths. It is made with the sensitivity of artists reflecting on the art of others, speaking from that form to their own.
Blank Canvas presents a narrative tracing of an artwork’s genesis, beginning with a tragedy and culminating in a dance. Bonachela’s larger than life figure fills the screen, and in the particular quirks of his personality we gain a sense of some of the uncompromising energy that grips his work—a kind of mania that pauses little from the beginning to the end of his shows. Such energy has been a source of both critical attack and celebration, although the popular response seems to be emphatically supportive.
As a film audience we receive a privileged glimpse into the process of emergence that leads to We Unfold, and we face some interesting questions along the way. A voiceover is provided by Kerry Armstrong. All in all, Blank Canvas is a moving, insightful and sexy documentary. For those unfamiliar with contemporary dance, the film is sure to generate some new admirers; for aficionados, its focus and vim will whet the taste buds for more.