Garry Stewart’s body work: Be Your Self

The head of a woman emerges from what seems like a white screen made up of many small square tiles.

We don’t see the rest of her body, but she speaks only of bodies – parts of them – from the rectus femoris, to the nitrogen that forms part of our cells, to the blood that runs through our veins and to the brain parts, the amygdala and cerebellum and more.

And that’s just a sliver of Garry Stewart’s ode to the body, told in both words and movement by nine dancers and one actor in the 70-minute work, Be Your Self.

It’s visceral in more ways than one, engaging the audience’s senses as the cast examines the involuntary movements our bodies make and those we trigger through our thoughts and feelings such as anxiety, fear, happiness, and desire.

The work could have been titled Disembodied, as much of the visual impact of Be Your Self comes from a display of random body parts that wriggle or pop through the screen (which appears to be a stretchy fabric) to be seen as disembodied limbs and heads. The body mosaic is all the more fascinating by the video projections that appear to link the parts. It’s as if we are watching our bodies as we float above an MRI scanner.

(The set was designed by Charles Renfro from the New York architecture firm, Diller Scofidio + Renfro).

If this all seems more like a scene on a pathologist’s table, don’t be put off. The overall effect is mesmeric, only occasionally unsettling, and more like the dreams we have in that state between consciousness and unconsciousness.

Stewart’s work is dominated by the screen that covers a horizontal, sloped shape that slides forward and backward from upstage. It acts as both a film screen on which faces and bodies are projected in video, and a structure through which the dancers emerge, or use as a hillock over which they scramble, as if into the battle zone of the stage.

The war analogy is apt as much of the choreography is combative and robotic as well as gestural. The dancers clash, grind, wobble, fall and crawl to static-y electronic sounds, including what sounds like a clatter of breaking plates and a squeaky door. At one point, they cross the stage like a slow moving human frieze, as if they have been filmed in stop frame, much like the early photography of Eadweard Muybridge (whose stop action photos of animals have intrigued the British choreographer, Wayne McGregor).

Stewart’s program description of his work is as densely written as those of McGregor, who is fascinated by neuroscience and who has worked as a research fellow at the experimental psychology department at Cambridge University where he studied body brain interaction.

For Be Your Self, Stewart worked with Professor Ian Gibbons, a specialist in neurobiology at Flinders Medical Centre.

The core of the piece, however, can be summed up with the question: “What is the self? What is the I?”

Despite wordy descriptions in program articles, many contemporary dance pieces remain a mystery to the audience, but that’s not true at all for Be Your Self. You don’t need to read a word to understand and appreciate the work, thanks partly, I suspect, to the collaborative efforts of Stewart’s dramaturge, Professor Julie Hollege from the drama department at Flinders University.

A recurring theme is reality vs surrealism, for example a duet with a dancer and what appears to be a dummy, wrapped from scalp to toe in white, or a moment when one dancer kisses another dancer whose face is wrapped in white, much like the image of Magritte’s The Lovers.

As for the movement itself, the dancers appear to take extreme risks, almost bouncing off the floor in a kind of rolling twist. Their arms and legs seem equally strong in supporting their torsos, the result perhaps of martial arts training.

From the photos, you can see how the costumes – designed by Gaille Mellis – add to the impression of disembodiment. Incidentally, Mellis, has just won a federal government fellowship to explore the issue of disability and the arts.

With Mellis, and a more than a dozen other collaborators, Stewart has created an important work, one that premiered at the Adelaide Festival in 2010, and subsequently embarked on a European tour. In the past few days it came to Sydney for a brief season that ended today. For the season the dancers were Scott Ewen, Zoe Dunwoodie, Amber Haines, Jessica Hesketh, Kyle Page, Tara Soh, Paul White, Kialea-Nadine Williams, and Kimball Wong, who perform with actor, Annabel Giles.

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Be Your Self, photo © Chris Herzfeld

Be Your Self, photo © Chris Herzfeld

Magritte’s The Lovers

Gaelle Mellis, photo © Mark Brake