Warning: this review contains discussion of rape, child sexual assault and suicide.
Jack Ferver tells us he has always loved performing at Temperance Hall, a lie at the very start of his show which earns a knowing laugh – Philip Adams had just introduced this as the opening night of the first international artist to perform at BalletLab’s new venue. His snappy New York accent and camp, unmistakably gay affectation is like a comic punch to the face which we immediately forgive. Soon enough we are in a pre-show Q&A with pre-orchestrated questions (read by the audience) and responses, but it just as easily feels like an experience I can imagine telling as a story, that time this strange man was telling that outrageous story in some obscure little south-side theatre. He said his ex-collaborator literally tried to kill him. New York New York New York. Celebrity international American artist, fame wrapped around him like a cloak. The pre-show buzz is tangible and the show plays out like echoes of that sensational moment, notes on his illustrious career bouncing back and forth, erupting in strange and cataclysmic dance phrases with brutal articulation and a breathless deadpan face. This is dance with its eyes wide open. Dance in the house of discourse, performed largely to an audience of dancers and their boyfriends and produced by the country’s preeminent producer of high quality gay experimental dance. Choreographic references abound and simultaneously don’t matter.
We encounter the layered self of Jack Ferver from the outside in, slipping past a crunchy exterior, the world of prestige and fame, to a chewy flesh, his day-to-day dramas, finally arriving in his visceral inner guts, either repulsive or seductive or both. Artifice stretches into vulnerability, and like a rubber band, we are braced for it to snap back at any moment. Why, when a camp gay man says that he has experiences with rape, molestation and suicide, is my initial response to think that he is lying? He grimly reassures us at one point – “I’m not acting.” Why would he lie about it? But we are also allowed to see that as an artist he is in the business of folding his life experiences into his art, raising the conventional questions about authenticity, performativity and the self in the age of self-branding and social media. A wall of mirrors resting behind him are upfront about this as well – we’re all, maybe not narcissistic, but at least a lot more aware of ourselves in 2017, with the archives of the internet trailing behind our every move. We can easily look back, and this seems to make the experience of ageing different to what it might have once been. Jack Halberstam in his essay on ‘queer temporality’ tells us that in the 1980s, there was a lot of talk among young dying gay men in New York of living in the now, and gayness might have been imagined as a beautiful spark shining outside of history. In 2017 it’s survivable and affordable to have HIV and affluent white urban gay men are seemingly everywhere, especially in the arts.
We are promised queer dance theatre, and ‘queer performance’ is nowadays synonymous with an art practice that interrogates the way we look at, listen to and feel (queer) bodies. It’s important to be frank about sexuality, as well as money and death. It’s not even so much about privilege, necessarily – Ferver, from what he claims in his autobiographical moments, seems to be doing pretty well (traumatic past aside) – it’s more about difference, feeling different, and from that experience opening up a shared space of aesthetic confusion. It’s tangible when Ferver drops to the floor on his knees, we can hear the thud and feel the ground vibrate and imagine that it hurts. Or in other phrases where he whacks his feet against the floor, back and forth in retrograde spirals. There is a sexy dance, various iterations of simulated sex, and a spoken description of how onstage rape is simulated in the non-touring version of the show. Jack sings a song – “I am disappointed” – after inviting us to think about him being raped, if we like. He opts not to. In other moments he bares his ass to us, like in porn. An object presented for us to look at and imagine upon, passive in that sense but also very deliberate – it is simultaneously an earnest gesture and a serious choreographic moment.
The environment is bizarre, undermined, questioned. Dancers are in the audience to see the foreign dance maker, and Ferver’s show meets this audience for what it is. The line between reality and performance is blurred. He calls upon an audience member by name (it’s Melbourne dancer and choreographer Luke George) and invites him up on stage. He’s visibly uncomfortable and not acting. Ferver makes a sassy remark: “we’re going to do something very popular with choreographers nowadays: you’re going to improvise, and I’m going to call it mine”. The task he sets is very prescriptive, step based, and ends up seeming precise and pre-planned anyway. But what is choreography? Is it limited to the visual, the image? Ferver’s statement sets a way of looking at all the ‘choreographic’ moments throughout the rest of the show and we can see that, yes, his is an elite dancing body and yes, he can perform ‘true’ choreography – precisely sculpted poses, in motion – in a way that is evocative and not lifeless. When he is not dancing, he sits in his chair with the mirrors behind him – a clear border between two ways of being. But towards the end this line is questioned as well. Not discarded completely; rather, the onstage actions, texts and movements seem to address the line. We think more and more about age. Jack is ageing, his past trails behind him, and this is visible in the body. Choreography is a gleaming ideal of youth, a spark outside of history, and our bodies sit imperfectly within it. But choreography, like fame and the artificial self, is also something you can claim as your own. Mon, Ma, Mes. We are the sovereigns of our own body and we may institute upon it any dance we wish, any politics, any histories, any violences and pleasures. To do so is imperative and especially so if you are queer; our bodies are so contested and claimed by others, whether by physical violence or manipulation or just ways of looking and talking about us. The work says, this is my drama, my violence, my voice, my sexuality, my vulnerability, my shifting, aging, formless body. Mon, Ma, Mes.
This review contained discussion of some heavy themes. If you’re feeling bad about it, please contact any of these resources:
Adults Surviving Child Abuse (1300 657 380) is a counselling and support service
beyondblue (1300 224 636) provides mental health support
Lifeline (13 11 14) offers 24 hour crisis support and suicide prevention advice