The Dark Chorus

Dance
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The Dark Chorus 2016 Lucy Guerin Inc at Melbourne Festival production still 01 photographer credit Gregory Lorenzutti
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Photograph: Gregory Lorenzutti
The Dark Chorus 2016 Lucy Guerin Inc at Melbourne Festival production still 02 photographer credit Gregory Lorenzutti
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Photograph: Gregory Lorenzutti

Lucy Guerin’s latest dance drama offers a tragic take on the consequences of disobedience

The performance commences unannounced, as a mob of ominous cloaked figures enter in darkness then wander on the periphery of a well-lit circle at the centre of the performance space. As the ‘dark chorus’ of extras endlessly shuffles along its circular path, five featured performers – dancers Benjamin Hancock, Stephanie Lake, Jessie Oshodi, Tyrone Robinson and Lilian Steiner – emerge from the pack in flashes of movement and speech, gesturing abstractly and reciting a hushed text in unison. The atmosphere is arresting, compounded by Robin Fox’s droning score; it’s as if we’re privy to some kind of cult ritual. 

The choreography, in its most conventional sense, begins when two dancers strip down to pressed white dance costumes and take position centre stage, facing the audience. Here they perform a series of gestures and continue to experiment with these introductory movements. They’re joined by two more dancers and the scene evolves into a jerky quartet, all four absently rehearsing the steps of what appears to be a virtuosic, early 20th-century expressionist dance while humming a tune that may have been borrowed from the more ecstatic parts of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.

Upon leaving the space, the dancers assume the appearance and behaviour of the chorus and conceal their white undergarments beneath elaborate black costumes. Much of The Dark Chorus is structured in this way, a danced roulette where one or more of the performers enter the illuminated space for a brief choreographic interlude, before returning to the uniform community in the shadows.

Fundamental to the performance’s framework is, unsurprisingly, the chorus. As in classical Greek drama, the chorus participates passively (for example, by providing commentary) but also takes part in the action by giving (choreographic) directions in short spoken and sung sentences. The notion of chorus adopted by choreographer Lucy Guerin and dramaturge Adena Jacobs can also be understood in the literal, antique sense, from the Greek ‘chorós’, a term that predates classical theatre and refers to a dance space used for ceremonial performance. 

In its program notes, The Dark Chorus describes itself as “entirely now” and a consideration of  “contemporary questions around power”. With that in mind, you might reasonably expect  a portrayal of today’s dynamic and shifting social spheres, values and complex power relationships: current civil and transgender rights movements and intersectional politics seem relevant.

Guerin instead depicts a stark black and white world that creatively employs archaic dichotomies: public/private, dominant/subordinate, or individual/group. Although these binary pairings are at times turned on their head (for instance by making the intimate experience of individuals/dancers visible and the voice of the masses hidden and murky) it is done so at the expense of any grand attempt to dissolve rigid demarcations.

The Dark Chorus’s final phase diverges drastically from what has come before, utilising Benjamin Hancock’s svelte figure, long blonde hair and high kicks in a gender-bending dance pantomime. Hancock is distanced and elevated from his colleagues in this technical showcase, and for added comic effect he even dons a purple petticoat, a pale yellow turtleneck jumper and a red pointy hat. He is bossed around by the imposing group, and as any docile body would, he submits and performs – notably: gymnastic routines and sex acts with a cardboard box.

Hancock’s ‘character’ then opts to disobey commands, and his defiance provokes the dark chorus to enter the performance space, ultimately ‘consuming’ him with the sheer volume of their black garments. The work concludes as the cast exit at the back of the stage, revealing a naked and lifeless Hancock on the floor. 

This dramaturgical decision errs most notably from Greek theatre traditions, where violence occurs strictly offstage and the chorus describes the act. It’s a hard-hitting finale and offers a visceral element to the piece’s otherwise abstract appeal to critical thought; however, it would have been equally satisfying to see Hancock survive and subversion prevail.

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By: Luke Forbes

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