Are we too comfortable for our own good? And how can contemporary dance help us out with this? Choreographer Victoria Chiu is trying to find out.
By Paul Ransom.
Feeling comfortable? Excellent. Then let’s begin.
If one of the drivers of art is to prick audiences out of their slumber then Victoria Chiu’s new work Floored may just take a needle to our complacencies because, as its creator insists, it’s all about the comfort zone. Or rather, busting out of it.
“It’s something I definitely can’t give up and I’m perplexed by that,” Chiu tells me as we wait for our coffees to arrive.
The mere fact that we are sitting outdoors in pleasant autumnal sunshine in comfortable, middle class Carlton enjoying our caffeine whilst discussing Chiu’s still-evolving new contemporary dance piece is quite clearly a case in point. We live in a world almost entirely constructed of comfort, convenience and routine indulgence. It is at once a pleasure and an imprisoning opiate, yet increasingly a source of guilt for fraught Westerners who are smart enough to know that Xanadu is at once unsustainable and a hard pleasure dome to escape. “When I think about trying to draw the line somewhere it works for a moment but then it always comes back,” Chiu reveals. “It’s complex because you still have to enjoy life.”
Are you twitching a little? I am; not least because we are talking about a dance show rather than an environmental call to arms or an urgent psychological imperative. Isn’t entertainment part of our cultural comfort coma?
Although quick to suggest that “art is not a useless indulgence” Victoria Chiu nonetheless reflects on her own busy life as dance creator, mother and consumer. “Even the fact that I want to do so many things in one day and I have to use the car and it becomes easier to consume quickly rather than taking the time and doing it better,” she observes. “I have a 2-year-old son and I think about how I can help him to understand and how that sits with the reality of me tearing around in a car and taking planes all the time. Y’know, even what I’m wearing now has a massive carbon footprint.”
However, rather than use her choreography as a way to work off an excess of bourgeois angst, Chiu has decided to branch out of her own reflections and undertake anecdotal research. Indeed, her broad ranging surveys about the comfort/addiction correlation are helping her craft the work both conceptually and physically.
On the sometimes unclear relationship between research and dance, Chiu says simply, “I think you can just make steps and the audience won’t notice or you can just make aesthetic dance that’s pleasing to the eye, and that’s fine. But with research you’re defining a concept. It becomes more what the mind wants the body to do and it becomes a more honest work, less of a forced work.”
Having chosen to tackle such a dense, complex and confronting theme, Chiu felt that she needed to expand her palette. “For this project I wanted a cross section of the whole world. I wanted their opinions, their experience, because there’s not one solution, there’s not one problem. Everyone has different issues involving comfort.”
As an example, she tells me about “one of the women in my survey who doesn’t even have an oven.” For someone involved in the process of creating a physically and practically demanding dance work, this kind of renunciation might seem a step too far. Indeed, Floored is as much about finding balance as it is about eschewing casual comforts.
The piece unfolds in three stages: the pleasurable acquiring of comfort, the restrictive addiction phase and the elegant simplicity of good balance. By reflecting these phases of the comfort relationship in a dance language, Victoria Chiu is placing psychological, intellectual and cultural responses directly into the body. It’s a distillation of ideas that contemporary dance is justly famed for. In fact, it’s a mix that makes most audiences a tad uncomfortable.
“I’m really happy that contemporary dance isn’t massive and mainstream,” Chiu declares. Referring to the easy comfort of spectacle, she adds, “I’m happy that it doesn’t have to be whips and spurs and flashing lights.”
Trained in Melbourne, Chiu was based in Europe for many years before deciding to return to Australia. These days, she also has her 2-year-old son to factor into the equation. I wonder aloud if this adds a level of discomfort to her life as a jetsetting dance artist. The smile and the raised eyebrows say it all. “It’s a hard balance,” she confesses. “Right now I can still spend enough time with my son, but as rehearsals pick up I know I will think, ‘Why am I doing this?’ In the end though I know why I’m doing it. I can’t not do it.”
All of which makes you think about addiction. For all of our awareness, many of us (myself included) remain in well-worn patterns of comfortable thinking, acting and consuming. The mere act of having a lazy coffee in the middle of the day and talking about ideas and dance is perhaps an example of this.
As Victoria Chiu says it, “If you’re in an addiction you’re sort of switched off to what’s around you and you’re unquestioning about what’s around you or what you’re doing.”
The obvious question here is, “Is that what we’re doing now?”, at which Chiu smiles again. “That’s sorta what I’m looking at right now with the third part of the piece and, yeah … I dunno.”
Erm no, nor do I. Do you?
August 14 -18
Photo (top): Victoria Chiu’s new work Floored. Photo by Lucy Spartalis for Dancehouse.