Mind the gaps: Jo Lloyd’s ‘Handsome’

Jo Lloyd's 'Handsome'. Photo by Peter Rosetzky.
Jo Lloyd's 'Handsome'. Photo by Peter Rosetzky.

For some, the gaps are a problem. For others, an invitation. In the non-literal realm of dance, the gaps, or what Jo Lloyd likes to call the intangibilities, are key. “If I don’t understand the work I’m making, that’s great,” she declares. “If it’s too clear, if I know it, then it’s not it. It’s gotta be me still catching up with the work. The work has to know more than I do. Same with the body.”

As she prepares for the upcoming season of her new work, Handsome, the Melbourne-based dancemaker is once again pondering the gaps, not merely in the abstract or performative sense, but in her personal and family history. 

Jo Lloyd. Photo by Peter Rosetzky.
Jo Lloyd. Photo by Peter Rosetzky.

The daughter of a chemist and a lawyer, and with no previously known family background of performance, Lloyd often wondered where her creative impulse came for. “I knew there was something in my dance that was confused, these other traces of something. Like, this desire I have,” she reflects. Decades later, having discovered that her paternal grandfather (who she never knew), was a performer, something clicked. “That’s why I was running around and hanging upside down my whole childhood.”

However, information about her artistic ancestor was scarce. He died when her father was young. To this day, scant clues remain: a photo unearthed by one the dancers in Handsome and a suggestion that he was a ‘mimic’ of sorts. “All of us have a history with gaps,” Lloyd notes. “So maybe, just maybe, the body has some clues to help fill those gaps.” Hence Handsome.

That said, the work is not a simple, semi-autobiographic homage. As a five-hander, it needed to lean into more universal notions of memory, lineage and incomplete information. “The initial start of Handsome was looking at the dance I was doing and going, ‘Why do I do this dance?’” Lloyd recalls. “What’s been before me and why have I ended up dancing like this? But at the same time, you’re not just grabbing anything and making a fun little story; it’s gathering and siphoning the points of interest. Where does the conversation have some fire?”

And here we sense that making work is not merely a surrender to either mystery or discovery, but an alchemical dialogue between the known and unknown. For all the gaps, there is structure. As Lloyd says, “What do we need to know in order to go out and perform this work?”

Throughout her choreographic career (which includes works like OvertureConfusion For Three and Mermermer with Nicola Gunn), Lloyd has approached dancemaking in a fashion more like that of a stage or screen director. Rather than insisting upon certain steps, she has preferred to rely on conceptual rationale and spatial architecture. The same process is in place for Handsome.

“We know all the parameters and all the things we have to adhere to, but we don’t know the phrase of the dancing. I’m not saying this is new to the world of dance, but for me, it’s still very exciting and challenging to make work this way. It doesn’t come easy, and the dancers have to be responsible and equipped in a different way. They know what they need to do, but they don’t know how it will unfold because a lot of choices get made live.”

Lloyd refers to this “a different way of disciplining” the rehearsal process. We might read into this something about negotiating with the aforementioned gaps, striking a balance between intangibles and repeatable forms. Perhaps, too, this relates to the “choreographic principle” at work in Handsome: namely, how to create a work with suspense. 

Whilst in film or literature this might be more easily understood, in non-narrative contemporary dance, it is more elusive. Indeed, the suspense in dance may well be in the dance itself.

Jo Lloyd's 'Handsome'. Photo by Peter Rosetzky.
Jo Lloyd’s ‘Handsome’. Photo by Peter Rosetzky.

“There’s this intangibility that comes from the dancers in rehearsal but also in performance,” Lloyd explains. It is through such gaps that we, the audience, enter, and in doing so, bring further layers of mystery to the moment.

Meanwhile, Lloyd and her cast (Sheridan Gerrard, Rebecca Jensen, Harrison Ritchie-Jones and Thomas Woodman) continue to piece together the fragments of family history. What is emerging is a kind of “conversation with people we’ve never met.” 

Closer to home, Lloyd has not only unearthed an ancestral performance drive but realised that her creative forebear was, as she says, “really quite handsome.” Of the new work now named in his honour, she is left to ponder. “What if my grandfather saw this show, or that somehow through the choreography he might be present?”

Crucially, she frames this as a question, as opposed to making assertions. Because there are gaps. And these are the nooks where the dance unfolds.

Jo Lloyd’s Handsome will be presented 22 – 26 February at The Substation. For tickets and more information, visit thesubstation.org.au/program/handsome.

By Paul Ransom of Dance Informa.

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