In October and November 2004 at the Brisbane Powerhouse I created a series of sketches of the dancers in action during the rehearsal process of Lawn. It was a fulfilling experience giving me a lot of scope to respond to the unique ideas, design, drama and movement   that encapsulated this surreal production by The Splinter Group.

My work during this process culminated in the exhibition ‘seeds from lawn’. I created a series of works ranging from large-scale drawings to A4 sketches in ink, acrylic, pastel and collage on a variety of mediums.

In a contrast to that of the Berlin apartment that was produced on stage, the installation I produced referenced the Australian backyard. The works were displayed on a Hills Hoist and an old style prop clothesline. The environment also had actual growing lawn that had a push mower and a greying cane washing basket on it. The installation hung in the main foyer and main entrance to the Brisbane Powerhouse during the season of Lawn.

Andrew Ross, Director of the Brisbane Powerhouse, feels that the visual arts component of the Lawn production is ‘a great way for the audience to further explore the ideas presented in the dance theatre work and gain a greater insight into the mechanics of
its creation’.

My curiosity with moment, movement and momentum in both performance and the everyday is clearly realized in my artistic endeavors, and is particularly evident in the ‘seeds from Lawn’ I endeavored to capture the vitality of the dancers as well as the   incongruous journey of the subconscious that is explored in the amazing physical theater production.

I also Special thanks to, Andrew Ross and the very supportive team at the Brisbane Powerhouse, The Splinter Group – Michelle Ryan, Gavin Webber, Grayson Millwood, Vinnie Crowley, Iain Grandage and the Lawn crew.

Lawn

Grayson Millwood, Lawn Grayson Millwood, Lawn
Courtesy David Kelly, The Courier Mail

A man in a dank apartment vacuums, staples back peeling wallpaper, and tidies up. But the activity has little result. The room—with its exposed pipes, old furniture and solitary shaving sink—remains shabby and tired, barely concealing the banal awfulness of past lives. Two other men sit nearby, one reading, the other contemplating breakfast. In a sense, they are ‘everyman’, occupying themselves with quotidian routines. But when cockroaches scramble from behind the hands of the one eating, it becomes evident that something more sinister and unexpected simmers beneath the surface.

Upbeat Hawaiian muzak, a precursor to a delightfully synchronised dressing sequence, gives way to moodier strings and a crescendo of crickets, indicating a surreal move to eternal night. In a compelling shift of choreography, a suited man yields to the dark power of his environment as others physically manipulate him to disturbingly graceful and measured effect. As with many moments in Splinter Group’s Lawn, there are allusions to a real horror never quite revealed.

To call Lawn a ‘horror fantasy’ is close to the mark, but any attempt to categorise risks cheating this work of its sophistication and inventiveness. Even with major adaptations made to accommodate performer Vincent Crowley’s serious opening night injury, the Brisbane Powerhouse premiere season of Lawn was inspiring stuff: exemplary dance theatre, playing most effectively in the margins of visual perception and reality, while at the same time providing an edge-of-your-seat narrative tension. It was like a well-crafted horror film with moments of surreal quirkiness, such as the unannounced appearance of composer/performer Iain Grandage in various guises inside the wardrobe.

Yet Lawn also operated on a number of other levels. The yearning for an open, uncomplicated and spatially unencumbered life (represented by the motif of an expansive Australian lawn) was frustrated by the claustrophobia of a northern hemisphere indoor existence and an imposing European heritage. Set in an old apartment in Berlin during winter, utopia is signified by the vista of a tropical beach which emerges from behind the wallpaper. Wedged in this divide between the real and the imagined, personal neuroses become physically manifest: one performer scales the walls; another is trapped and bound in cling wrap (“I am running, in the forest, with eyes tight shut…”); another marvels at Houdini’s amazing escapes while watching television programs dubbed into German.

The acknowledged influence of the eerie domestic dioramas of American photographer Gregory Crewdson is evident as repulsive subtexts erupt in the otherwise grey setting. The humour is dark and even cheeky at times, and there’s a delectable weirdness to it all, owing much to the films of Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Delicatessen, 1991; City of Lost Children, 1995).

Lawn is the first production of Splinter Group, a threesome comprising Australian dancer-choreographers Vincent Crowley, Grayson Millwood and Gavin Webber. Since working together as members of Meryl Tankard’s Australian Dance Theatre in the early 1990s, they have worked across Europe with choreographers such as William Forsythe, Luc Dunberry, Maguy Marin, Joachim Schlömer and Wim Vandekybus. Back in Australia, they recently formed Splinter Group and were commissioned by the Brisbane Powerhouse artistic director (and production dramaturg) Andrew Ross to develop Lawn with designer Zoë Atkinson and composer Iain Grandage. Atkinson is working with Compagnie Philippe Genty and Theatre DRAK in France, while Grandage is the current Western Australian Symphony Orchestra composer-in-residence; his composition credits include Cloudstreet, Plainsong and Corrugation Road. Crowley, Millwood and Webber are continuing to split their time between Europe and Australia: Grayson performs with Sasha Waltz and Guests in Berlin; Crowley continues to work with Schlömer; and Webber regularly returns to Brussels to teach for Vandekybus’ Ultima Vez. The considerable experience of these artists is apparent in the dramatic texture of Lawn, as is their finely-tuned precision as performers and their obvious ease as collaborators.

Atkinson’s set is integral to Lawn’s success, its bleak surface at times revealing the horrors of history as well as the dreams and delusions of the present. In perfect complement, Grandage’s score literally and metaphorically emerges from under the surface as he performs live behind the apartment walls, appearing at strategic intervals on stage and helping to bring the performance to its nauseating climax. Outside the Powerhouse Theatre, the work continued to resonate in exhibitions by photographer Tim Page, who captured various rehearsal moments, and Kellie O’Dempsey, whose ink, acrylic and pastel drawings (presented on a very ‘backyard’ Hills Hoist) extended the moody movement of the piece.

Lawn leaves its audience with images that disturb and delight, and definitely deserves a repeat viewing. It will undoubtedly become a festival favourite highlighting as it does the depth of Australian dance theatre.
Splinter Group, Lawn, performer-choreographers Vincent Crowley, Grayson Millwood, Gavin Webber, composer Iain Grandage, designer Zoë Atkinson; Brisbane Powerhouse, November 11-20, 2004

RealTime issue #65 Feb-March 2005 pg. 15-

© Mary Ann Hunter