A man with two children throwing stones at a duck along a canal in Ghent. A woman running along said canal who is outraged by what she sees, but also uncertain about whether she should intervene. This moral conundrum is the starting point for Melbourne-based Nicola Gunn's remarkable work of dance-theatre, Piece for Person and Ghetto Blaster, co-presented by the PuSh Festival and the Dance Centre, where it plays through this evening.
Gunn is a virtuoso storyteller, taking everyday incidents and observations from her own life and crafting them into compelling, but also wickedly hilarious, commentaries on social relations and the human condition. She also has a way with the finer points of narrative, introducing what you think are throwaway descriptive details or meaningless digressions (Hercule Poirot actor David Suchet's secret heart surgery, her art world encounter with Marina Abramovic, a synopsis of the plot of the film Brief Encounter, the fact that she told her friends on Facebook that she was out for a walk rather than a run), only to bring those various threads together into a most surprising and satisfying conclusion at the end. And she does this all while moving non-stop, Gunn having collaborated with choreographer Jo Lloyd on a physical score that sees Gunn cycle through a series of gestures and phrases as she unspools her story. The movements are relatively simple, an accretive vocabulary of arm swings and leg pulses and step-touches and swivel jumps and all manner of floor crawls. That doesn't mean that they don't become increasingly taxing to perform, nor that their execution doesn't require incredible powers of mental concentration on the part of Gunn--not least because their abstractness bears very little direct explanatory relation to the story being told (except insofar as they might punctuate a point for emphasis).
However, the movement does relate, conceptually, to Gunn's concern with necessary and unnecessary actions. Indeed, there is a direct philosophical through-line between asking why Gunn is moving her arm such-and-such a way while speaking to why the man is throwing stones at the duck to why Gunn feels compelled to intervene to why all of this is grist for an art piece and, finally, to why we take pleasure in watching said art piece. Gunn doesn't attempt to answer definitively any of these questions. Rather, she eschews black and white problem solving for imagining so many more shades of grey: speculating, for example, on what might be motivating the man (who seems to be an immigrant) to throw the stones and what effect her crazed intervention might have on the future mental health of the daughters who are with him; gradually copping to the fact that her run by the canal that morning is not itself unmotivated; and implicating us in an art historical tradition--from Bruegel to Abramovic to Gunn herself--that seems to place no limits on what is acceptable representationally, and that catches us in the act of looking while also looking away. On this latter front, there is a moment in the performance when things shift and Gunn, who until now had been performing at a safe remove from the audience on a strip of white marley that is oriented more upstage, wades into the audience, using all available surfaces and limbs to balance herself while asking if we mind her pelvis gyrating in our faces. We don't say anything, just titter nervously: because this is contemporary performance--right?--and anything goes. Maybe, and maybe not: when Gunn returns to the stage, we're perhaps not wholly on her side anymore, and as she starts adding even more shades of grey to the story, lighting and AV designers Niklas Pajanti and Martyn Coutts also create effects on the upstage screen that start to make Gunn seem a lot more threatening.
And what about that ghetto blaster in the title, also for much of the piece the only additional prop on the stage? It, too, is somewhat unnecessary. At a certain point Gunn moves it stage right and turns it on and her movements now become additionally syncopated with composer and sound designer Kelly Ryall's beats. It's oversized, early 80s design puts one in mind of the kind of devices used by breakers and B-boys to claim public space--which is not irrelevant to the story Gunn is telling. But, technically speaking, the ghetto blaster doesn't really need to be there. Except perhaps as an object-oriented ontological reminder of who else might be missing from this two-sided story. And, indeed, at the end of the piece the non-human ghetto blaster becomes a key interlocutor for the non-human duck, who up until this point has only been spoken about. Here music and movement combine to transcend the limits of language as a tool for (mis)communication.
It's a surprising and wholly satisfying conclusion to a deeply thoughtful work of performance.