Review: Explicit Contents
Rhiannon Newton | Dancehouse, Wurundjeri Country | 09/2022.
First, a confession.
There is a poem by Matthew Arnold that I have a guilty liking for. Called Dover Beach, my guilt is inspired by a fear of cliché (a popular young adult novel is named after one of the closing lines).
My neuroses and usual tangents aside, Explicit Contents, by Rhiannon Newton, reminds me of Dover Beach: “so various, so beautiful, so new.”
Indeed, there is poetry to the work. Explicit Contents weaves contemplative, brooding textures; lounging cooly in darkness without sulking. Here, Narcissus triumphs: reflections are sought without vanity in mind, and the poise achieved is marked.
As they enter, patrons may note the presence of two stout glass bowls of water: cylindrical, almost clinical. In dark pants and sheer beige tops (soon after removed), two dancers are already spinning and pressing through their own container: an analogy of pairs.
Explicit Contents is performed with meditative power by David Huggins and Ivey Wawn. They are feathers of flesh — swiftly building and deconstructing their bodies, shoulder girdles rolling and arms flickering with prickly strength. Their intestines concave and gallbladders fly backward like bullets seeking softer flesh, lest their contractions destroy them.
They move like oil in water, seeking a surface above.
Steely yet transparent, Huggins dances with care. He is a silver knife: cleanly slicing air before grinding his innards into a bubbling hilt. His hallux flexes back in interjection, his toes touching down from large to small. His head disappears, forearms search, and as he folds the valley of his spine yawns. Beneath lighting designer Karen Norris’ oceanic gloom, he becomes the head of a bull: sinewed and heavy.
Wawn’s dancing is quieter by contrast, but she holds a necessary, distilled power compared to Huggins’ openness. Like a fishing net, there is a beautiful simplicity and clarity in her role, and she captures movement, from without and within, without strain. The river of the work moves through and because of her.
Where this river leads is uncontroversially thoughtful. It would be remiss (and frankly unfair) to spoil the climax of Newton’s work, but I will share one scrawled note: it borders on magic. Looking to the semiotics of the piece, each section is a kind of exercise, or test even, that prepares the dancers for this ultimate spell.
In near total darkness, lights barely illuminate two coiled figures; the dancers diving into a pool of pitch behind, above, and beneath them. The scant light that dresses them picks up only subtle curvatures — the ripe apple of a shoulder, an ankle kinked along an outstretched leg — and evokes the flecked highlights of a pair of eyes. As the dancers carefully shift their weight, we imagine pupils dilating in shadow and sclerae melting into black, unseen humidity. Two metronome drips of rain fall before them.
One vignette sees the dancers dine on washed fruit: Huggins a mango, Wawn a passionfruit. The skins of the fruit are peeled back, and each bite and sup of flesh is picked up by cheek microphones — a fruit fetishist’s ASMR wet dream. We contemplate the internal choreography of the food: from teeth to tongue, throat, and stomach, then acid and bile. The churning of their meal fills the dancers with new energy and weight: their interiors becoming liquid before our eyes. We crane our heads to see as the performers watch gently back.
Newton’s choreography reminds me of Karen Barad’s work on new materialism, particularly her research on particles and touch.
Touching, in this case, is the feeling of electrons repelling each other. There is no real contact between, for example, a hand and a spoon, because their respective electron clouds push against each other. Adapting this to our own bodies, we might contemplate how our cells are similarly “not touching,” with this drawing into question the difference (if any) between the internal composition of our hand versus the spoon it holds.
Through Barad’s scholarship, the universe becomes an integrated atomic assemblage, with any “gaps” arising mere phantoms of timing rather than irreparable wounds. We see this at play in Explicit Contents: the glass vessels of water vibrating and sloshing through the dancers’ subtle touch — a fifth limb.
With this in mind, the work takes on a grave seriousness. Fresh water is a finite resource and one that so-called Australia will only prize more in years to come. How sacred is water in this piece, then? How precious are the fluid bodies that these dancers wield in glass bowls/bowels? How should we feel seeing water spilt, water dripped, water smeared under cloth and foot? How should we react: with indignity, curiosity, enchantment?
In posing these questions, I seek to purposefully curb the possibility of a definitive answer. I’m simply wondering, and in a work so deeply involved in the fluid world of affect and viscera, one might expect to be moved to a certain “rainy day” ennui.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, this also fits within Newton’s logic. At least from a layman’s perspective, there is no “definitive” state of water, and the form of the liquid matches its container; adopts the colour of its context.
So, when reflecting on the sacredness of water I am inclined to side with Newton and Barad. Rather than a spectacle of waste, the spilling of fluid in Explicit Contents speaks to the edgeless overlap of waters both internal and external: lymph and blood and sweat and rain and river. Water falls as dancing bodies do.
Within its poetry, Explicit Contents gestures to the harrowing necessity of reflection; to the need to interrogate the gaps. Therein, on the darkling plain of Newton’s work, I encourage you to gaze at your navel and see the moon in your lap — luminous and full. ▮