A Bone of Contention (1993)

 “Bone of Contention”  by Jordan and Present (1993)
Reviewed by Raewyn Whyte for The Dominion
Susan Jordan’s latest dance theatre production, Bone of Contention, is one of the best in her two decades of creating dance works. It provides vividly compelling sequences of dance with highly accessible messages, and at the same time it offers insight into the matters which Suffrage Year celebrations have tended not to comment on. Though it engages with the Suffrage Year theme of celebrating the past, it turns the act of celebration into one of critique, and by the end of the show Jordan’s message is clear: little has actually changed in the everyday realities of New Zealand women in one hundred years, and it’s time we took a closer look at what we are celebrating.The collaborators in this project are all women: composer Helen Fisher and visual artist Catherine Bagnall, and performers Martina Brons Smith, Annaliese Forde, Katy McDermott, Leanne Plunkett and Lyne Pringle. Together they achieve an hour’s worth of remarkably engrossing sequences in which dance, design and music are fully integrated. In perhaps the most compelling sequence, the once familiar song “This Old Man, He Played One” is brought into the context of domestic violence, its words and phrases chanted and shouted in broken rhythms. The words are interspersed with body percussion to make a wonderfully resonant accompaniment for repeated dance phrases which express the women’s fears and anxieties, growing resolve and resistance, and eventual triumph over the aggressor.

As usual in Jordan’s work, a number of highly symbolic objects play a key role in the production. Her choices arise from extensive research, and each object is embedded in several different contexts to make her insights available to viewers… Such things as freshly boiled butcher’s bones, a cornucopia-shaped pram full of baby dolls, a chastity belt, a corset, a chador, and a bicycle, are made to flesh out the skeleton of contention as they accumulate on butcher’s hooks against Bagnall’s painted backdrop.

The most central object is a facsimile of the suffrage petition of 1893 which is repeatedly unrolled across the stage with a swift kick. Its mounting roster of 31,872 signatures is counted out loud at afternoon teas, and the names of illustrious petitioners are chanted as a litany of encouragement. Frustrated by the lack of political response to their cause, the petition is rolled up again and again, put back in the corner to await the right moment for its presentation to Parliament. While they wait, the suffragists turn to lamington baking competitions, good deeds, and other issues such as equality of educational opportunity, pay equity, the availability of contraceptive advice, protection from domestic violence–all of them issues over which women are still battling with the government today.

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