A responsive sensitivity that saturates the performance (1992)

by Raewyn Whyte

1992 was a great year for choreographer Michael Parmenter and his eight-member Commotion Company. Together they broke new choreographic ground in two major seasons of new contemporary dance works which received both popular and critical acclaim throughout the country. They won for themselves a steadily growing audience, and did very well at the box office. They received considerable media attention for their two-and-a-half-hour-long environmental dance theatre work The Race,  made in collaboration with composer David Downes. And their Sweetheart Rising to Celestial 100%, a full company work in memory of performer Leigh Ransfield who died recently from AIDS, was a highlight of the ARTZAID benefit concert.

The company was founded in 1990 on a project-funding basis, and has become a tight-knit ensemble with a distinctive voice. Creating such a voice has been Parmenter’s dream since 1983 when he first started choreographing on dancers other than himself. In determined pursuit of that dream from 1983 to 1987, Parmenter sought out choreographers and companies which seemed to him to have developed their own aesthetic. He hoped to learn through working with them how to train and creatively feed dancers for the kinds of dance performance he wanted to create.

He went first to Australia, where he worked with Human Veins in 1983, and with One Extra Company in 1985, then went on to New York. There, with the support of a Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council study and travel award, he studied with Eric Hawkins, Min Tanaka, and Stephen Petronio, and performed with their companies. In Hawkins and Tanaka, in particular, he found models for what he was seeking–a well-articulated vision of how the body should move in performance, methods of training which support that vision, and which lead to a distinct aesthetic which sets that ensemble of dancers apart from others.

After his return to New Zealand in 1987, Parmenter continued with solo and duet works until 1990, when Commotion was launched at the New Zealand International Arts Festival. After three years of intensively working with Parmenter on techniques and ethics derived from the Zen-influenced training methods of Hawkins modern dance and Tanaka butoh, and with Parmenter’s approach to choreography, the company has a distinct voice of their own. Their dancing has a rich vitality and sensuousness which comes from their concentration of being fully present in every moment of performance. Their disciplined physicality frees them to be grounded one moment and airborne the next, to move in unison through complex combinations or to just-as-readily articulate the innumerable fragments or rhythms or pathways which combine within a single movement phrase. In dances such as the popular, high-energy Fields of Jeopardy the phrases are densely packed, and there are times when the dancing comes at you much more rapidly than you can catch. Their pace can, however, as easily be slow, the aura contemplative, as in the highly sculptural Tantra and the somnolent micromovement-based Equatorial.  Always, though, there’s a responsive sensitivity which saturates the space of performance and radiates out to the audience, drawing onlookers toward the space of the dancers.

Examining this space between dancers, between people, is the focus of Parmenter’s choreography, even when the works are very abstract. “My work is very much about community, about relationships, about what exists between people,” says Parmenter. “I believe that we are only truly human when we are in relationship to others. Even in my early work, with solos and duets and very formal pieces, I was examining certain aspects of human relationships, such as the experience of isolation and internal struggle, or the impact of violence and madness. But you can only do so much working solo, and I needed a company to let me go further.”

“Another thing I’ve always been trying to do is to make people in my audience feel things, to make them respond. I don’t want to convey abstract or intellectual ideas to them, although such things may well be there in my works to be found. I want to move them, to really communicate with them, to grab them on some level, and whether it’s emotional or physical doesn’t matter. This work is only worth doing if it’s really going to grab people, else it isn’t worth anyone’s time.”

That sense of not wasting time has great urgency for Parmenter, who is HIV positive. His willingness to talk publicly about the realities of living with HIV and being gay, and his efforts to better inform others by doing so, have put his personal life very much in the spotlight. He and partner Scott Johnson, who is Commotion’s manager, have featured in several television documentaries this year, and in January he took the lead role in the Warwick Broadhead production which was at the centre of The Hero Party, a gay and lesbian dance party which had 4000 participants. As that theatrical Hero, Parmenter portrayed a gay Everyman on the quest for his true identity, fighting the prejudice and conservatism of family and societal attitudes and prejudices–something not so far removed from his own life experience. He is indeed identified very much as a hero in the gay community for his efforts to combat public ignorance about HIV and AIDS.

Though he doesn’t know how long he will stay healthy and be able to sustain his current high levels of output, Parmenter has well-developed plans for 1993. In January and February, he is one of three choreographers working on the Dance and Camera Project which will produce short dance works for prime-time television. Next, he will create a group work for the 1993 Hero Party, then will show a new version of the butoh-influenced Insolent River first performed in 1985. He will then take time out to replenish his energies, do some travelling, and will investigate the connections between dance forms and the terrain in which they have been created in places like the New Mexico pueblos. Then he wants to push further into the approach he developed in The Race, an approach which brings dance and theatre ever-closer together and uses them to raise important social issues.

The Race was a large-scale yet intimate work in which music was fused with dance to embody a strong narrative thread. The work traced stages in the history of a mythical tribe, the Race of the title, from communal harmony, through a period of culture shock resulting from contact with invaders, into a period of violence and degradation under the domination of the invaders. Then an uprising, the overthrow of the dominators, and a period of reawakening, a time in which rediscovered aspects of the old egalitarian existence give faint new hope to the remnants of the Race. This disturbing work showed just how quickly things can change, both for worse and for better. It made explicit aspects of life which some people may prefer to ignore, but in doing so it laid down the challenge to all of us to change those aspects of society which stand in the way of a sustainable future.

This article was originally published in Dance Australia, September 1992

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