“I guess it started with my fear of death.” Most of Léa Tirabasso’s work has been a way of dealing with mortality’s sombre inevitability. And for her new show, Starving Dingoes, she’s begun a philosophical exploration of the strong links between madness and death. “We’re conscious beings who know that we’re going to die. Isn’t that the beginning of madness. But ‘mad’ has the wrong connotation… Or if we want to talk about madness, we want to go to that romantic definition of that person who sees life truly transparently.”
She and her creative team have examined what madness could really mean, and who we are without the comforting order of ‘civilisation’. What is our role in life, and what is bubbling beneath the veneer of politeness?
Viewing ‘madness’ as dysfunction dovetails neatly into Tirabasso’s fascination with cancer cells.
Her own prognosis compelled this award-winning choreographer to make work (including her celebrated The Ephemeral Life Of An Octopus) which draws from the accompanying physical, spiritual and mental experience. “It led to me collaborating with scientists. I didn’t just want to make a piece about something I felt. I want to really understand what cancer was, and how a cell becomes unhealthy.” The experts described the disease as being chaotic, the cells spiralling out of control and affecting all those around them.
The concept of Apoptosis has stayed with her since the original research. A healthy cell has a predetermined death, and the average adult discards around 60 billion cells every day. When a cell swerves destiny by mutating it’s believed to be an important mechanism in tumour generation.
This miniscule fight for life inspires much of Starving Dingoes.
“The cells grow and colonise your whole body. I wanted to imagine what the other cells do around it. Do they realise something is going wrong, and this other cell is about to kill the whole thing? Of course, I wanted the other cells to kill the unhealthy one, so notions of sacrifice started to be added on to our conceptual research. What do we do when something dysfunctions. Do we kill it to save the whole?”
The concept of a rogue element starting to destroy those around it is almost infinitely scalable. From the atomic to the cosmological, balance is easily upset by the most innocent of actions. As a dance piece, Starving Dingoes became about people abandoned on a desert island and forced to eat on of their party in a bid for survival. It’s a simple analogous storyline, but is layered with observations on ritual, togetherness and group mentality. Should the sacrificed group member surrender or fight to stay alive?
Another inspiration for Tirabasso was the work of French philosopher Michel Foucault, who himself questioned if the distinction between madness and sanity wasn’t real but a social construct.
Our notion of humanity is formed by a docile acceptance of certain conventions. Often these are just expressions of our society’s ethical and political commitments rather than incontrovertible facts.
“It’s really interesting when you look at the friction created between our corporeal needs and our spiritual life. We keep hiding the fact that our bodies are labelled as disgusting. The matter that comes out of our bodies… You hide yourself. There’s all these things which shouldn’t be seen. Life is actually gross. And that’s beautiful.”
The notion of dysfunction is something which repeatedly creeps into Tirabasso’s impressive portfolio of work. We might believe malignant elements are destructive, but they’re often doing quite well from their own perspective. “You do question what we do with all these horrible factories which pollute so much. Do you close them? You still need your phones and computers. So, do you just close your eyes?”
Tirabasso has collaborated with leading-edge set production designers, electronic music artists, animal-transformation specialists and clowning coaches. “I love chatting with people. I think it’s important to learn from others. I’ve been working with a philosopher for the past seven years. I’ll go to him with a certain notion and ask for his thoughts. Then that goes into the studio, and we talk about it to the dancers. As a team, we really ‘feel’ the subjects.”
A heady blend of science and movement, Starving Dingoes’ evocative spectacle sees five dancers engage in a fight for survival, lost amongst an ever-changing landscape. Accompanied by a hypnotic, bass-driven score, we see instinct battle logic as group dynamics respond to different threats. With shifting rhythms and movements, the quintet initially trying to work together, until their interactions origin to lose synchronisation.
“I’m really interested by instincts,” says Tirabasso, while talking about how her projects evolve in the workshop process. “The thinking brain and how we react. We can’t forget that we’re on stage, but how can we surrender to something more primal? What arrives isn’t movement, but new textures. I love that.” The title draws from the Australian wild dogs, who wander untamed around beaches hunting for scraps. In a sense her performers approached the work as a search for intellectual and spiritual sustenance.
She describes the pulsating score which backs the piece as coming from a “happy accident”.
Composed by Brighton-based duo Johanna Bramli and Ed Chivers, it fizzes with contemporary electronica. The score’s liberal repetition invokes both ritual and wearying routine. Lightening the mood is an inclusion of arias from La Traviata. “It’s so grandiose and big that it’s almost artificial. It is so far away from the animal that we’re talking about. It’s the story of Violetta, who knows she’s going to die. Which is perfect because it’s a woman making her own choices.” The parts from this Verdi classic are an airy counterpoint to the ground-shaking heavy beats, offering a fitting metaphor for the interaction between flighty instinct and dogged logic.
Starving Dingoes has inarguably generated a lot of conversation, with almost everyone having their own opinion on what it represents. “It’s very interesting to realise that this piece is very divisive. It brings you to an uncomfortable place, as it looks at things which are a bit destructive. But that’s what art is here for – to get you to look at things which you never look at.”
Her own interpretations of the work have gently shifted and developed with every performance.
She’s become very interested in the representation of the artists and their own relinquish of control. In a way, every artist has to surrender some part of themselves, whether spiritually, physically or artistically. And the question remains what is this really for?
“I feel as artists we are sacrificed a bit. Institutions support us and our work, but in the end do they really care for us a human beings? As an artist, it’s hard, and we do sacrifice things.” Perhaps there’s greater pressures in contemporary dance to conform to the expectations of an audience. The form is often underrepresented when we think about culture and the arts.
“Maybe it’s because it started off so codified; and maybe less accessible because of that. It seems a little more out of reach. I really believe that dance can be extremely intransigent… very contemporary and edgy, yet completely accessible.” Starving Dingoes is forming part of Brighton’s undisciplined festival. This an annual event, run by South East Dance, which draws together various disciplines and makes them open to everyone. It’s part of their mission to support both audiences and artists and bring a greater appreciation for movement.
The theme for this year’s festival is new rituals and states of being, and considering that art can be kind as well as radical, bringing together cutting-edge artists and new ways of performing.
“I think some institutions are really struggling to take risks, for whatever reason. There’s something about pushing the artform and daring to do it. But sometimes you might sacrifice some artistic ideas because you know if you don’t the piece will tour less.”
But contemporary dance is still relatively new, when compared to many other performing arts, which belies just how accessible it can be. After all, you just need a body and some space to perform, and some eyes to watch. By its very nature this is and accessible artform. So, iss it being cloistered by those artificial social and cultural conventions? “I think watching the body is something we need to learn to do. We’re not taught to look at people. As a kid you’re told: ‘Don’t look at them.’ Maybe we need to relearn how to look at each other…”
Léa Tirabasso’s Starving Dingoes comes to Brighton’s Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts on Thurs 9 – Fri 10 March, as part of South East Dance’s undisciplined festival.