Desert Body Creep
May 19 2016
Desert Body Creep performed by Angela Goh is brilliant, no two ways about it, it’s the kind of performance that makes you want to go back and revisit a second or even third time, imaginative, quirky and down right bizarre it is everything and more. Opening with a scene underpinned by the music of Willow Smith, it’s decidedly gen y, youthful and full of vigour.
It works intelligently with various forms and device, vocals, sound and lighting to name but a few. The resulting effect makes you want to get inside the mind of this brilliant young performer, unpacking her thoughts as you go along your way and that’s the joy, trying to pin point exactly what is the genesis behind the work. Desert Body Creep is measured, composed and full of decidedly attractive sense of self assurance.
It’s humorous and wild yet somehow restrained, a difficult balance to strike when creating performance work. Here presents not so much as a clear narrative, but just enough to envisage your own story line. As your imagination runs wild through through a world which borders on the realm of comedic horror, a beautiful young girl is swallowed whole by a giant worm in the desert, only to emerge a naked heroin, taking the remains of this creature and vacuum packing its soul into oblivion.
It seems to fly in the face of so many trends currently witnessed in contemporary dance here in Melbourne, by employing them to a degree, then only to turn sharply away, just at the precise moment you think you know what’s going on. The choreography here is in an intellectual sense somewhat impressive, though if anything it is more anti-choreography, focused on moving about the space and interacting with the various devices at play.
Desert Body Creep Is great introduction to the form, this is a performance that offers an “in” for audiences that may not have connected or found resonance with contemporary dance. Perhaps art does not always need to push an agenda, and indeed if any question posed in Desert Body Creep, should surface it would surround how valuable dance, as a form can be, when wanting to entertain or offer an elusive moment of pause, from the pressures of our menial existences.
Next Wave festival exists precisely to offer not only the opportunity for emerging artists to develop and present new work, but also the chance for audiences to be introduced to the next crop of fresh young talent we have as a society, collectively help produce. Desert Body Creep, is a clear and fine example of their work at play, not so much as a direct response to the here and now, but something even more special, do yourself a favour and see this work, it’s playing till Sunday the 23rd of May at Northcote Town Hall, book your tickets here.
Desert Body Creep
Dance, decay & transformation
RealTime issue #132 April-May 2016
Performed by its maker, Angela Goh, Desert Body Creep gives us two shape-shifting protagonists: the female body and an oversized gummi worm. The opening sequences establish Goh in preludial mode, spot-lit and dressed in unremarkable, slightly retro leisurewear, she revolves with a gentle robotic slide, making inchoate arm gestures. Loud vintage-sounding pop and moody light suspend her in a kind of cinematic, soft-focus disco, but after a brief black-out the music changes to a twanging guitar soundtrack and she’s on the floor, looping repeatedly through a carefully decelerated backwards roll.
Enter, worm. Goh crawls towards the audience with an invertebrate sitting casually down the length of her spine (a nice visual pun). From William Blake’s invisible worm that flies in the night, to those in Frankenstein that “inherited the wonders of the eye and the brain,” to Mercutio’s howl in Romeo and Juliet that he will soon be food for worms—this is a powerful signifier that death is in the room. On the other hand, here is a rubbery, very cute, super bouncy-looking and slightly pitiable lolly worm. Are we to be horrified, or charmed? When Goh runs a pole up and down the underbelly of the worm, intermittently animating it with absurd but believable character, she does so with attentiveness. There seems to be profound emotional content in this relationship.
From here Desert Body Creep is in full command of its themes—consumption, mutability, horror and decay are enacted in a series of transformations of Goh’s body. She moves to a microphone and multi-track recorder and after establishing a screeching choir of high notes, wheels slowly backwards in terror, her mouth a petrified O. Once more there’s a strong cinematic feel to the music and the slowness of it all, horror and sci-fi film tropes of invasion, gore and monstrosity are increasingly conjured.
Transformation is a central concern in dance, which is fundamentally a licensed invasion of performers’ bodies by the choreographer; Yvonne Rainer used the word “transmission” to describe the process of transferring movement from one body to another. After handling the worm, Goh becomes one herself, jerking along the floor consuming pieces of fabric, which she then uses to throw cartoonish monster shapes. It’s funny and silly, but the replacement of one body with another, the work of worms, is still discomfiting. Rainer famously pointed out that “dance is hard to see.” Desert Body Creep gives us a plain symbol of the body’s (and therefore dance’s) inevitable decay. It also reminds us that if we are only looking for dance where we expect to find it (in a ‘performing’ body, in a ‘choreographed’ body) it’s hard to see in other movement.
The work is structured around successive, not integrated, scenes. Although Angela Goh seems to undergo a full metamorphosis when she is entirely swallowed by a green velour sheath, there’s no illusion. In fact, here she’s almost at her most human, the outline of her bowed head and shoulder clearly visible as she slides around, vacuuming up the clumps of fabric in her path. When she emerges naked (perhaps new) she unfussedly ties back her hair and drinks from a water bottle. We’re suddenly and awkwardly aware that the work has itself transformed into domestic, potentially private activity. Dance is hard to see.
Un-costumed now, Goh’s body achieves its most complete transformation when a motorised muscle-vibrating platform is put into the service of oscillating her flesh into increasingly intense ripples. The guitars are back and totally wailing, it’s unabashedly comical, yet somehow triumphant. After a while every part of her is jiggling and wobbling; even the folds of her elbows spiral.
There’s a modest denouement when the dancer walks calmly to a piano at the side of the stage and plays a few bars, perhaps a nod to the childhood lessons that are no longer necessary in this transformed desert.
Desert Body Creep
Shaking Loose the Self
RealTime issue #132 April-May 2016
Early in Desert Body Creep, amid scattered clumps of fabric recalling road-kill, Angela Goh enacts her own abduction. Tumbling feet over head in a spotlight beam, she stares up and out at some sight unseen. The synthetic guitar twang of the soundtrack together with Goh’s grungy tracksuit pants and sneakers give the moment the strung-out feel of so many backwater x-file narratives.
The piece’s title goes some way to evoking this half-way-to-nowhere landscape, where mundanity merges with the otherworldly. This is a land forsaken, where life slithers through the cracks, coiling and recoiling beneath the almost-too-bright light. In this harsh environment Goh performs her becoming and eventual unbecoming.
Connecting an almost metre-long, giant gummi worm to the base of her neck, and animating it with the movement of her spine as she crawls on hands and knees towards the audience, Goh submits to a world in which the dead and un-dead are playfully symbiotic. The worm is, from this moment of invasion, Goh’s mode of conceptual excavation, embodied or reflected in each new episode.
The dancer is able to conjure its presence physically and, in a striking sequence, aurally. Sitting before a sampler, microphone in hand, she multi-tracks herself singing wordless harmonies. The sounds are extracted like vermicular parasites from Goh’s gaping mouth. Harmonies breed and loop to form a cacophonous other, the cycle rendering the voice abject, no longer a voice but a creature in its own right, stretching and writhing the length of the space.
As in any dreamscape, one thing is always in a state of becoming another. Shadows climb the walls, human screams emerge from the indistinct mass of noise. Goh, open-mouthed and sliding prone, ‘consumes’ the strewn fabrics, only then to rise and hunch beneath them—zombie-like, road-kill reanimated.
Abduction, possession, reanimation—it’s the stuff of midnight movie specials, and apt, given that the piece is, in many ways, a horror story. Yet it’s never quite clear what, or who, is the monster, as every object, no matter how seemingly benign, is made monstrous, only to be consumed, or contained, so that the audience comes instead to be haunted by a cool and unflinching emptiness. The audience’s fear then, is drawn not from things being given life, from spent objects rising from the dead or the dancer transmogrifying behind ever more hideous guises. The fear is that there will come a point, maybe inside this very room, when there is nothing left to consume or transform. The fear is not of an insatiable hunger, but of infinite reprisal without chaos, art-making without desire or fear.
As the performance draws towards its conclusion, Goh becomes the worm, only to emerge naked from its signifier, a velour cocoon. In an act of domesticity no less horrifying, she stuffs her cast-off skin and its contents into a zip-lock bag and uses a vacuum cleaner to render the package airless and without excess. This action is accompanied only by the faint vacuum scream, the sound of empty space being torn from one place to fill another. Here the piece loses its momentum, gaining clarity to its detriment. For in this moment, Angela Goh seemingly unintentionally becomes the model post- post- artist, turning nothing into nothing to say something about nothing in a way that fails to give the exchange the silhouette of something more sinister.
She then stands on a vibrating exercise platform, the kind that a tracksuit-wearing UFO enthusiast from the suburbs might use to tone her glutes. With her back to the audience, Goh allows the machine to shake loose the last vestiges of herself as concrete, the image of her rippling skin rendering her core-less.
The artist is incomplete, empty, and she is free. As the lights dim, she sits at an upright piano at the side of the stage, and plays a tune. It’s almost familiar, leaving the audience to make contact with the piece from a place they’ve since left behind.
Desert Body Creep
Wrestling with monsters
RealTime issue #132 April-May 2016
We all have our monsters, our demons, those things we wrestle to come to grips with, to quash or overcome, perhaps daily. Right now, my monster is how to do justice to Angela Goh’s Desert Body Creep, a work in which Goh, alone on stage, struggles with her monster, evoked in the form of a worm.
Goh’s stage is furnished sparsely, like a contemporary installation art piece: a pile of fabric here, another flat on the floor over there; a microphone, a broom handle, some electronics and a piano. I didn’t notice the piano at first. It felt like the only natural presence in that space, perhaps a left-over from that morning’s community choir rehearsal at the little Northcote Town Hall studio. Goh has delineated a stage with black tarquette, but the rigging of lights is left exposed, as are the walls of the studio; hence the sense of the piano as natural.
I am surprised to see Goh standing patiently on stage, shifting from one foot to the other, not nervously, just slowly. She wanders to the side of the stage and drinks from a metal water bottle. Her face is emotionless, a mask framed by thick black hair dyed bright blonde. She’s dressed casually, in sneakers and mis-matching patterns, which give her the appearance of a child who has combined her favourite clothing with no regard for convention. Or perhaps she is just a woman, dressed as herself. It feels like she needed to see the audience enter, to clock us, before we spend 45 minutes watching her body and her battle. I remember this opening image—set and performer—in such detail as it is so intriguingly unspectacular and sets such a distinctive tone for the performance.
Lights dim and a familiar yet indistinct pop track plays. In one of only a small number of dramatically lit sequences, a spot reveals that Goh has entered a trance-like state, she won’t look at us again until her curtain call. She shifts her body slowly, almost imperceptibly at first. Sliding her feet across the floor, she establishes a series of purposeful shapes that are repeated slowly—hand following elbow, torso following legs—as though hearing the beat of the track at one-twentieth the speed. Here, Goh adds texture to her opening image, setting up a series of parameters—slowness, repetition and surreality—that she carries across the performance.
In these early stages, I am intrigued to find out how Goh will actually perform with “an oversized gummi worm,” as promised in her written introduction (which is accompanied by a digital image of the artist fancifully surfing a pink and blue serpent-like form through a desert). She knows we want to know—it is such a bizarre premise—but makes us wait. In the opening two trance-like scenes she starts a kind of journey towards the floor—perhaps the centre of the Earth—towards her worm, her monster.
It is thus almost unceremonious, a little humorous, when Goh introduces the flaccid, sticky form of the large but not exactly “oversized” worm. Her first actions of discovery and mimcry are equally hysterical and wonderful. On all fours, she positions the worm in relation to her own body by placing the invertebrate along the length of her spine as though training both it and herself. Then, like a puppeteer, she rolls the worm backwards and forwards over the broom handle, in deep concentration. These are delicate and sensual scenes that give no warning of the horror to come as Goh charts an eventual descent into full embodiment of the worm.
One of her most moving and unsettling images is achieved as she finally lowers herself all the way to the floor. Outstretched, she places her arms by her side and slowly rolls her shoulders to inch forward the chest, then stomach, pelvis and legs. Her chin pushes her head back to reveal her open mouth. It looks exceedingly uncomfortable as she wriggles forward pushing one of the outstretched fabrics with her mouth, as a worm would to dirt but as a woman should never have to. It is a bold evocation of the abject.
The long, following sequence—intended to be even more horrific, as indicated by a screaming soundscape—is a blur of Angela Goh in a state of possession traversing the stage, wrestling both with and as fictive monsters, until she herself has become an enormous, writhing worm form in a tube of pale green velour. In an allusion to both environmental destruction and personal cleansing we see Goh enact a frantic, yet still predominantly slow-moving and repetitive passage, cleansing the already sparse stage by ‘consuming’ all in her path into the belly of the beast.
Goh eventually emerges from the tube fully naked. This is another bold statement, that feels at first clichéd until it becomes apparent that no costume could convey the outcome of her battle sequence more accurately than her own skin. She stands, self possessed and for the first time since she began, breaks her trance. Goh punctuates the seriousness of her persona and the inferences of this work with moments of dry humour and this is one of them. Sweaty and naked, she takes a moment to drink from her water bottle, adorning herself only with a purple hair tie, then perfunctorily vacuum shrink-wraps the discarded ‘skin’, placing it to the side of the stage. I half expected her to dust off her hands.
While there is an implicit progression, Goh’s performance feels more like a striking collage of tableaux vivants. She ends the work with two of the more enduring images—which in themselves feel worthy of an essay contextualised by the work of Marina Abramovi? and the history of feminist performance art. In the first, Goh standing on a vibrating weight-loss machine, her back to the audience, slowly increases the speed of the vibration in several stages as the (minimal) fat on her taut body flails wildly until her whole flesh seems to have lost its solidity—all somehow perfectly in time with the increasing speed of a screaming guitar solo. Is she showing us that in embodying the qualities of the invertebrate, her monster, she has come to terms with it?
The second scene is Goh’s perfectly unspectacular finale. Still naked, she seats herself at the piano and slowly plays a simple two handed and vaguely familiar tune, as though recalling a muscle memory from the past. It is an ending that leaves the audience with more questions than answers. Is this a recollection of the song we heard at the start? What was the real nature of her battle, what did she learn from this time in/as the worm? Was this an allusion to the journey of a woman from childhood to adulthood? Or an acceptance, a harnessing and taming of her own internal monster? Is this final scene an indication of her new beginnings or a re-entry into an infinite loop?
Desert Body Creep
Re-seeing the body in motion
RealTime issue #132 April-May 2016
Angela Goh’s naked bottom is rippling uncontrollably. Standing unclothed atop a vibrating platform her wobbling flesh seems to synchronise with the rock guitar soundtrack. As the speed of the vibration increases, so does her involuntary reaction. On a dancer, it’s an unexpected bodily response and a fitting climax to a work dedicated to mesmerising us with the qualities of movement.
Desert Body Creep, Goh’s solo dance work for Next Wave 2016 opens on a room scattered with debris. Surrounded by discarded fabrics, the platform and a sound sampler, Goh begins her episodic work with two languid dances accompanied by a sultry guitar-laden soundtrack. Recalling her short video works where she tested sending vibes to absent friends via dance, she generates a series of hypnotic pivoted torso twists and controlled backward rolls within the perimeter of a spotlight. A lush sense of being irrevocably connected to the earth is always present.
What begins as a meditation, evolves into a playful performance piece. She introduces her leitmotif: the worm. Its first incarnation is a half-metre gummi worm. Here ensues a surprisingly tender interaction, with Goh carefully animating the worm, twirling it across a stick until we are captivated by its undulating, unfurling form. It’s emblematic of her approach: we are calmly invited to marvel simultaneously at the silent, hypnotic charm in movement and the grotesque. Placing the invertebrate worm along her spine, she crawls slowly across the floor, before undergoing a radical transformation.
Allowing sound the same attention as motion, Goh samples her voice singing high, sustained notes, replaying them as a layered siren call. Entering a trance-like state, she shuffles prostrate across the floor like some B-grade horror movie monster with gaping mouth. Notes merge into a soundscape of screams, and she disappears into a velour casing: becoming a worm and devouring the debris in her path. In this ‘post post-everything’ scenario, as Goh describes it in the Next Wave program guide, it’s easy to imagine the Goh-worm devouring civilisation itself.
In the current context of Melbourne choreographer covering their performers in head-to-toe fabric to divest their bodies of gender and identity (for example: Geoffrey Watson’s Camel, Bec Jensen’s Explorer, Chloe Chignell’s Deep Shine), I wonder what it means for a dancer’s body to disappear into- and re-emerge naked from- a fabric worm. The humble worm may be a hermaphrodite, but Angela Goh emerges unequivocally, unashamedly female. There’s a clear sense of being cleansed of cultural conditioning. Stripped of gender expectations, it’s a pleasure to witness Goh commanding, even proud, in her role. She calmly packs these shed skins into a plastic bag and uses another worm— a vacuum hose— to suck any remaining life out of them before politely setting them aside.
Angela Goh seems to be book-ending for the audience a journey in what we recognise as conceptual choreography: from minimal dance, through performative movement, before returning to an appreciation of pure motion. Nudity is key in her transformation: Desert Body Creep is a meditation on re-claiming and re-seeing the body in motion…as it vibrates naked on a motorised platform.
Desert Body Creep
The fantastical power of the everyday
RealTime issue #132 April-May 2016
Walls lined in grey metal, hanging cords, piled fabric and electronics litter the space; I am in the carcass of a theatre. Angela Goh stands casually, fully illuminated, the theatre baring its skeleton; what expectations can I have of something so dead?
In a “post post-everything world” (cited by Goh in the Next Wave program guide), we are left (and begin) with an endless expanse of time. A wasteland of used parts, the theatre sags. What came before? And what is left? Desert Body Creep moves without urgency, Angela Goh performs with clarity, patience and endurance; she seems not to make promises.
In this work, choreography is understood as the assemblage of elements: the body becomes a material, much like the space, lighting and sound. A series of images and scenes is constructed through careful marriage of sound, object and body. In a powerful moment, Goh sits with microphone in hand, mouth open, to sound a long high note. It strikes me as a visceral gesture, her physicality so involved in this simple and haunting scene. A looping echo multiplies into a body of sound.
A sense of excavation pervades the space, moving beneath the ground and below the skin. The dancer executes a continuous backward roll and burrows under a floating smoke landscape. The body grinds down, inverting the dancerly ideal of flight into that of digging. In another scene, a series of erratic passages across the space, Goh crawls under the sheets of fabric, momentarily becoming monster or ghost.
The long green worm-girl slowly labours across the space, making no apologies, continuing and continuing. A brief pause as the body contorts inside the fabric, then labouring, labouring, until it digests the last piece of fabric. The feeding leaves me exhausted, the worm rests heavy; so do I. The mouth opens once more and Goh crawls out, now nude. Suddenly the worm seems much larger. The body looks tiny as the flesh emerges, all heaviness left inside the deflated green tube.
A guitar solo blasts as Goh steps onto an electronic wobble board, her flesh in a furious shake. Sound ceases. Goh presses a button increasing the machine’s speed, and sound returns. Each element in this scene is given the time it needs. As the pause-click-and-play repeats, the flesh ripples furiously. And I notice myself calling it ‘the flesh’, becoming detached from Goh, who’s now a vibrating light pink mass in the formation of a body.
When I watch dance I find myself looking for what the piece is asking of me: how am I being asked to participate? Am I performing my role? Yet during Desert Body Creep, I realised I was, in fact, fine just where I was; our relationship was simple, I was there and so was Angela Goh. I felt comfortable at a distance, I didn’t need to go ‘into’ the work; illusion was of no interest, but instead what became important was a fiction located firmly in the actual. Constructed with stark visibility, the scenes dealt in real affect—absurd images in real space and real time. As Goh slid inside a long green velour tube and began to eat piles of fabric, she didn’t become a worm, but remained girl-as-worm, feeding on dead costumes. I felt a desire to believe in the transformation, to slip into the imaginary, but the performance did not ask that of me. It was far more absurd and revealing to remain in the actual.
It was all right there before us, a fiction so mundane it became unbelievable. If the imaginary implies a certain elevation from the actual, Desert Body Creep uses fiction to burrow down—a deep fantasy. With sharp persistence Desert Body Creep avoided illusion, posing an interesting problem: what is left to imagine in a post post-everything world? Does fantasy now lie in the actual? A girl, in a worm, eating fabric?