From the archive to serve as a preview: Taking it far too far – the awkward artless art of The Fondue Set
One of my favourite performance groups in the country, the sublime dance trio The Fondue Set, opens their new show No Success Like Failure at the Studio at the Sydney Opera House tonight. I can't hardly wait! After a couple of months of desperately mediocre performance work in Sydney, this week we're blessed by not one but two amazing works, the other being the exhilarating spectacle of Branch Nebula's Paradise City playing at Performance Space @ Carriage Works until Saturday, and then at Casula Powerhouse next week. You'd be mad to miss it people!
Anyway, back to The Fondue Set. I've written about them before, and reviewed their show The Set (Up) for RealTime back in 2004 (link here). For the later version of that show, Amanda Card at the now-defunct dance company One Extra asked me to write a program essay about the Fondues, and here it is, just to whet your appetite.
Taking it far too far – the awkward artless art of The Fondue Set
"In seizing on awkwardness as a territory worth exploring, young artists have hit on something: awkwardness is the artistic temper of the times." (Shawn-Marie Garret The Awkward Age, Theater, 31.2, Summer 2001, page 50)
"the performance of failure unleashes an indeterminate and irrepressible force, which momentarily consumes its witness, causing them a joyous, convulsive and physical opening to the unknown." (Adrian Heathfield, Last Laughs, Performance Research, March 2004, page 61)
Like the Sheffield-based theatre collective Forced Entertainment, their recent work has begun to demand that the audience not merely watch, but instead witness this work. Their current line of investigation is in the choreographic uses of awkwardness, an artless artifice exposing the collapse of pretence – an artifice of honesty. The work is just enough under control to be able to be presented, and just out of control enough to threaten the boundaries of its presentation, threaten the safety of the dancers in the face of the audience. This is an eccentric and extraordinary form of choreography, a dancing structured around the (apparent) unravelling of structure, the staging of awkwardness and failure. The Fondue Set are not alone in investigating failure in performance (indeed, it is a key principle of Forced Entertainment’s dramaturgy, as well as for other companies such as the US groups Elevator Repair Service and Goat Island). But no other group is quite so glamorous in its staging of failure. Indeed, absolute failure has rarely looked this good.
The art of The Fondue Set carefully stages itself as awkward and artless, built through close observations of social behaviour, obsessively embodying the places where personal anxieties transform into group paranoia. The Fondue Set deploy bafflement and embarrassment as key principles of their theatrical dance language, a dance language that actively conceals its craft to the point that the presenter of the first stage of The Set (Up), The Australian Choreographic Centre, inserted a program note to assure audiences that this is indeed dance. Mark Gordon, the artistic director of The Choreographic Centre, felt it necessary to reassure audiences that despite appearances, despite leaving ”much of the vocabulary of traditional dance behind”, this performance was indeed dance, and was able to be safely read and experienced as such. Despite The Fondue Set enthusiastically and impertinently producing what surrealist artist/theorist Georges Bataille might refer to as 'bad form' or formless, Gordon anxiously attempts to recuperate their work within the paradigm of dance. He notes that their work is “soundly based in choreographic principles, where space, shape line and rhythm are the messengers of the work.” So while it may appear that these are bunch of likable but dysfunctional dancers continually failing in everything that they attempt, and unravelling both their performance technique and stage personas, Gordon reassures his delicate audience to remain calm, and know that everything is OK. There's no need to panic. The chaos is carefully controlled. The dancers will not hurt themselves. They are only pretending. It's all a craft, even though the craft may seem invisible.
But while the collapse of form is deliberately staged, its effects and affects really take place. The bruises are real. The shame is only partly feigned. The repeated failures staged in the choreography of The Fondue Set produce dangerous ruptures in its construction, and these shock the spectator out of the belief in knowing what is to come, out of the comfort of believing that this is all pretending, all representation, that these performed actions are not real. Through their stammering choreography, their choreography afflicted with social failures, The Fondue Set open up their audience, bringing them close to the work through the remaking of the performance into an intimate encounter. The collapse of pretence mid-gesture, the crisis of character identification, and the continual failure of the act of theatre, the unravelling of illusion in the performance act create immediacy – a very human contact. The audience is opened, not to identification with character, but sympathy with the person undergoing this ordeal; a co-presence, an engagement that brings the audience into play, not in the role of ‘an audience’, but as individual human beings, not merely watching something, but sharing the process of going through something.
Mark Gordon's assurance correctly identifies, but strategically misrepresents the central operation of The Fondue Set's dance practice. This is not merely untraditional dance or 'anti-dance', but far more dangerous than that – this is impertinent dance, bad-form dance, dance that collapses the both dancing form and the dancing body in the performance act, demanding a frenzied, exhausted and intimate audience relation. In the case of The Fondue Set however, this frenzied exhaustion is also a lot of fun. Through an eccentric blend of anxiety and laughter, glamour and calamity, vulnerability and dazzling skill, the work of The Fondue Set gets deep under the skin of their audience. Tonight will indeed be a wild ride, so hold on to your chair. Finish your drink. Your hosts anxiously await your company.