During Temperance Hall’s lockdown, we’re taking some time to reflect on the works Phillip Adams BalletLab has created. This second post is a reflection by Temperance Hall Artistic Director, Phillip Adams, on MIRACLE, which premiered at the State of Design Festival in Melbourne in 2009, and saw subsequent runs at the EMPAC Filament Festival 2010 in New York, and MONA FOMA in 2011 in Hobart.
From my earliest encounter to present day, the theological, liturgical and ethereal teachings of Christianity have traced a genealogy of religious themes in the corpus of my work. The degree to which Catholicism permeates as an authority on the work can be seen in the capacity for each series from my catalogue to exist as a rectification of the Catholic Mass.
As a performance, Miracle is constructed from three holistic sections that arc together as a sequential whole. The work is propagated with overarching themes of unethical religious corruptions buried deeply in the alternative modern-day cults that manifest themselves in this staged spectacle. Miracle played out in three parts:
Part 1 Transfixed in hallucinogenic states of miraculous apparitions in-between this world and the next
Part 2 A re-imagining of evangelical cults and their alternative beliefs that spiral into corruption and disastrous fatality
Part 3 A universal pause of prolonged outer space suspensions that reach euphoric levitation and transformational experience in the afterlife
In the opening passage of Miracle (part 1) the performers are discovered in a group fever of extreme mass hysteria, bound by a unified task of cultish devotional experiences. This manufactured choreographic is problematised by its lack of authenticity, pushing the performer into a forced production—generating experiences of euphoria. In the task, the performers must produce a triumphant onslaught of repetitive mantra, phrase and hymn-like voices that escalate to a point of physical collapse (Entering the Body of Christ). The slippage between the performative qualities of the manufactured choreography and its real emotional effects on the performer in enacting the task is much like a test of their religious faith. Do they really believe it? But there is also held in enacting the task a dynamic pleasure-seeking motive of gaining a thrilling release in the accomplishment of the task. What transpires is an examination of false hopes and religious stereotypes that promise a new beginning.
The dancers are literally pushed to their absolute limits—to physical collapse—surrounded by grievance. They encounter the devotees (disciples) transformed by these performative tasks, leaving them on the verge of suicidal contemplation.
Continuing on the same thread of devotional fixations, I referenced a passage of choreography in Miracle that substantiated a relationship between early church-going memories to historic reproductions in the form of contemporary fixations.
The performer must pitch a skyward action of repetitious devotional spinning in a possessed state of delusional apparition. This choreographic motif of spinning, part blissful and part possessed, directly links to the Miracle of Garabandal; an apparition of Saint Michael the Archangel and the Blessed Virgin Mary that are claimed to have occurred from 1961 to1965 to four young schoolgirls in the rural village of San Sebastian de Garabandal in the Pena Sarge mountain range.
I discovered an image of the Garabandal miraculous apparitions in a photograph placed on top of the piano of my piano teacher Mrs Dickson, in the early 80s during lessons. As I practised scales, I used to look up at the photo with curiosity at the image of four young girls transfixed by an apparition of seeing the Virgin Mary.
Reproduction through religious imagery of the Garabandal Miracle (girls wailing in a field with heads held back in fits of apparition of the Virgin Mary) directly inform methods by which improvisational practice with the Catholic faith and imagery are subverted by myths in modern-day cult and experimental films. Both the claims of the apparition and enacted choreography are falsities, forming the basis of ritualistic motifs that service a justifying cause of belief systems.
Miracle (Part 2) is informed by research into cultural memory and interpretation of salient facts; Stéphane Mallarmé’s observations on the transcendent Spectacle are given weight in my examination of cultish mass hysteria, as an inspired narration of absurdist belief to gateway the afterlife. As a thread, I reference the Jonestown Church of the Peoples Temple massacre of 1978 and Australia’s own celebrated alternative cult/community, the Universal Brotherhood.
The Peoples Temple of the Disciples of Christ was founded by Jim Jones in Indiana in the 1950s. The message of the church combined elements of Christianity with communist and socialist ideology and with an emphasis on radical equality. The subjective impression of the account is not entirely disconnected from traditional biography: it is informed by historic fact. Jones moved the group to California in 1960s and by 1978 in Guyana at its peak, 918 had people died in a mass murder/suicide at its remote settlement named Jonestown.
If we reassign the term “Made for TV” as “TV Made for Choreography”, Miracle can be annotated as an artistic appraisal of syndicate TV and commercial film. I suggest the subjectively conceived as a formal structure of conceit be mounted in the framework of a telefilm. A clear example of this appraisal can be sighted in Miracle Act 2; the choreography is inspired by the revisioning of the Jonestown The Life and Death of the Peoples Temple (2006) documentary. The documentary follows the life of Jim Jones, conspiring with this inner circle to direct a mass murder/suicide in his jungle commune at Jonestown. Based on the documentary, Miracle deploys its own inner-circle framework, adopting cult religious followings. The performers cultishly conform and narrate a choreographic re-visioning of the documentary. As causalities to the work, they elicit recruitment, propaganda and mass suicide as scenes or sections of the TV documentary in which works of art (plays, but also musical pieces or a ballet) are performed as part of the diegesis. Secondly, the performances reflect back upon the framing narrative as mise en abyme.
The behavioural patterns within communal living of these revolutionary evangelists, circa 1960s and 70s, are played out in Miracle as an experimental dance and sound art performance. Propaganda and crowd manipulation overlay the choreography and sound, that is reminiscent of a range of religious calls to worship including that of the Koran, Hare Krishna and others.
I am aware of the inherent theatricality (voice & movement) of cult Evangelical Religions – and I am reflecting it on it through art. In Miracle (part 2) the Anointing of the Sick and Confession sacraments of the Mass were structurally repurposed by the Jonestown narrative as the choreography propagated by object aestheticisation—megaphones, clogs, blankets, 70s gear, the voice projected from swinging speakers and Balletic Grecian Gods healing the masses.
In Miracle, Christian artefacts and objects form some relation of spiritual embodiment in becoming part of a practice. Chosen according to their representation of place and time, the objects served to bring purpose (truth) to the work and expand the performance of Mass. The body and object were placed in an experimental ceremonial initiation of sorts, which led to a spiritual emission of movements. The body is placed in a co-dependency with the object that inevitably results in a communal confessional experience.
In a long passage of Miracle, Christian iconographic depictions of mercy and Christians paralysed by sin were subverted into the form of two dances working in a unison of durational and repetitious circular movement, while tightly hugging a megaphone in their arms The unrelenting circular action led to a transcendental state of collapse to which the megaphone serves as a confessional tool of release. The truth (confession) of the work was physically expelled between megaphone and action, transforming the body itself into Christian artefact. Ramblings, screaming and crying expelling in the megaphone entered a rhythm of cathartic release.
Miracle (part 3) The Mass was inspired by a rich variety of spiritual traditions of Catholicism and Buddhism mashed into 1970s cult film narratives including Zardoz (1974) starring Sean Connery, Logan’s Run (1976) starring Michael York and Farrah Fawcett and Roller Ball (1975).
I mapped these films, establishing in the work a western arthouse style choreography where celebrity and pop stars status are fetishized Gods. Had Hollywood and pop art spoiled my performance minus the choreography, where the performance became a movie set without the film? I relate this idea of an Arthouse film-style choreography to the work of British film directors Ken Russell and to some degree Derek Jarman, of the 60s 70s and 80s, both radical mavericks, enfant terribles unafraid to rattle the establishment. I noted similarities in their films to my work’s dichotomies of nature and religion, through politics, homosexuality and the sanctifying of the Church, in an act of “queerness” (pastiche and camp). I compared traces of mockery and imperialist views toward Catholicism, in the Russell-esque style; the believer, the testing of faith to its limits to creating spectacle rock opera musicals that claim the modern-day Messiah as seen in Tommy (1973) and Lisztomania (1975).
Experimenting with the hymns of the Catholic Mass, the performance was contained and bound by a mass of gravity-like sound, inciting a conceptual illusion of heavenly space. This was exhibited via the emergence of a live sonic installation that bathes and absorbs the performance in a heavenly ascension of divine recordings.
Experimenting with an atmospheric suspension of miracles, the work concluded in an ultimate state of ‘Fermata’, like the universe on pause (a prolonged state of suspension). This was achieved through saturating the stage in mass recording of 100 live harmonicas against the dancers executing long choreographic repetitive states of agony and ecstasy. These repetitive passages finally give way to a phenomenal epiphany of levitations.
We departed the work in a rapturous state of the ecstatic and euphoric subtext of holy assentation and cathartic encounters of universal reasonings. The image of levitating Monks is a confusing assault of kitsch and misappropriations of religious marriages. The knowledge that was once resplendent in the body of Christ, of Greek and classical Myth, of cult groups and movie stars, the first man in space, of Cat Stevens, are popped of their historic culture in the image of levitating Monks on the film set to a fanfare of ear-splitting triumphed recording.
I situated the performers sometimes as heavenly bodies, sometimes from cinematic popular mythology. The harmony (voices) between the adventurous inner rhythms that has prompted me to choreograph the frantic spectacle of a real-life miracle, is one that desperately seeks a better life in heaven—sometimes dramatic and sometimes grotesque.
Much of what I do alludes to grim subjects filtered through a gesture of lustful beauty, the story of decline, the descent into hell – a vision, accidents, and fatalities. One might say that my preoccupation with falling reflects a sense that we live in dark times. I have been falling through history with choreography, alongside my fellow acrobats shooting out of cannons, skydivers, and dancers embracing falling as part of their every rehearsal. I never cease falling in love with the figures around me, and they appear the same—in falls of terror or joy, whether they are plummeting to their death like spitfire warplanes darting through passages of synchronised space holes and testing patterns, or falling from grace, epic soundtracks modulating shattering sound barriers and breaking their fall onto soft landing pads. I am fixated in the tension created by that uncertainty and how it affects the viewer’s response.
Lighting Jen Hector and Bluebottle
Sound composition David Chisholm and Myles Mumford