If we were to strip back the frames of context (what we know of a choreographer, their practice and schooling) and theory (the histories of dance and technique), what would dance writing look like? This was the assignment Lucy Guerin Inc gave me when they asked me to write about the 2022 iteration of PIECES, their annual co-commission with The Substation. What follows is an experiential account of the pieces presented by Melanie Lane, Amber McCartney and Rachael Wisby. It documents these performances, rather than offering a critical read.

Melanie Lane’s Into the Woods begins in darkness. A classical score swells and a large screen positioned centre stage flickers into life, offering a portal into another realm. Lane enters, dressed all in black, her hair pulled back into a long, rope-like braid. She begins a monologue that moves through English, Celtic, French and German accounts of the historical persecution of women as witches. Behind her, in collaborator Tianyi Liao’s video game-esque animation, a small, dilapidated farmhouse spins closer until we are welcomed inside. As she speaks, Lane’s movements are jagged and deliberate, punctuating the violence of her words.

She recounts her crimes, including murdering and eating babies, and as she describes sleeping with a man possessed by the devil, she mounts a broom, using it as a prop with which to simulate sex. When speaking of her torture and eventual death by fire, the head of a stereotypical witch with haggard, grey features and a huge, wart riddled nose, rotates behind her in Liao’s animation. Following her “death” Lane exits the stage, returning with Sara Black dressed as a flesh-toned devil. To Celtic music, they dance a duet that resembles the stick sword fights of children. This quasi-comical pas de deux is made serious only by the dystopic, fire consumed world projected behind them and the realisation that they are fighting a very real battle for Lane’s soul, with a very real blade.

Roses (this is me imagining things) by Rachael Wisby is comical from the jump. Taking the stage to balletic, classical piano, Wisby wears a doll-like baby blue chiffon dress that exposes her naked chest, patterned pants and heavy shoes. What follows is a sequence of movements in the style of physical comedy. Gravity defies her, her legs shake and buckle, and she repeatedly stumbles to the floor. She raises herself into a seated position and making eye contact with the audience, drags her butt downstage like a dog scratching an itch. Here she removes her shoes, placing them in first position on either side of a hook dangling from the ceiling. These shoes are lifted into the sky, a plume of smoke is released and Wisby begins to dance with an imaginary partner, arms raised and twirling across the stage as if in a dream sequence.

This moment of classically “beautiful” dancing is ruptured when Wisby stops, looks back at the audience and aggressively rubs her crotch. A microphone descends from the ceiling. She strides over to it with the countenance of a standup comic and says “thank you” before feigning her exit. Wisby walks back to the microphone, takes it in hand and begins a monologue set in a dystopian future, where the consciousnesses of people like Bertolt Brecht have been exhumed. As she speaks, four feathers fall onto her head and she moves to open The Substation’s curtains, bathing the room in natural light. Uttering phrases like “mental health awareness week” and “the scent of blood filled the air” Wibsy walks out of the theatre, her voice getting quieter until it eventually fades. Bereft of any of my initial bearings, I am unsure of the destination we have reached.

With a title like Tiny Infinite Deaths, I was half-expecting Amber McCartney’s piece to centre on la petite mort (the moment of orgasm), and I wasn’t entirely wrong. On a darkened stage, lit largely by the blue static of a video playing on an early digital TV, McCartney lies undulating. Her face is obscured by a bile yellow, ruched costume that cocoons her entire body. When she eventually finds her feet, her movements are uncertain and clumsy, like she is experiencing the world fresh. The more acquainted she becomes with her surroundings, the more her head emerges, to eventually reveal two beady eyes and a mouth full of what appears to be a fist of fleshy fingers. To a soundtrack of computational bells and whistles, McCartney cycles through a series of pop-culturally significant dance moves, ending on a classic Michael Jackson crotch grab, moon-walk combo. Each time she performs a new dance move, she looks about herself, as if waiting for the audience to validate her, and some do with raucous belly laughs.

McCartney’s naive journey through the world of physical sensation is interrupted by some unintelligible dialogue that paves the way for a scene reminiscent of every 1990’s alien movie I’ve ever seen. At the back of stage left, a rectangular doorway of light opens up like the beam of a mothership calling McCartney home. The soundtrack transitions into decadent, heavy EDM as she resists, dragging herself away from the light. Her movements and costuming coalesce to create a sense of weightlessness, as she loses this battle to the light and is sucked up into it. On the threshold of this makeshift exit, McCartney pauses in a final moment of laboured resistance, before the music swells, like the end of a Lynch film and she vanishes from view.

In documenting these three works, I feel my final note, scrawled in the dark as the performers took their bows, speaks volumes: “Is masturbation the theme of the evening? Research that”. All of these choreographic works, in their own distinct ways, presented renderings of female sexuality that subverted the patriarchal, male “norm”, and attempted to restore the power of who decides what’s beautiful and desirable, firmly to female hands. Or at least, as a person attempting to document them, that was my takeaway.

– Anador Walsh, February 2022