STRUCTURE AND SADNESS
BY LOU PARDI
For a suspicious species, humans place significant faith in our built environment, sailing fifty floors up in lifts and driving over huge expanses of water on bridges. During the building of the Westgate Bridge in 1970 we were delivered a reminder that engineering can be flawed when the span collapsed, and 35 men died.
When you think of art which might be inspired by this sad event, dance does not immediately spring to mind, but Lucy Guerin, creator of Structure and Sadness has done just that.
“It’s quite an unlikely subject for a dance work at first look,” she says. “But I was thinking about ideas of disintegration and collapse and rebuilding and this is such an important story in Melbourne’s history and I did feel that I could, not so much tell the story, the work certainly doesn’t do that and it’s not at all a documentary approach to that incident, but I thought that there were elements that would be powerful in dance. The way that I’ve approached the work is that there’s a very functional element to it. We’ve looked at ideas of flexibility and compression and other engineering principles. Also hard objects and the human body – we use bits of wood and planks and ladders and we’ve looked at the way the body and material objects come together. Also the parallels between when those physical aspects are applied to the body: you get a kind of buckling and collapse and a kind of torsion in the human form that is reflective of the emotional outcomes of that accident.”
The piece, which premiered in 2006 at Melbourne International Arts Festival, has toured Frankfurt, Ludwigsberg and Dublin and returns to Melbourne at the Malthouse Theatre for this season.
“It’s had a very good response,” Guerin says of the piece, “In the first part of the work the dancers build this fragile delicate structure – it always amazes me because every audience, without fail, in the first five minutes they’re all shuffling a bit and coughing as audiences do, but as that tension mounts the audience goes almost completely quiet.”
Some of the dancers in the piece weren’t aware of the Westgate Bridge tragedy, and so its been a learning experience for them. “A lot of younger people don’t have an emotional connection so much to it. It’s an opportunity for them to learn about it. I think in other places, this idea that we trust our built environment, our engineered structures and we have this somehow blind faith that they’re not going to fail, I think that’s something that is quite universal. We recently took it to New York so obviously, with the World Trade Centre collapse, that’s something that came to mind to them for the piece.”
For Guerin, it’s been a taxing piece to work on, “It was a very, very hard piece to work on, for me, she says. “Just that sense of responsibility to the event and how to treat it and how to make it meaningful in a form like dance, which is in a way so contradictory but also right in one sense because it uses the force of gravity so keenly and that was, for me, a strong connection to the bridge.”
Guerin isn’t sure if anyone involved in the accident has seen Structure and Sadness, “No one’s come up to me personally. I know people who knew people who were affected and when I was in Germany a woman who was working with the Unions at that time happened to see the work and was quite teary and moved by it. I’m not sure whether those bridge workers would necessarily connect to contemporary dance and maybe it’s not something they really want to revisit in that way either.”
For those who would like to experience Guerin’s creation, she attempts to describe it, “It’s a very beautiful piece– it’s very detailed and it involves an amazing live construction of the set, so the set is built by the dancers during the work and it’s very important to the essence of the work, the way the structure appears. It really uses gravity and a lot of twisting, pushing and buckling. The first half is a very functional section which deals more with the physical principles and the second half is more theatrical and more emotional and is a sort of outcome of the accident or the collapse.”
The bridge is also a fitting metaphor for human relationships. “I think the bridge is a really very powerful symbol of connection and that the West Gate Bridge is a very important structure in Melbourne because it connects the centre of the city to the West. In terms of relationships between people, it was quite interesting when we were working on just the physical structural principles on the human body you – very clearly see how people support each other or fail each other or enable a crossing to happen. On a symbolic level, obviously, that idea of that connection – that you can get from one place to another and that you can be safely and securely transported across some kind of terrain whether it be emotional or physical, is important.”
Merlyn Theatre, The CUB Malthouse
25 November – 29 November 2009
Opening night: Wednesday 25 November at 7.30pm
Tickets: $16 – $38
Season: Wednesday – Friday 7.30pm, Sunday at 5pm. Matinee Saturday 28 November at 2pm.
Booking info: www.malthousetheatre.com.au / 03 9685 5111
This article originally appeared in Beat magazine.