That Which Was Once Familiar

By Zoë Bastin | Dancehouse, Wurundjeri Country, Apr. 2021

Queerness has become something of an amuse-bouche recently. Gathered we, befrocked and piquant and pithy, share our latest bite-sized insights: “Did you see that the NGV is doing a queer exhibition later this year?” “That piece was quintessentially queer!” “You know, there’s a lot to be said about how we’re queering the academy right now—Yvonne Rainer ‘exposing the tools’ am I right?!”

An amuse-bouche is never ordered, but rather served to gild and gird one’s guests before the menu proper begins. It means “mouth amuser,” and, as an aside, that of itself would likely be called queer these days. Anything that borders camp, or a certain blue sensibility, or a certain red Twitter polemic, could and might be called queer. And rightfully so, perhaps. The queer amuse-bouche is an invitation to dine; an invitation to entertain that the remainder of one’s meal could be wonderful. That each following mouthful might be better.

That is, if one is to believe in the queer social or the queer utopian. In many ways, to see queerness as an invitation for something better is a normative reading. Palatable to the world of cis-hets, it can be overly focussed on potentialities and pluralities in a kind of ‘infinite Sudoku’: a never-ending chain of semiotic suggestions that, apparently, trouble categories of identity and power. “We’re getting closer to a better mouthful!” we cry, guiltily aware (or perhaps wilfully ignoring) that the political realities of queer people, particularly queer femmes of colour, are brimming with violence and State subjugation. Anything but amusing, we forget that queer lives, that queer acts, underpin this theory du jour.

Reader, you’re perhaps tired of what I have to say already. Perhaps I am coming across as yet another angsty, anti-social queer with more bile than solutions. Indeed, I haven’t even mentioned the work at hand, Zoë Bastin’s rather excellent That Which Was Once Familiar (TWWOF). But I ask for your patience and make no apologies, for my polemic is inspired by Bastin.

TWWOF is a stirring work of queer dance theatre. It is angry, furious even. Unapologetic, vigorous, yet fragile. It is the anti amuse-bouche. Bastin’s logic turns to the signification of the female/femme body (a turn stirred by the over-sexualisation of young girls in commercial dance in Australia) and posits that the ‘familiarity’ of this signification might be challenged through a queer-femme lens. That is, Bastin recreates the embodied negation that queerness allows for: the ‘fears, realised’ of a powerful and flawed femininity, of a feminine threat.

The work opens with the dancers, a skilled and sincere troupe from a broad lifespan, reaching and writhing skyward. They move between immanent, Gigerian sculptures: stunted, ruined pseudo-phalluses decaying and weeping in muddy greys. This Bacchanalian coterie, with guests bedecked in bruised greys and pinks, jitter with nervous energy. Hair is slicked tight against their skulls like Robert Palmer girls; looks are steely like Pris from Bladerunner. The improvised vocabulary is evocative of Expressionist dance, with flat feet stamping and flared wrists, crooked elbows and poised jawlines. We catch glimpses of lateral references: post-modern mincing/skipping, dainty Showcase Australia walks on tip-toe. Much of the choreography has a strong sense of orientation, of turning, which is both a nod to Sara Ahmed and to the witch’s cauldron. The potion on stage slams outward, viciously and viscously. A stronger sense of dramaturgy might have tamed this concoction’s occasional spills—I tend to prefer a greater sense of pace and editing—but perhaps it is more appropriate for the politics of the piece that these spills are permitted.

The dancers are twice joined by live musicians of exquisite calibre. Some slight mixing fumbles aside, this music is used to great effect. A guitar screeches and echoes as the stage fills with haze. Bastin herself navigates the steamy scene: a hornet in a Turkish bath. Indeed, I was reminded of the ways that spaces of sexuality and gender, like a bath, so often police and exclude femme bodies (a recent transphobic survey from one such local establishment springing to mind).

A moment later in the piece points to a different queerness. The dancers become quite clearly out of sync. One smiles, acknowledging this. Another stifles a look of self-consciousness. They continue, imperfect. Indeed, the work doesn’t pretend to be perfect at all. It’s Grotowski by way of Shania Twain (these aren’t the only Robert Palmer “girls” on the scene, after all!). The roles are appliqués unto the dancers whom, through their aesthetic imperfection, reveal themselves in sweat and grimaces as avatars of the abject femme. This is fearless dance, dance that doesn’t pretend to be idealistic or good or polished. Nor does TWWOF prostrate itself to the ‘canon’ by which so much straight dance attunes. It is, rather, an invitation into the negative; into the hollow present that José Muñoz describes. Bastin’s work demands that we resist the fabulous, promising future of the amuse-bouche to recognise the gravity of our own ‘markedness’: of our reality’s resentment of the queer femme.

A familiar request, perhaps, but one I have an endless appetite for. ∎

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