Animals on the prowl as dancers sniff out each other's weaknesses
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Animals on the prowl as dancers sniff out each other's weaknesses

Lauren Langlois and Ghenoa Gela in You Animal, You.

Lauren Langlois and Ghenoa Gela in You Animal, You.Credit:Brett Boardman

Each of the five performers in You Animal, You is forbidden from wearing deodorant, perfume or any other scented product for the duration of rehearsals and performance. Instead, they're directed to wash only with a particular brand of fragrance-free moisturising bar.

During the dialogue-heavy dance work, their hands will be literally tied and their eyesight, at times, covered, as their own real-life tales of dread and fear are used as psychological weapons in a Hunger Games-style contest for supremacy.

“When you know that your smell is – radiating from you – and then you smell your colleague, you know that is actually them,” says Ghenoa Gela, who first performed in the Force Majeure work at last year's Sydney Festival, to much critical praise.

The audience is close to the action for You Animal, You.

The audience is close to the action for You Animal, You.Credit:Prudence Upton

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The troupe's intimacy has been rekindled a year on for the Melbourne premiere at Dance Massive, although there are now newcomers to meet – actor Hayley McElhinney and dancer Jack Riley – who have replaced two of the original cast. Lauren Langlois and Raghav Handa return to the roles they created.

Director Danielle Micich says forcing the performers to become attuned to each other's smells is about breaking down barriers and revealing the animal instincts in all of us.

“Smell is a little stimulus,” she says. “We become hyper-sensitive but very respectful to each other. It wasn’t like, ‘Oh, you stink today’, although no one ever stunk.

"The work is all about the psychology of how humans treat each other.”

In You Animal, You, the audience circles the performers, creating an intimate arena. A woman (McElhinney) sits high in a tennis-style umpire’s chair, while the performers physically and mentally test one another to establish a pecking order. Rules get broken and participants play dirty.

“The authenticity [of smell] brings so much realism into the world instantly, making it quite easy to get to the primal stage because we are already authentically ourselves," says Gela.

Can you smell one another’s fear? “Actually, you can,” she says. “We are not allowed to say someone’s smell is good or bad, and this really opened up my thoughts about what smell can be – it can be grounded, it can be heavy, it can be light, it can be metallic.”

Directing the scenes from the umpire's chair in You Animal, You.

Directing the scenes from the umpire's chair in You Animal, You.Credit:Brett Boardman

In creating the show, each of the performers shared flight or fight moments from their own lives. Gela recounts how, when she was 14 and growing up in Rockhampton, Queensland, some bald-headed white supremacists armed with steel poles and baseball bats chased her and some of her male friends. Their pursuers were known for bashing people up at parties.

It was “quite intense” to unearth all that, says Gela.

“For me as a blackfella in Australia, the stereotype of smell is always referred to as a dirty thing or a disgusting thing.

“Having to deal with the idea of smell was really, really traumatising for me to begin with. But I knew it was going to give me a new insight into how to deal with this kind of stuff. That instilled these other questions around not necessarily racism but the idea of being ‘the Other’ in this country.”

In the initial phase of getting to know one another, the performers threw their used clothing around – including underwear. This made dancer Raghav Handa uncomfortable.

“I was the outsider looking in,” he says. “People were smelling me [in rehearsal] and getting up close and I had to hold my breath every time they came up close and so Danielle was like, ‘Why do you do that?’

“I explained it was like when joggers are coming towards you in the street – and it’s not as though they have some odour issue, they don’t, but they do have some smell coming along with them – so I have to hold my breath, until they’ve gone past.”

So they discovered human odour was Handa’s kryptonite? “Yeah, yeah,” says Micich, nodding. “In the work, when we find out people’s weaknesses, we try to get them to breaking point, in order to find out what our animal self is.”

When we find out people’s weaknesses, we try to get them to breaking point, in order to find out what our animal self is

Danielle Micich, director, Force Majeure

Micich stresses the performers were able to veto sharing in the performance any issues or actions that were too personal. Curiously Handa, who describes himself as a “very open but very private person”, consented to having his hands tied together for entire rehearsal days while the others tried to break down his psychology.

Will Handa’s hands be tied again for the show this season? “Yes,” says Micich, smiling. "Behind his back and a bit harder.”

You Animal, You is at Arts House, North Melbourne, March 19 to 24 as part of Dance Massive.

Steve Dow is an arts writer for The Sydney Morning Herald.

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