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Dance review: Body Body Commodity, Earls Arts Centre, Launceston

The lines between object, body and product blur as five female performers animate and interact with a mass of pastel foam objects.

Body Body Commodity, choreographed by Jenni Large, and performed by Large with an ensemble of five dancers, is evidence of what is possible when an artist of experience and skill is supported to craft a project of scale and ambition.

Described in the program notes as ‘a subversive commentary on the impacts that capitalist society and consumerist behaviours have on the female body’, Body Body Commodity quickly launches out of its clumsily worded origins and didactic title, and asserts itself as a contemporary dance work of transformative grace, skilled grotesqueries and unfiltered physical female power. 

Michelle Boyde’s smart design rigorously follows through on the aesthetic of polyurethane foam. The dancers emerge from the edges of the space into a pool of pieces of soft foam of random colours, shape, thickness and size. It’s the kind of stuff that degrades and crumbles after 20 years’ exposure to heat and light, and probably ends up in the ocean, in the bellies of fishes. The ugly, useless offcuts are lit by Chris Jackson’s pearly wash of light.

The dancers are dressed in it with pieces wrapped around heads, torsos and legs they look like they’ve come straight from the Cabaret Voltaire in 1916. Gradually they undress, gyrating, revealing their true bodies beneath the foamy carapaces. Sound designer and musician Anna Whitaker stands upstage centre, crafting beats and loops live, scraping her violin, singing high and screechy, setting the atmosphere for a show of female fury and wit.

Large and the ensemble move across the stage, slithering backwards to clear the floor of foam. The work then morphs into precise chorus work the dancers select and discard pieces of foam, and present them like wheel of fortune girls, but the gazes directed at the audience are fierce rather than compliant. The work builds across scenes of grief, comfort and birth, and the pile of foam continues to be manipulated and reshaped to create the space the dancers need to perform.

An electric bread knife is produced, and a microphone held close so we can hear the foam flesh scream. Body Body Commodity moves relentlessly towards emblematic and pornographic gestures of male desire. The dancers hold their fists high as they jerk and writhe, their gaze never leaving the faces of all of us who watch. Its uncomfortable, defiant, explicit and absurd all the tropes of sex, and the performance of it, are laid bare.

The ensemble of dancers Jenni Large, Amber McCartney, Ashleigh Musk, Erin O’Rourke and Georgia Rudd move between modes of free form languor, and then are suddenly in kinaesthetic solidarity, their precision and dramaturgical thinking furiously working in support of Large’s singular vision.

Read: Theatre review: The Goat or, Who is Sylvia? Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide Festival Centre

Body Body Commodity would benefit from a bigger performance space Launceston’s Earl Arts Centre felt a little too ‘rep’ and domestic and did not meet the ambition and epic emotional scale of Large and Boyde’s aesthetic. Upscaling distance, and the quantity of foam, would allow for a more theatricalised integration of perspective and image. Nevertheless, it’s an astonishing work, made in Launceston, under the aegis of Tasmania’s treasured Tasdance, a company unflagging in its commitment to supporting new modes of practice, and the work of a rigorous and exciting dancemaker.

Body Body Commodity by Jenni Large
Tasdance and Mona Foma  
Earls Arts Centre, Launceston
Sound design and performer: Anna Whitaker
Set and costume design: Michelle Boyde
Lighting design and production: Chris Jackson
Performers: Jenni Large, Amber McCartney, Ashleigh Musk, Erin O’Rourke and Georgia Rudd

Body Body Commodity was performed from 17-18 February 2023.

Jane Woollard is a director and playwright, and Senior Lecturer Theatre and Performance, University of Tasmania.