Dance review: Handsome, The Substation

A dance work that riffs on family history and legacy.

‘Handsome is as handsome does’, so the adage goes, and Jo Lloyd’s new dance work explores the way the body short-circuits the mind, doing and being in subliminal ways, revealing our own personal histories. This work thrums with motion, there is little pause for breath. The inspiration behind the work, Lloyd has revealed, came from finding an old photograph of her grandfather dancing in his youth, and so she began to wonder how their choreographic impulse may have been shared. Handsome delves into the subterranean worlds of emotion and memory, using lighting, costume and sound to good poetic effect. 

Pina Bausch once famously said: ‘I’m not interested in how people move, but what moves them.’ Lloyd’s work teems with this preoccupation, the eye is drawn across five dancers across several scenes, tracking their movements and emotions with a cinematic gaze. Though Lloyd has said there were no fixed dance phrases as a point to work from, but that each dancer makes their own choreographic decisions in the performance, there were definitive movements and moods that swelled over the dancers as the music and lighting changed. 

The dancers entered the stage in a limbo-like line; dressed in fluoro, toe-walking like flamingos. The staccato was broken when their bodies melted into each other, holding balances with tension, shaking feet and strained hands. This was echoed in the final motion of the piece where the dancers’ faces took on an aghast look, their eyes bulging and their mouths dropping open, reminiscent of emotive facial expressions in butoh. Certainly, Lloyd’s choreography seemed to share the butoh impulse towards the immediate, imagistic register rather than a narrative drive. 

Another interlude saw dancers wearing glittery velvet devouré that caught in the red light as the score, by Duane Morrison, dove into dolphin-like calls and muted underwater synth. Again, each dancer masterfully navigated their space, whirling together and apart like cyclones with ease. This perhaps was meant to emulate the mysterious ways in which we find our paths crossing, our secrets shared and connection with each other throughout our life stories. Kudos to the lighting designer (Keith Tucker) who enhanced the emotional weather of the piece expertly. Another section of the performance involved anesthetic white light and the dancers covering their eyes like frightened rabbits. This melted into violet lighting, where they danced like jellyfish, organisms coming together in a Medusa-esque mass. Here, the light went silver and their bare torsos glowed as they made bridges and pyramids, making the considerable effort look graceful as kelp swaying in the ocean. 

Read: Exhibition review: Peripheral Vision, Anna Schwartz Gallery

The final motion, wearing brown playsuits and drenched in Autumnal lighting, reminded me a little of Bausch’s The Rite of Spring as abrupt movement and pained expressions reigned supreme with the score turning frenetic. Eventually a window in the curtains opened, like a light from an attic door, and the dancers tumbled off stage like dry leaves. The good moment to consider the ways in which our personal histories and family secrets are often latent and hidden, blown away by time and forgetting.

Handsome was an arresting piece that used light, sound and choreography masterfully to provoke audiences. It was a pacey whirlwind of 40 minutes. With an underlying story many of us could relate to, I feel there could have been more pause in the piece for audiences to reflect, as the themes of memory, nostalgia and grief were strong. One of the biggest strengths was how connected and comfortable the ensemble seemed. This is credit to the choreographer and her open-ended style that celebrates dancer’s own vocabularies as well as harnessing spatial design, sonic and lighting landscapes to draw on emotion. 

Handsome by Jo Lloyd 
The Substation

Composer: Duane Morrison
Costume and Set Designer: Andrew Treloar
Lighting Designer: Keith Tucker
Producer: Michaela Coventry
Photography by Peter Rosetzky

PerformersSheridan Gerrard, Rebecca Jensen, Harrison Ritchie-Jones, Jo Lloyd, Thomas Woodman
Tickets: $20-$40

Handsome will be performed until 26 February 2022

Leila Lois is a dancer and writer of Kurdish and Celtic heritage. Her poetry, essays and reviews have been published in Australia, New Zealand, USA and Canada by Southerly Journal, LA Review of Books, Honey Literary Journal, Right Now, Delving Into Dance and more.