Have you ever said a word to yourself so many times that it loses all meaning?
With the maddening pace of our modern lives, we rarely pause to take stock of the inherent, amazing absurdity wrapped up in our every day existence. The fact that the we can communicate with and understand one another through the articulation of random sounds we create is a truly staggering feat. But those very same sounds, through which we can express our deepest dreams and desires, our love, our every emotion, are just… sounds. It is only due to our brain processing those sounds in particular ways that we can understand their intended meaning, and our brain has to suspend reality in order for us to be able to do so.
Semantic satiation (also semantic saturation): A psychological phenomenon in which repetition causes a word or phrase to temporarily lose meaning for the listener, who then perceives the speech as repeated meaningless sounds.
This notion was central to Utterance, a new contemporary work performed for Melbourne Fringe Festival as part of the Your Way series at Dancehouse in Carlton. Utterance is the choreographic work of VCA alumni Siobhan McKenna, and the piece was supported by Create NSW through the Young Regional Artists Scholarship. It featured dancers Arabella Frahn-Starkie, Hillary Goldsmith, Rhys Ryan and Emma Riches, in an exposed, vulnerable and enthralling setting. ‘Utterance’ was defined by its minimalist qualities – both in the arrangement of the space, the sparse yet effective lighting changes, the costumes of the performers, and the lack of a traditional score. By presenting her piece in such an environment, McKenna fosters a true intimacy with the audience, allowing for a remarkable and inclusive experience.
Utterance finds its grounding in the four performers’ repetition of the phrases “practice mindfulness, pacing spatial space” and to a lesser extent “indulge in the bulge.” Due to the aforementioned phenomenon of semantic satiation, these words rapidly lose their meaning, and the sentences becomes something greater than the sum of their parts. The dynamics in the volume of the performers’ voices, from whispers to burgeoning on screams, serves to create an immersive and arresting rhythmic soundscape. Although the words are simply being spoken, at times they take on the qualities of an ascending melody. At other points, when the words are whispered, they create a low ambient hum, calling to mind the white noise produced by a static television set. Utterance seemed at times to highlight the banal and jejune nature of verbal conversation. This was exemplified in a specific scene when Rhys Ryan began telling a rather dry story about a halloween costume, as the other dancers drowned him out in an interjecting chorus of a repetitive “wow!” In moments such as this, Utterance was not afraid to teeter on the edge of comedic. Perhaps one of the greatest pitfalls faced by contemporary art is that it is prone to taking itself all too seriously. While Utterance was by no means a comedic work, the fact that it did not shy away from comedic elements demonstrated a self-awareness often lacking in emerging artists’ work.
While developing Utterance, McKenna sought to answer a specific question – “is it possible to detach language from literal meaning until it becomes purely textural sound?” The short answer to this question is a resounding yes – something which was boldly demonstrated in the final piece.
Utterance was by and large an intimate work, and one which seemed to dwell on the very notion of intimacy. There was a closeness between the performers, both physically and conceptually – they passed through and around one another in a conversational manner, reflecting the themes of the audial aspects of the piece. Complex yet never self indulgent, the movement scores were truly unique, and were a strong representation of Siobhan McKenna’s choreographic talent, even at this very early stage of her blossoming career. The dancers created their own rhythm from their words, and translated that rhythm into their movement, resulting in a truly unified spectacle, wherein the rhythm of their vocal chords played on the rhythm of their bodies. This resulted in something hypnotic – and at times, rather meditative. As the house lights faded to spotlighting during certain sections, the transition was almost un-noticeable. As a viewer, one felt in a trance by the repeated phrase, and the liquid movement, so much so that a slow light fade seemed to not occur at all – one was simply transfixed on the performers.
As I spoke to fellow attendees at the conclusion of the work, a common observational thread arose. Audience members found themselves surprised that a work which heavily rested on a single verbal phrase for the entirety of its run never felt boring. Surely this is by design – the repetitive phrase, rather than growing old in the eyes of the audience, simply became more hypnotic, and more engaging – a staggering achievement, and one which the talented artists behind this work should be proud of.
Perhaps the largest takeaway from Utterance, was its audience inclusive nature. Contemporary dance works, particularly those presented as part of Melbourne Fringe can fall into the trap of being self-serving, and self-indulgent. They can be so “fringe” and so obscure that they go over the heads of an audience, and they can often feel as though they have been created by an artist for other artists only, or worse yet, simply created for the artist who conceived the piece. This was not the case with Utterance. The work was inviting, and considered the experience of its audience; the entire performance felt as though it was carving out a comfortable space for the audience to reflect and experience in. At no point did it feel as though the audience was not being considered; and at the end of the day, shouldn’t art be about the experience of its witness? This seems to be something that is forgotten by many artists, but something that McKenna gracefully encapsulated in her work. The skill of the performers involved as they engaged in a rather difficult negotiation of speech and movement cannot be understated. Utterance served as a way for audiences to reflect on the nature of language, and language’s relationship to movement in the clearest possible terms. it was focused, refined, exciting and above all else, wholly enjoyable.