Claire Burrows (Scarlett) in Nothing To Lose. Image credit: Toby Burrows

In a city where it feels not a day goes by without an arts festival, or three, happening, Melbourne’s Dance Massive is resolutely unique. Australia’s largest dance festival, the biennial event is curated essentially by a partnership between three venues: Arts House, Dancehouse, and Malthouse Theatre, in collaboration with Ausdance Vic. Utilising these venues’ existing programming structures and budgets, the festival is by necessity heavily reliant on Melbourne-based companies and shows that will go on to tour independently of the festival. If this gives a lopsided view of Australian dance, so be it. The festival is undeniably of, and for, the dance sector in Melbourne.

When I flew in for the final weekend of the festival, then, five of the seven shows I saw were from Melbourne-based companies, with the remaining two from Sydney, and it was a Sydney work that was the standout of my weekend. Force Majeure’s Nothing to Lose, from choreographer Kate Champion and artistic associate Kelli Jean Drinkwater, explores fat bodies: the way fat people in general, and the artists on stage in particular, are treated in society, but also the way their bodies – and all bodies – are viewed and judged on stage. The politics is intrinsic to the work itself: casting these performers in a dance work is a political statement, and becomes even more so when it is programmed in a broader dance festival. But Nothing to Lose pushes the politics of the work further: actively working to destabilise the gaze of the audience with the performers not only acknowledging our presence, but forcing us to truly consider the way we’re watching their bodies.

Champion embraces the fat bodies of her performers: they shake and wobble, their arms and legs, and the fleshy sound of the collision of skin echoes through the theatre; opera music plays as stomachs are grabbed with fat circling over on itself. The production ends in a final rousing celebratory dance, and watching these dancers changed the way I watched and analysed all other performers in Dance Massive.

It would be hard to find more of a departure from Nothing to Lose than Tim Darbyshire’s Stampede the Stampede. A solo performance with technology, Darbyshire uses actions that are in themselves small: kneeling and head-banging, standing in a headstand, spinning while suspended in a swing. As he sits in these actions, the state of the audience approaches one of meditation.

The middle section of the work is its most exciting. In the centre of the performance space sits a large box, topped with a plywood sheet covered in rocks. Darbyshire balances on this platform in a headstand, and as he becomes vertical the whole theatre space begins to vibrate. The box is a bass amplifier, noise thundering straight up through Darbyshire’s body and through the rocks, which convulse and bounce to the ground. After several minutes, Darbyshire falls out of his headstand and the sound cuts out entirely, leaving our ears ringing. He turns to face the other half of the audience, readies himself, balances again, and the bass continues. This is repeated until all of the rocks have fallen. It is a strange and thrilling experience.

Tim Darbyshire in Stampede the Stampede. Image credit: Sarah Walker

What makes the work so fascinating, though, is Darbyshire’s insistance on connection. Each of his movements is intricately planned, while also allowing for live response in the lighting and music. For the aliveness of this collaboration to be complete he requires live witnesses, and his acknowledgment of the audience is always explicit.

Of the work I saw, Melanie Lane’s Merge and Lucy Guerin Inc’s Motion Picture were the closest to pure dance. For much of Merge, all Lane provides us with is four dancers: their bodies and their physicality centered in the piece, her intricate and often humorous choreography able to be truly viewed and appreciated as their bodies – and slowly reveled elements of set – play with the notion of merging.

Motion Picture is a translation of Rudolph Maté’s 1950 film D.O.A. though live performance. The dancers watch the film as it screens above the audience, their bodies at first imitating the film precisely, but later fracturing out in increasingly bizarre and tenuous interpretations. At times the work was outstanding: but tied to the 83 minute run time of the film it was one of the longer pieces of the festival, and began to drag in the final fifteen minutes.

Several works left me disappointed. Like Motion Picture, Phillip Adams BalletLab’s Kingdom suffered for its length, but its disconnect from its audience was its true downfall. Still, a scene with male dancers prancing through the large performance space was one of the most joyous I experienced. Sue Healey’s On View: Quintet could be viewed solely as a five-channel video installation, or with live performers. I left wishing I had seen the video alone. While Healey’s cinematography employed crisp images, beautiful focus and highlighting of the dancers’ bodies, and interesting contrasts between screens, placing live performers in the room only served to detract from its impact. No show across the weekend felt so completely of Melbourne as Shelley Lasica’s Solos for Other People, with its hipsterfied costumes, its architectural design elements, and its setting on a basketball court in Carlton – but the choreography failed to engage.

To me, there is no performance genre that feels as particularly tied to each Australian city as dance, and no festival that highlights this as surely as Dance Massive does. I would love to see the festival expand to give a platform to the national art form, and become a place to explore the differences between each city. For now, though, there’s something special about visiting a city for a weekend, and seeing its local voice so faithfully embodied in dance.