Title:
Dancing in the Gutter
Author:
Anna McDermott
Date:
12.06.24

Driving to Gertrude, my passengers and I discuss our New Years. I relay a story of a party I attended that saw 100 plus partygoers shepherded out of a music-deprived, starkly lit house at two in the morning. Amidst the hosts’ drawn-out attempts to filter out unfamiliar faces, I had come face to face with a familiar one (an ex) and in some form of hypervigilant retaliation assigned a dear friend to crowd control – apologies again, Emily.

It was a curious social experiment and one that wasn’t dissimilar to my arrival at Gertrude back in January: stark lights, a mass of bodies, encounters with an ex of sorts (the Narrm art world) and cosplaying as usher was Contact High curator, Anador Walsh.

Dance dance was the third and final iteration of Contact High, a program driven by a three-year partnership between Gertrude and Performance Review. Whilst previous iterations of the program have presented work by artists who straddle the grey zone of dance and the visual arts—obliquely known as performance art—for Dance dance, Walsh curated three dance works by dance artists, Harrison Ritchie-Jones, Mara Galagher and Sarah Aiken.

The gallery’s capacity to delineate audiences and performers is complex when compared to that of a theatre. Without the refuge of darkness or a seating bank, the two fold, intermingle and leak. It’s a messy inquiry that Contact High commits to explore i.e. the transference that occurs between performers and audiences in the gallery and despite relocation, the mechanics of the theatre persistently emerge.

Obedient to Walsh’s directions, I find myself perched in the first gallery space where a coffin and a TV screen contest for my attention. The coffin pulls me tighter, its heaviness an appropriate segue from Walsh’s opening remarks that eulogised the dance sector as one “cut off at the knees.” Temperance Hall’s imminent closure is offered as one of several examples of such circumstances. Having (previously) worked at Temperance Hall for the past three years, I welcome the onslaught of drama that frees me from my woes, accenting the start of Harrison Ritchie-Jone’s Cold Tooth (2024).

Harrison Ritchie-Jones, Cold Tooth, 2024, performance documentation, Contact High, Gertrude, Naarm (Melbourne). Photo: Machiko Abe. Courtesy of Gertrude and Performance Review.

Dressed in a dusty suit adorned with a gothic, ruffled collar, Ritchie-Jones drags himself from his deathbed and moves with an intriguing hesitation. Dirt trails at his heels as he negotiates how his dead body might again, become a live one. After lubricating his joints, he invites an audience member to be a camera operator. Her wine is guzzled and spat out—poisoning the gallery walls— in pursuit of the task.

A performative montage unfurls, drawing on cinematic tropes from horror and romance, cleverly undercut with the tongue-in-cheek humour I have come to expect from Ritchie-Jones’ performances. A demarcation of blue tape suggests the coffin had once rested upright between two walls. The tape later serves as a framing device for one of several moments of intimacy, as an audience-plant-turned-dance-partner-turned-saxophone-player is tenderly embraced, before having his shoulder bitten into by the now vampire-esque protagonist.

Cold Tooth resembles both a movie-set and a crime scene; locations that function to either conjure, or excavate, meaning. Whilst the former invites the suspension of disbelief, the latter insists that any perceived truth be approached with the utmost caution. Ritchie-Jones slices effortlessly between these two opposing states of absorption and conviction – leaving me adrift with the decrescendo of a saxophone and a pleasant, nostalgic smirk.

Harrison Ritchie-Jones, Cold Tooth, 2024, performance documentation, Contact High, Gertrude, Naarm (Melbourne). Photo: Machiko Abe. Courtesy of Gertrude and Performance Review.

I’m mid conversation when I realise that unnamed work (2024) has begun. Unlike the other two performances, Mara Galagher doesn’t afford her audience the convenience of an usher. Instead, inviting an incidental happening upon the work, or in my case, a hasty walk towards it.

Upon arrival, a quasi-mezzanine has formed in Gertrude’s front gallery, as some audience members find seats upon rows of poly drums whilst others cram to stand. The voyeurs gaze out beyond the front window glass where a van seizes their attention, its side door an open curtain to the stage upon which Andrea Illés and Mara Galagher collide and convulse in a choreographic crash.

Mara Galagher with Andrea Illés and Nelly Clifton, unnamed work, 2024, performance documentation, Contact High, Gertrude, Naarm (Melbourne). Photo: Machiko Abe. Courtesy of Gertrude and Performance Review.

The performers have no time to return the gazes cast upon them, instead they move with resolute attention – rubbing, hitting and burning their flesh against one another in repetitious spasms. High Street passers-by decipher whether to slow their pace as Illés barrels herself into the front driver’s seat to adjust the van an inch between two adjacently parked cars.

The person next to me finds permission to commentate between chuckles of laughter. His amusement makes me wonder whether he has mistaken Gertrude’s front windows for that of an aquarium. The notion that dance, by its very nature, refuses to settle, can of course be unsettling. But more to the point, whilst some stories of the queer body are deemed palatable for the homogenous audience, those that are, “perverse…are deemed ‘too hard’ for most listeners to see, hear, or bear.”1

"Oh! What was that?,” my bystander asks whoever will listen, as the third performer, Nelly Clifton catapults a lamb chop at the glass.

A sense of unleashing is latent throughout unnamed work, epitomised in Galagher’s decision to escape Gertrude’s bounds. A signifier of refusal that bares much weight when considering the current affairs plaguing the arts and our hearts—catalysed by the devastating genocide taking place in Palestine—that has locally and globally distinguished divestors from investors and violently reminded us of the faults in our structures and collective humanity. A TV positioned above the entry to the gallery flickers to a video of the performers in bikinis sucking on slices of watermelon waist deep in the ocean – yet another of Galagher’s serious plays into and out from these fault lines.

Mara Galagher with Andrea Illés and Nelly Clifton, unnamed work, 2024, performance documentation, Contact High, Gertrude, Naarm (Melbourne). Photo: Machiko Abe. Courtesy of Gertrude and Performance Review.

This sense of deviation and refusal is expanded through the performer’s movement vocabularies. Galagher drops crumbs of her rigorous physical training, but betrays this knowledge in pursuit of an anti-anti-dance, as she falls, trembles, kicks and munts herself unapologetically across the kerb. Like the lamb chop piffed at the window, here, the body is gnawed up and spat into the trash.

Though Galagher reminds us of the ineffable beauty in that which may otherwise be discarded, as the trio take turns to direct a wind blower towards whoever stands on top of the van. In a queering of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, the performers revel in their divinity, before tumbling back into the van and driving the fuck away.

Mara Galagher with Andrea Illés and Nelly Clifton, unnamed work, 2024, performance documentation, Contact High, Gertrude, Naarm (Melbourne). Photo: Machiko Abe. Courtesy of Gertrude and Performance Review.

Sarah Aiken’s Body Corp (2024) offers another nod to the renaissance – the crowd drawing an uncanny resemblance to the one I recall from my visit to The Louvre. Bodies reach for their iPhones to capture frames within frames, as Aiken presents her own form of body-capture – blending her live body with its digital replica. This duet takes place centre stage—parallel to the gallery walls—gesturing outwards like a painting, but Aiken endlessly escapes the frame.

Sarah Aiken, Body Corp (iteration no.4), 2024, performance documentation, Contact High, Gertrude, Naarm (Melbourne). Photo: Machiko Abe. Courtesy of Gertrude and Performance Review.

Body Corp is a cascading duet of slippages and misalignments, that confuse the surface with the bone. This duet is a familiar one, a daily ritual for many of us cyborgs and one I am keenly aware of as my line of sight is again obscured by several iPhones. I find my gaze oscillating between various screens—nauseating like an infinity mirror—but my balance continues to be restored as my focus lands back on Aiken who moves with a relaxed assertion. She is disciplined in every movement, ever so duteous to the gestures of her digital self.

Body Corp plays with digital magic as Aiken draws a knife to en-garde and cups her palm to a burning flame. These hyperreal offerings are playful in their execution, but Aiken shows little interest in audience appraisal, her attention remaining unflinching as she austerely manoeuvres several plinths to perch atop of them with unwavering grace.

Sarah Aiken, Body Corp (iteration no.4), 2024, performance documentation, Contact High, Gertrude, Naarm (Melbourne). Photo: Machiko Abe. Courtesy of Gertrude and Performance Review.

But it is the space between the surface and the bone, the screen and the body, where Aiken arouses contemplation. A reminder that despite whatever fantasy of individualism we are sold, we are neither body nor screen, but multiple and infinite.

Unlike renaissance paintings esteemed within the Western canon, dance’s value is yet to be deemed worthy of bullet-proof glass. Though the threat it currently faces certainly necessitates a similar degree of protection. The recent hits to the dance sector may be made visible in the collapsing of vital infrastructure such as Temperance Hall, and the dance festival, FRAME, but it is in the livelihoods and work of the independent artists who make up this vital ecology – that will suffer its greatest impacts.

Filtering out unfamiliar faces at a party has proven to be an impossible task, not to mention the fact that a party that filters out some but not all is simply not a party worth being at. Funding bodies perform a similar filtering out, offering some a fleeting spotlight, whilst leaving others to meander in the dark. Working at Temperance Hall, this narrative was made violently apparent. As my ex-colleague and dear friend, William McBride notes in his statement announcing Temperance Hall’s prospective closure:

“The arts do not thrive when treated like an open market of rivals competing for scarce resources in a zero-sum game. Thriving organisations strengthen and provide infrastructure in support of each other’s operations; and they provide scaffolding upon which artists can build substantial careers and make meaningful contributions to our collective cultural life.”2

Walsh’s catalogue essay, ‘The Show Must Not Go On’, is not so much a call to an end to dance, as its title might suggest, as a call for the collapse of the conditions from which dance is currently forced to emerge and endure – a necessary antidote to the capitalist mindset that one must continue to produce and persist. But the threat that the sector currently faces, that is, limited resources, limited funding opportunities, limited infrastructure to develop and present work – means the show simply cannot go on.

The irony is of course, that Dance, dance, did go on and the artists did persist. And whilst I am grateful for this—because like Walsh, I love dance—I also can’t shake the feeling, that dancing with Galagher in the gutter, may not only offer alternate modes for persistence, but necessary modes of survival.

Harrison Ritchie-Jones, Cold Tooth, 2024, performance documentation, Contact High, Gertrude, Naarm (Melbourne). Photo: Machiko Abe. Courtesy of Gertrude and Performance Review.

  1. Stacy Holman and Anne Harris, “Monsters, desire and the creative queer body,” Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies 30, no.5 (July 2016): 518-530, doi: 10.1080/10304312.2016.1210748.

  2. William McBride, “Temperance Hall is Facing Closure in 2024,” Published 14 December 2023,

Anna McDermott’s review of Contact High: Dance, dance is the first instalment of the 2024 iteration of Gertrude x Performance Review, our ongoing critical response to the performance in Gertrude's artistic program.
Piloted in 2022, Contact High was a three-year partnership between Gertrude and Performance Review exploring the transference that occurs between performers and audiences in the gallery. In late 2024, Performance Review and Gertrude will publish a report reflecting on this partnership and its learnings.
This iteration of Contact High: Dance, dance took place on 18 January 2024 and featured performances by: Sarah Aiken, Mara Galagher with Andrea Illés and Nelly Clifton and Harrison Ritchie-Jones.
Contact High 2024: Dance, dance was a response to the increased presence of dance in the visual arts and was both a celebration of and critical engagement with this medium.

Anna McDermott is an artist, writer and arts worker living on stolen land in Narrm. Her practice is informed by a queer-feminist lens and rests upon choreographic methodologies to better understand, consider and challenge how we move and are moved.

Performance Review acknowledges the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation as the traditional custodians of the land on which we operate. We pay our respects to their Elders; past, present and emerging and recognise that sovereignty was never ceded.