Taking up space: Nothing to Lose at the Sydney Festival

The performers in Nothing To Lose challenge viewers to rethink their ideas about bodies and beauty. Photo: Toby Burrows. Sydney Festival

It may seem odd, and a touch ironic, that the act of taking-up-space is of concern to a fierce-fat-femme like Kelli Jean Drinkwater.

Speaking about her current collaboration with Force Majeure and choreographer/director Kate Champion – in Nothing to Lose, a new dance theatre work that premiered this week in the Sydney Festival at Carriageworks – Drinkwater told the Huffington Post that she is interested in “the aesthetic potential of taking up space”, in exploring “ways to reclaim spaces and platforms that are often prohibitive to ‘othered’ bodies”.

Movement is a great vehicle for this. As the late (great) feminist Iris Marion Young explained, lots of women have an issue with taking up space, particularly in the way that taking it up is valued in our world. They don’t claim it, or occupy it; they apologise for being in it, or taking up too much of it.

Of course not all women (and lots of men) feel this way, but dancers make a living out challenging how, when, and with what sort of force we occupy, negotiate and learn what is possible in relation to us and space. In fact, the philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s explanation of the essential relationship between our body, action, time and space, could have been articulated by a dancer:

I am not in space and time, nor do I conceive of space and time; I belong to them, my body combines with them and includes them.

Occupying space (and time) is a political act and being seen to do this is what Nothing to Lose is all about.

Nothing to Lose insists you look. It presents, unfurls, shacks, rattles and rolls the flesh of a collection of large bodies; mostly women with a couple of (rather small by comparison) men thrown in. This is a work about being fat, and as Kate Champion explained, being fat is a “hot button” issue.

Trying not to be, working out why you might be, hating and/or accepting (even liking) that you are, fat, provides endless hours of popular television, fuels radio chat shows, finances research institutes, inspires websites, blogs and contemporary pop music.

Ally Garrett in Nothing to Lose. Photo: Toby Burrows. Sydney Festival

Talk about fat is everywhere, but Nothing to Lose insists that we not only look but also see what we rarely see – at least when we’re out and about in the world. Fat is the player here, it’s on stage, and in the audience, and it insists on being seen.

This is a good work, not a great work or an excellent work … at least not yet. It’s great that the creative team will get another go at it for Melbourne’s Dance Massive in March (the pun was not lost on Drinkwater when she talked to radio station FBI).

This will give them time to sort out some of the boring bits: its episodic nature made it a bit disjointed at times and I found the early text a little didactic; a litany of things that the cast have been asked, accused of, told, which are spoken into microphones as performers wander up and down the aisles.

We’ve been there before, and that is not necessarily a bad thing, but the content, structure and execution of these texts needs to excite, perhaps amaze … but definitely not just confirm or conform to expectations.

But the other main thrust of the work, the attempt to show and to move these large bodies in original ways, was well worth the trip.

Michael Cutrupi and Anastasia Zaravino’s solos show where this work could go – Zaravino’s liquid pelvic gyrations collected and eventually exploded in her beautiful raised arm shaking back bend. Cutrupi’s march toward us from the darkened back depths of the raised stage platform was a complete surprise, his stylish arm flappings caused his ample belly, fringed with leather strapping, to wobble in rhythmic concert with his mincing gait.

Ally Garrett in Nothing to Lose. Photo: Toby Burrows. Sydney Festival

Ally Garrett’s orange dress, stretched to sculpt her body beyond its own reach, also offered a glimpse of the wonders that this work could reveal with another visit. Staging and lighting were excellent, the raised platform used to frightening effect by Claire Burrows as she strained, flipped, dropped from her full height onto its reverberating surface.

For me, dance was the winner in this work. It was in the movement that the quality and difference of these performers shone through. When asked “why dance?” Kelli Jean Drinkwater stated:

it felt like a natural progression [from her earlier work]. Dance spaces are so prohibitive to fat bodies, especially training and classes and things like that […] it’s been interesting to be able to access this kind of language around being a performer and […] to be involved in a show that is all about the performers really discovering new ways to move their bodies, [ways] that they might not have done before, and watching that kind of exploration and investigation is really gorgeous.

It is also the mark of a good work that my immediate disappointment or reservation with some aspects of the performance, and elation with others, has turned into a deeper appreciation of, and investigation of, the issues that the performance and its makers raised. As I heaved my own breasts into my bra this morning and felt the friction of my thighs against one another as I traversed the hallway to the loo, the work returned to me.

I felt a pang of appreciation at the chance it had afforded me to see, explore, examine, feel and think about the issues it raised and the ideas it generated, in concert with others; about our, my, your, their inalienable right to take up space.


Nothing to Lose plays at the Sydney Festival until January 25. Details here.

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