Australian choreographer Lucy Guerin’s intense Split takes duet to metaphorical new heights

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      At the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival earlier this year, a dance piece called Attractor took catharsis to extremes, building to a trancelike frenzy set to punk-tribal rhythms.

      The woman who cocreated it, Australian dance veteran Lucy Guerin, has another piece on view in Vancouver this week—but you don’t have to brace yourself in quite the same way. As she puts it over the phone from Melbourne, “It’s kind of like the opposite to Attractor.”

      Showing the exquisite range and originality that have marked her career, Guerin, with her much-lauded duet Split, narrows her focus and finds a more meditative, haunting level of intensity. In it, two magnetic female dancers—one clothed and one naked—share a square taped off on the floor. Throughout the show, they stop to reduce the size of that square, more and more until conflict inevitably ensues. The Guardian called it “sparse and powerful”.

      Split arose, in part, because Guerin was craving some quiet time after works like Attractor for Australia’s Dancenorth company and a new version of Macbeth, which she had just codirected at London’s Young Vic. “I did really want to spend some intimate time with two dancers, and just work with time and space and the bodies of the dancers,” Guerin says.

      The work’s simple premise has deep metaphorical meaning, with its base in Guerin’s own fears for Mother Earth. “The space closes down to quite a dramatic degree. It’s this idea of resources on the planet and just of the land that we’ll have if sea levels keep rising,” Guerin says. “So there was this sense of urgency.

      “And then the shrinking of time was also something really on my mind,” she adds. “Everyone seems so strapped for time; there’s no time for friendship or trips to the beach.”

      The idea of playing a clothed dancer off an unclothed one came midway through the process—and though she wasn’t sure about it at first, Guerin says it quickly changed the dynamic between the performers.

      “The thing that immediately struck me was how powerful she [the nude dancer] looks; she didn’t look vulnerable or sexualized or victimized,” she observes. “Between the two of them, there became a sense of the private, personal self and the public self. Some reviewers have said it feels like nature and culture, so I’ve had quite a lot of readings of the work, which has been so interesting.” The New York Times wondered whether the naked character was “a servant, a slave, a spirit”.

      These are the types of questions Guerin loves to fuel, and the kind of intricate, multilevel dance she loves to create in her company’s warehouse studio in Melbourne. From 1989 to 1996 she danced in New York City, and she accepts commissions around the world, but it is back at home, where she launched Lucy Guerin Inc. in 2002, that she likes to experiment on a more intimate scale.

      “I feel like the smaller structure allows me more creative freedom for the types of projects I’m interested in,” she says, “and I don’t feel as much pressure.”

      Lucy Guerin Inc. performs Split at the Scotiabank Dance Centre next Wednesday and Thursday (October 16 and 17).