The irksome GIF. Though individually fleeting, collectively they pose a colossal time suck. Wading through dance GIFs in particular can be dispiriting. It’s bad enough watching an entire dance on film – a medium which inevitably sucks oxygen out of a performance, no matter how skillful the filming. 

<i>if it's all in my veins</i>, conceived and directed by Martin Hansen © Gregory Lorenzutti for Dancehouse
if it's all in my veins, conceived and directed by Martin Hansen
© Gregory Lorenzutti for Dancehouse

Hence my consternation when I discover that Martin Hansen’s latest evening-length work was conceived around a set of GIFs. Ripped from Great Performances of Dance, no less.

Modern dance is Hansen’s turf; the GIFs kick off with Isadora Duncan. Next stop: Anna Pavlova, for whom Michel Fokine created The Dying Swan, after swooning over a performance by Duncan. Among others, we encounter Mary Wigman, Nijinsky’s Faune, Yvonne Rainer, Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker, and the performer de Keersmaeker famously accused of plagiarism, one Beyoncé Knowles-Carter. The historical journey ends with what looks like an impromptu dance party captured in a GIF labelled ‘Moscow ’92.’ After the show, Hansen explains that those party-goers were celebrating the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The GIFs are projected on a screen and replayed at least a dozen times each, while three female dancers in a uniform of relaxed office-wear and white sneakers imitate the snippets of dance over and over, as if fine-tuning their execution. (Or as if encouraging the audience to commit the moves to heart in case one of the dancers is suddenly injured and the audience needs to serve up an understudy.)

The dancers periodically recite, in robotic monotone, thought-provoking material from Hito Steyerl’s ‘In Defense of the Poor Image’ and lyrics from Róisín Murphy’s ‘Simulation,’ which inspired the title of the piece, if it’s all in my veins. They also occupy themselves with moving stage lights and props, while an enormous digital clock display counts down the time till the next GIF is scheduled to splash down.

Melbourne-based dancers Hellen Sky, Michelle Ferris and Georgia Bettens turn in stalwart performances. They represent three different generations, their faces, voices, and movement radiating the accumulation of lived experience, even as they strive to create a pristine canvas onto which moments of august history will be layered.

The entire enterprise wittily interrogates the notion of authenticity and the dance world’s obsession with ancestry. It also depicts dance as hard graft.

My allergy to GIFs notwithstanding, I am blown away by the art in the mimicry. This includes the episode in Pina Bausch’s Café Muller in which a good samaritan tries to keep the sleepwalker from crashing into furniture as she careens around the café. In the harsh light at the Kwai Tsing Theatre’s Black Box, the stage strewn with plastic folding chairs, the anxiety this scene normally provokes is tempered with humor.

Pavlova’s snippet of Swan appears more drunk than dying. We are drawn to the twitching muscles of the upper back and shoulders, more than the famous fluttering of her arms, as the dancers explore her movement. 

A sequence from the 1997 film of de Keersmaeker’s Rosas danst Rosas is brilliantly recontextualised. The dancers first recreate the movement of the dancer in the foreground, then the movement of the dancers in the middle ground. Lastly, they recreate the mood of one lone young woman in the background. She is leaning against a wall and trying to look as if she doesn’t feel left out – though she gives a wistful glance over her shoulder that conveys a sense of isolation. Hansen’s dancers casually pick up what look like LED light bars, upend the thin rods, and lean precariously against them. They glance over their shoulders in unison, making a powerful statement of solidarity with the lonely figure in the GIF.

Another striking GIF is labeled ‘Excluded’ and consists of a fluctuating static pattern on the screen. The dancers simply stare at it as we ponder a shadowy pool of artists who never caught a break, or who were victims of systemic exclusion. 

The high point of the evening arrives once the last GIF fades. Projected on the upstage wall is a film montage of our three dancers going through all their moves in succession. Through this is woven historic footage of buildings exploding and collapsing to the ground – a cocky metaphor for what modern dancers like to think they’ve done to classical forms. The film captures the dancers’ repetitions in a way that is even more profoundly moving than their live performance. Unmoored from the GIFs and the prosaic environment of the black box, the filmed dance feels timeless, universal.

The entire evening is at once delightfully anarchic and rigorously formal. I admire Hansen’s choices, like the laconic labeling of GIFs with the last name of the artist – no titles, no dates, no context. Yet I wrestle with the thought that many in the audience, not recognizing the artists or works represented, will leave the theater bemused.