Perhaps Australian choreographer Ros Warby named her latest solo, Monumental, with irony in mind. After all, a single woman onstage hardly merits the term. Isadora Duncan maybe, but not a wiry, tautly muscled performer of medium height like Warby, who in this fascinating 50-minute performance often looks fragile, confused, or about to collapse from fatigue. More likely, the solo is a monument to the travails of the two archetypes she portrays: the ballerina and the soldier. On the surface they don’t appear to have much in common. The ballerina has a short career onstage; the young soldier may have a short life (in the course of which he must become reconciled to killing). But then you think of the discipline, strength, obedience to authority, courage, risk, fear, and sore feet that both careers demand.
The environment in which these iconic figures move is elegantly delineated. For a number of years, Warby has collaborated closely with designer Margie Medlin and composer-cellist Helen Mountfort. Cinematographer Ben Speth realizes the accompanying images in beautiful 35mm. Sometimes the cyclorama is devoid of these—bathed only in apricot light, and often Mountfort’s music falls silent, or emits single, challenging notes. Within the spare structure, the choreographer allows herself a certain amount of freedom to improvise.
Warby—who was trained in ballet, but acknowledges the influence of the radically innovative Deborah Hay—first appears as Odette, the enchanted bird-woman of Swan Lake. Or perhaps as an Odette wannabe. She wears a lavish white tutu made of feathers, but the bodice is an unpoetic, sleeveless white leotard. Her feet are bare, and what looks like a bathing cap covers her hair. Standing in one spot, she makes tiny, birdlike movements with her head, but looks unconvinced by them. A few gestures allude fleetingly to the iconic Ivanov choreography—crossed wrists, flapping arms, a warding-off pose—but this ballerina is beset with dissatisfaction and discomfort, even though, when Warby’s filmed face appears on the screen—huge, filling it—her gaze is calm and penetrating. That black-and-white image is succeeded by a pother of gulls alighting on water amid swimming ducks.
She’s unhappy that she can’t see her feet over the shelf of her tutu; she plucks a feather out of it dispiritedly. Every move she makes is subtle and true, and many are small. Emotions and impressions flit over her face and her awkward body like tiny storms—soon over, but always ready to strike again. She speaks too, and sings in a high, tight voice what sounds like vaguely Germanic gibberish.
In the second section, she reappears in black pants, a black top rather like the white one she just shed, and a black, turban-like cap. For a while, she stands at one side of the stage, making straight-armed gestures, while a shadowy filmed image of her moves out of synch with her. She angles her arms around in odd ways as she walks stiffly (once, channeling the ballerina with a wilting deep plié). Mountfort makes the cello march for her, but sometimes—in between her straight-backed, chin-in stances—Warby hobbles like an old man. She talks a drill sergeant’s rhythmic gibberish in an undertone, but there’s no mistaking that “Ten-SHUN!” A closeup view of two, much larger than life bare legs (hers, I presume) on the white screen both dwarf and frame her, and a beautifully pointed foot rests on its arch.
In the last part of this arresting, enigmatic work, Warby exchanges the black pants for a black tutu, and her pecking head, suddenly clawing hands, pigeon-toed slumps, and crumpled pinup-girl stances (legs pressed together like a child who needs to pee) are backed by more films of birds. She may be alluding less to Odile, Odette’s evil double, than to death and birth and fragile nature. The film looks as if it had been shot in a nesting ground of shore birds. They sit on nests. One waddles awkwardly; maybe it too has sore feet. And one slowly lets its head fall sideways to the pebbled ground, as mute and resigned as Mikhail Fokine’s Dying Swan. For the camera, it dies more than once. We also see Warby’s filmed face and close-ups of an owl’s fierce gaze. The sorceror Von Rothbart, often disguised as an owl, keeps an eye on his captive princess, but what is the woman seeing and thinking about? At the end, Warby begins to move in almost total darkness, removing her headdress as she goes. For a second, a spot of light picks out her face, staring at us.