We acknowledge the Gadigal of the Eora Nation, the traditional custodians of the Country on which the Art Gallery of New South Wales stands.

A dance of disguises

A person leans on one knee and two hands on the floor of a shadowy columned space

Angela Goh Axe Arc Echo 2023, performance commission for The Tank at the Art Gallery of NSW, supported with funds provided by The Keir Foundation © Angela Goh

Within a vast concrete container, originally built during World War II to hold 10 million litres of oil, there is a lone dancer. She travels across this thirty-by-thirty-metre expanse in a constant sequence of meticulously executed, exactingly composed movements. The structure of her choreography, in many ways, seems to echo the rigid geometry of the space, which is perfectly striated by a grid of 125 columns. Here is a performance disciplined by repetition and restraint. 

However, if you are to watch this performance – a major new commission for the Art Gallery of New South Wales’ Tank space by dancer and choreographer Angela Goh, titled Axe Arc Echo – and think that this was all there was to the work, I would encourage you to look closer, to watch a bit longer. For this is a dance of disguises.  

Goh tells us such, throughout the performance, in vivid and subtle ways. Take first, for example, the work’s engagement with the columns in the space. For many stage-trained dancers these architectural interruptions might be deemed an affront. And yet Goh makes them, with great conviction, part of the very fabric of her work. As she performs, flickering in and out of view, we come to learn this is a work premised upon the boundary between what is seen and what is unseen. (Goh likens the columns to theatre wings, allowing her to constantly transfer from onstage to offstage, and back again.)  

At one point during the performance, all you can see of Goh is her single outstretched arm, the rest of her body concealed by a column. But projected behind is the shadow of her entire body, an arabesque-like formation appearing over the rich patina on the Tank’s walls. At another point, Goh is seen shuffling on all fours in a beguiling mechanical manner. Moving diagonally, down one of the many corridors offered by the grid of columns, she grants the audience an extended and complete view of this movement and, in doing so, reiterates the impressive distances she is traversing throughout the work. But then with a 90-degree rotation, she is out of sight.  

How we each experience this choreographic interplay between emergence and disappearance is open to a multitude of possibilities. Audience members, depending on where they are seated in the Tank, will see a variation on any one sequence – when Goh disappears from one angle, she appears at another. In Axe Arc Echo, the same choreography is experienced differently, simultaneously – it is a dance that refracts many dances out to its audience.

A person lunges with their arms stretched upwards in a shadowy columned space
A person lunges with their arms stretched upwards in a shadowy columned space
A person stands with an arm held out sideways and a leg bent in a shadowy columned space

For Goh to calibrate her body to work within the space in such a careful and compelling way leads to another disguise. Goh’s choreography presents seamlessly, with an astonishing sense of ease. It is, in fact, deeply complex and intensely physical. A fastidious formalist, Goh often makes works that turn the conventions and technical traditions of her discipline inside out. She baits our expectations about the way the dancing body moves and then turn these expectations on their head. (For all the ambiguity that loads the content of her work, there is nothing ambiguous about the way she makes dance.) 

Indeed, the characteristic strangeness of her choreography comes from an interest in how different axis points can be transposed onto her body at the same time. We see this throughout Axe Arc Echo. Goh, from a standing position, may move from one corner of the space to the other by spinning her body in a forward motion while rotating her arms backwards. Or, from a seated position, she may turn her torso in a backwards motion, but maintain a forward-facing gaze after each turn.  

In reconfiguring the ways in which parts of her body work together, Goh begins to contort the logic of direction, challenging our perceptions of what we think we are seeing and what is actually happening. Interestingly, Goh is fascinated by techniques of misdirection, and in a way, like a magician, her choreography courts perplexity through a deep awareness of the audience and the mechanics of their attention. It demonstrates an intelligence that is always two steps ahead, holding you in a state of anticipation – generating the kind of daze that occurs when trying to make sense of something. 

Unlike a magician, however, Goh offers no grand moment of reveal in her new work. Choreographic gestures accumulate and unfold, over and over. The audience does not see the work begin or end. And while this endlessness may give the outward impression of choreographic uniformity, in fact, the way each sequence is beaded together across the performance is marked by the complete opposite – constant transformation. Much like the geological layers into which the Tank was built, this work posits change as gradual and incremental but nonetheless dramatic.  

It is not only the choreographic material that is working to such impact. The lighting – designed by Govin Ruben – operates in slight and subversive ways. At times you can’t be sure whether the lighting hue just shifted, or whether you simply haven’t blinked for a while. In this underground world, the artist has set up an ecology of conditions that serve to disorientate. Space, lighting, choreography and sound (we’re getting to that) are bound by a central motif – one that the audience has also imprinted within their own bodies when arriving to the space via the spiral staircase. A vertiginous combination of rotation and descension. 

Indeed, Goh has the distinct ability to work sensitively and directly with a space, and yet create works that feel decidedly out of place – or, perhaps, out of space. The more she understands and gets to know a site, the more her performances feel like they have landed there from elsewhere.

A person wearing a white t-shirt, dark shorts, knee pads and sports shoes

Goh’s choice in costuming is worth mentioning here; it is incredibly astute in how incidental it appears. Our protagonist in Axe Arc Echo, dressed in sports shorts and a white t-shirt, armoured with knee pads, seems to have come prepared for her journey. Unlike every other element of the work, there is a literalness (she is dressed to dance) and a familiarity (her clothes are ordinary). And with this sartorial sleight of hand, Goh creates a slippage between the world we know and the world we have entered.  

But before you witness any of what has been described above, you will first hear the work. Now, there is sound that you hear, and then there is sound that you also feel – the type that gets under your skin, clenches at your chest, pushes you to the edge of your seat. It is there to not simply fill space, or to create atmosphere; it is there to tell you something, to draw you somewhere that you don’t yet know. The score for Axe Arc Echo, composed by Corin Ileto, is this kind of sound. It is not a composition for the Tank, but from the Tank. Almost like if you held a drinking glass to the wall of the Tank and listened in. What do we hear? Rumbles, circles, spirals, groans, whispers, silence; things emerging, things evolving. This is a sonic force that takes us from ancient layers of sandstone and unknown underworlds to modern histories of concrete, machinery, labour and conflict. It is a conductor for the incredible charge and scale of this work, which ultimately is an all-consuming epic in disguise as a solo dance piece.

Visit the Tank in the Art Gallery’s North Building anytime from 11am to 1pm or 2pm to 4pm on Saturday 7 or Sunday 8 October 2023 to see Axe Arc Echo for free as part of the Volume festival. Find out more on the Volume website