WANDERING THE STREETS OF MELBOURNE

ROSIE DENNIS EXPLORES CONNECTEDNESS IN DOWNTOWN

by Urszula Dawkins

This time last year, Rosie Dennis was at Arts House presenting her exploration of the lies we take for granted, Fraudulent Behaviour. After several years making solo work, she says, she’d started to get bored and decided she wouldn’t mind collaborating. So she chose two collaborators for Fraudulent Behaviour – an imaginary person and a fake duck. She’s back next week to present Downtown, wandering the streets by day and creating a performance at night. This time, her collaborators are real, but don’t appear on the stage. They are the strangers who help her explore what it means to be connected to other people.

Over the past decade Rosie Dennis’s practice has crossed broad territories – directing, writing, movement and performance. “It’s slippery,” she says. “Sometimes it’s installation, sometimes it’s solo, sometimes it’s a play in a black box, sometimes it’s in public space. I’ve been called everything from a dancer to a poet – and I also curate.” The constant, Dennis says, is her interest in relationships. “Everything I do is about my desire to connect”, she says, “and that’s what Downtown is about as well.”

For her fifth ‘version’ of Downtown – following earlier seasons in Sydney, Brisbane, Brussels and Kuopio (Finland) – Dennis will go out each day and talk to the strangers she meets. Letting the stories she hears shape the journey of the performance, a work will emerge, a few minutes longer each night, that encapsulates the experience of her time here.

On day two of her Melbourne residency, Dennis is thinking about dance.

“[It’s] because I want to dance again, I think, and because on the first day of conversations I had with people, every single person said to me how important it was for them to move. And I thought, well, Downtown is a piece that responds to where I am; and if everyone I’ve talked to on day one has told me that this is about moving, I’ve got to work out how to move in this show.”

The rhythm of Dennis’s speech is poetic and direct at once; her words flow and pause like a dance themselves. She seems to translate the ordinary into something whimsical, thoughtful, spacious; as though what she will show us is a borderline between observation and participation, or between retelling and essence.

“On the one hand [Downtown’s] really massive,” she says, “and on the other it’s so simple – it’s about saying hello to the person beside you instead of just being in your own world. But the very first time I’ve got to go up and talk to someone on that day I dread it. …What am I going to open with? What doesn’t sound really esoteric? What doesn’t sound academic, what just sounds pretty low-key? You just try and work out all these things and it’s terrifying, and then you just sort-of do it.”

Dennis has previously said that the inspiration for Downtown came after she met a woman at a Sydney party, who told her that walking up and down busy King Street, Newtown, with her baby’s pram was what saved her from post-natal depression. It reminded her that she was part of something bigger, she told Dennis. It made Dennis think a lot about the chemistry between people.

In her Arts House rehearsal room, on the desk alongside laptop, phone and notepad, are a small collection of laboratory flasks and vials of salts, dyes and reagents. These help Dennis, she says, to work out how things come together, and to tell her stories of the city to audiences.

“I’m going to do [an experiment] with alcohol this time, because people have been telling me about alcohol – they feel like I’m very brave, having conversations with people.”

Her voice becomes a confidential whisper: “They say, like… ‘Do you have anything?’. ‘No’ I say, ‘I don’t, I just do it, like straight’. And they’re like ‘whoa’. They’re like ‘how many drinks do you have?’ and I go ‘No no, I just – I freefall, freefall’.”

“So I just do a little experiment, basically. Maybe I don’t have to talk about the asylum seeker I met, say, because I don’t really want to tell her story, it’s her story…but maybe I can recreate how we affect each other through a series of experiments. Like these two things [she points at a pair of vials] together with dishwashing liquid sort of make a cappuccino. And I can do this and this together and it makes a fire…”

I’m relieved when Dennis says “It’s not rocket science”. She shows me glucose, some salon-strength peroxide, and potassium permanganate (“which gets rid of foot odour, actually”). “Real life is daggy, you know. I need to connect to the real world if I want to make work that somehow connects more broadly as well.”

She tells me about a man she met, who took her to several of his special haunts around the city – places that no one knows about, where there was no one else. He swore Dennis to secrecy, made her promise not to take anyone else to these hidden places.

“I thought, wow, you come to the city to be invisible, actually – to go to places where no one else goes. And you know all those places…and you have spent years finding these places in Melbourne. That’s why a city’s exciting, because it offers space and room for everyone. You know, it needs everyone – it needs everyone, for the mix.

“In a world you need people whose lives have collapsed, and you need people whose lives are just being built bigger and bigger and bigger. One is not what it would be without the other, really, and that’s what Downtown continually shows me.”

DOWNTOWN
Rosie Dennis

Arts House, North Melbourne Town Hall
Tuesday 16 – Saturday 20 August 2011

Book online or phone (03) 9322 3713

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About Arts House

Arts House presents contemporary arts in programs encompassing performance, exhibitions, live art, residencies and other activities that nurture, support and stimulate cultural engagement. For more information, please visit artshouse.com.au.
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