Catherine Martin’s Monads; Strictly Ballroom and The Fold

June 21, 2015 § Leave a comment

The curtains, traditionally theatre black, are infused with sparkles. The dresses drip with sequins. The hair, the makeup, the props, the costumes, indeed everything – from the foyer of Her Majesty’s Theatre to the golden tassels of the leading male’s matador bolero to the gargantuan mirror ball suspended above the audience – shimmers in a fine mist of endlessly turning and twisting twinkles of light. Whether or not you agree that it is high art, or even whether or not it is any good, there is no denying that Strictly Ballroom is a spectacle. However, the musical is more than a mere money-maker; Catherin Martin’s dramaturgical design – the unification of the show’s Being through glitter – transcends camp (a quality I will later show it fails to achieve) and entertainment (an inherently debatably notion that is superfluous to this discussion) to instead provide audiences, intentionally or not, with the opportunity to meditate on the nature of ontology, by means of Deleuze’s concept of the fold.

Strictly Ballroom is a musical based on the film by the same name. It was written and directed by Baz Luhrmann in the early 90s and has since been adapted here into a stage show, with many of the same creatives – specifically, Luhmann and his wife Catherine Martin. The plot takes ballroom dancing in late-80s Australia as its subject matter. Scott Hastings’ parents – his mother in particular – run a dancing school in Sydney, Australia. He is the school’s best chance of winning the Pan Pacific Grand Prix, a prestigious dancing tournament. Scott, however, is more intent on dancing his own steps – something forbidden at such a formal event. After competing in a lesser tournament, using some dramatic and crowd pleasing dance moves that are forbidden by the strict rules of the competition, and losing, he begins to hunt for a new dance partner, while those around him conspire to make him conform. Meanwhile, the ‘ugly duckling’ of the dance school, Fran, begins to meet with Scott and practice dancing his way. As she comes into her own, as a dance partner and a worthy romantic interest, the two slowly fall in love. They, of course, do dance their own steps at the Pan Pacific Grand Prix and reaffirm the show’s central motif, ‘a life lived in fear is a life half lived’.

Before discussing the function of Catherin Martin’s use of sparkles within a Deleuzian paradigm, a language of discourse around the fold is required. The concept is grounded in the work of Leibniz and the Baroque, which “refers not to an essence but rather to an operative function, to a trait” (Deleuze, 2006, p. 3). The trait in question is that it “twists and turns its folds, pushing them to infinity, fold over fold, one upon the other” (ibid). In this way, the universe can be understood as being in a fluid and unfixed state at all times, with the pleats of matter constantly shifting, changing, oscillating, stretching and spinning in endless and indefinite variation. Within this dizzying frame of thought, Deleuze concludes, “movement, then, cannot be stopped” (ibid, p. 13). But what is it that cannot be stopped: what is it that is doing the moving? According to Deleuze, these points of movement are monads, which are conceived of as an individual unit, a metaphysical point of inflection, “a unity that envelops a multiplicity” (ibid, p. 25). It is these monads that produce an endless multiplicity of Being in the way that they fold into, over and around one another in infinite difference and movement. They are at the centre of the complex, ever changing machine that is life. I argue the sparkles of Strictly Ballroom perform in a similar manner.

Catherine Martin may not be aware of the fold. Similarly, she may have no idea what a monad is; however, in its production, Strictly Ballroom manages to encapsulate this philosophy. The decision, dramaturgical in nature, to imbue almost everything in the show with glitter, sequins and sparkles, has a remarkably dazzling affect on the viewer – it is almost overwhelming. To complete the manifestation of sparkles as monads, the performers, the curtain, the mirror ball and most of the set, is in constant motion. With each dance number the actresses’ dresses swish, sway and sashay around the stage. Every set change breaks apart with a flickering flourish; and even the black backdrop, a theatrical stable, takes part in the tapestry of twinkles. As a viewer, you are bedazzled by the array of light and colour. Every one of these starry points shifts in constant movement, as though it were the theatrical embodiment of the monad. (Presumably) Unknowingly, Catherine Martin has transformed a theory into theatrics. While counter arguments may suggest that these decisions are made in order to tap into a camp aesthetic, or for entertainment purposes, I argue that the case of the latter is irrelevant, and that the case for the former is fallacious.

According to Susan Sontag, one of the criteria for a camp aesthetic is a lack of awareness of being camp – Strictly Ballroom has no such lack of awareness. When Baz Luhrmann first made the film in the early 90s there was certainly a camp edge to it, a hyper-reality and an adoration of façade; however, this was also the formalised dancing, and even late-80s Australian, culture. And so the film is seen as quite camp; in its costumes, characters, accents, and flamboyant story telling – not to mention the music, which includes Cyndi Lauper’s Time After Time and John Paul Young’s Love is in the Air. The stage production does away with sincerity almost altogether and embraces – with certain (entertaining) nostalgia – ‘camp’. Almost paradoxically, in so doing, it diminishes its camp-ness. There is a “spirit of extravagance” to a camp work; however, there is also a “naïve” quality, wherein “the essential element is seriousness” (Sontag, 1982, p. 112). Strictly Ballroom the musical is not serious. There is no sense, unlike in other Luhrmann works, of it being “‘too much’” (ibid). Where the production does succeed, intentionally or not, is to incarnate the theory of the fold in its extravagance. In Strictly Ballroom’s desire to embody excessive camp, it (accidentally) achieves a philosophical meditation on metaphysical ontology.

Through a tight control of the production elements in order to achieve an overall aesthetic vision, Catherin Martin’s dramaturgy creates an effect wherein each light-catching element becomes a shifting focal point for the audience. Catherin Martin’s monads are simultaneously individual and multiple, existing alone and in ensemble, they are turning, twisting, overlapping, folding, swirling, shifting, pleats of constant movement, which encapsulate not only the production in its entirety, but also Deleuze’s conception of Being; or rather, becoming. For nothing is ever fixed within this paradigm, and this is certainly true of the stage production Strictly Ballroom the musical.

 

Bibliography

Deleuze, G. (2006). The Fold. London & New York: Continuum.

Sontag, S. (1982). A Susan Sontag Reader. Bungay, Suffolk, England: Penguin Books.

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