Ahilan Ratnamohan’s SDS1 blurs the boundary between dance and physical theatre by incorporating his skills as a professional footballer.
The first thing that we notice as we are ushered into the North Melbourne Town Hall is the theatre in the round setup. Seats are positioned around a large empty square in the middle of the space, lit simply by four green-florescent tubes at each corner. The space is reminiscent of a football stadium and the audience look at one another across the way as through ready to cheer for opposing sides.
Ratnamohan enters in silence, carrying a football (soccer ball), wearing tracksuit pants a jersey with “SDS1” printed on the back. Placing the ball in the centre of the space, there is first a moment of silence, a calm before the storm of kicks, tricks and techniques only known to professional football players. At first, Ratnamohan performs with the football, deftly moving through the space with all fluidity and skill of a ballet dancer. It is as though the ball and he have some sort of silent, immutable conversation, the ambiguity of which allows us to revel in the freedom of associative meaning making. On a base level, the work is an evocative demonstration of the physical exertion and bodily sacrifices expected of those in the higher echelons of professional sport (and performance).
Ratnamohan sits down wrapped in the yellow-orange light of a sporting field and slowly wraps his ankles in sports tape, preparing for the next movement of the work and it is at this point that the work becomes a more abstract embodiment of the off-field anxieties and aggressions that are a corollary to these highly competitive and bloodthirsty professions. Here, he moves like a cocaine-filled obsessive, now racing towards the audience in order to frighten them, now psyching himself up for something big, or threatening us by preparing to kick the football right into our faces. The movements here are obsessive, schizophrenic and have a visceral impact upon the spectators.
The movement ends and he returns to his football, delicately moving it across the ground, pushing it with his head as through it were tethered to him, a life support connected through an invisible chord. Ratnamohan floats, unburdened by gravity as the sweat of his head beats heavily onto the floor, until he collapses. His soaked shirt sticks to the floor as he drags himself along the ground to mark out a triangle (or a boundary line) across the floor with his sweat. It is here that we realise the pleasure of the spectator: it is the visceral pleasure of viewing masters of craft physically exerting themselves. They make it look easy, but their breath and sweat belies the difficulty of performing, the physical difficulty of keeping an audience engaged and entertained, particularly at a time characterised by the over-consumption of three-second, 140 characters, consumable media. All these thoughts climate in the final moments of the piece, as the spectators are asked to lift Ratnamohan up, carrying him as a wounded Christ-like figure, a martyr that has sacrificed his body for the consumption and pleasure of others.
Overall, SDS1 is a remarkably well-crafted work presented by a highly skilled performer. With such an excellent integration of light, music, sound and body, it is disappointing to see that it was not to the liking of some of my esteemed colleagues, some of whom I am beginning to question, on account of their partiality and prejudice to particular things, but that is beside the point…