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Harrison Ritchie-Jones and Michaela Tancheff’s CUDDLE Disrupts The Dance Medium

27 February 2024

CUDDLE is a heartfelt and energetic dance performance by the bold and generous Harrison Ritchie-Jones. In CUDDLE, audiences encircle the space like a wrestling match, watching Ritchie-Jones and Michaela Tancheff perform a mix of contact improvisation, wrestling, and a unique barnyard dance.

After the Melbourne show, Ritchie-Jones shared thoughts on CUDDLE's beginnings, its approach to violence with a playful twist, how it challenges traditional theatre settings, the impact of duo performances, and the potential to push the dance form.

Laura Tooby: How are you doing today, Harrison?

Harrison Ritchie-Jones: I’m feeling pumped. Ready to get on stage.

LT: What led you to make CUDDLE? What was the seed? 

HR-J: I feel like CUDDLE resulted from a plethora of experiences and dance interests. Kind of in one strange lasagne! It's got so many layers of me, my interactions with the world, and my kind of logic and interests in dance. I've been pushing into figure skating partner work, rodeo barnyard, a lot of martial arts, wrestling and contact improvisation. I’ve also been exploring more classical dance styles as well as contemporary ones. My interest has been in understanding or learning some of the logics that inform each discipline. Then start to interchange them, overlap them or interrupt them in strange ways. I am continuously looking at ways I can suspend, challenge or cultivate these momentums, then extend them into newer forms. That was the seed for CUDDLE.

LT: What is the significance of the title? I'm sensing opposition here. 

HR-J: I guess the name, CUDDLE, is playful. The work is called CUDDLE, but it involves a kind of tackle and hints at violence. At the same time, it requires so much care and sensitivity to pull off the moves, even when they look aggressive. There's something about this that’s intriguing to me. People are left not knowing when to laugh, when to feel tension and when to be moved. 

LT: How is this work de-stabilising?

HR-J: I'm not trying to be challenging or provocative but there's definitely a lot of suggesting. I think that it’s quite playful. The invitation is to question and prompt audiences to contemplate the intricacies of their emotions. For the performance itself, there’s no seating bank. It's in the round, which kind of gives off the vibe of a wrestling match or an underground fight. The lights hang low from chains over the centre of a white square, which is called ‘the arena’. The whole show is being filmed from an aerial perspective, with a locked wide shot and a third person roaming and capturing close action shots. This footage is being projected onto two big screens that frame the edges of the space.

So it's definitely got this kind of ESPN sports energy to it. I also think introducing different logics regarding spectatorship is interesting. I feel like I’m disrupting the obedience expected in a theatre setting. Making less obvious cues for an audience is interesting. In this show, I have had people heckle, scream, gasp, cheer, laugh and whistle in the middle. It’s cool.

LT: Why did you choreograph this work to be a duo rather than a solo or group performance? 

HR-J: Well, I tried to do a solo recently. I'm just not interested in it. I find a lot more clarity when I'm sharing weight with someone else. I recently made a work called Tantrum for Six and it involved six dancers, all screaming their heads off in nappies, where I was developing the same kind of movement vocabulary. 

LT: That's very evocative. You've mentioned that a kind of wondrous intimacy hums through this work. What do you mean by that? 

HR-J: Originally, I identified with that statement a lot more. Though, while I was working with Michaela so closely and for so long, intimacy started to come from the care and trust we required in this process. I think when those lines become blurred and intimacy is not positioned as a precursor, it's kind of beautiful. 

Courtesy Jo Duck

LT: Your costumes and set design all seem pretty gangster. Can you tell me more about these stylistic choices?

HR-J: I don't really know what possessed me to make those choices. We could unpack my childhood, but I simply think it's sick. I loved the look of Solomon kicks, Carhartt jeans and then this really heavy-duty ice hockey gear over them, with motocross protective gear and balaclavas as well. Very quickly, these pieces became interesting to me dramaturgically; they created more opposites in the work; we looked scary, big and dangerous, but we also behaved in a caring and sensitive way. Eventually, as the performance continues, so does the shedding of layers of clothing and the theatrics become stripped back. It felt logical to strip down conceptually and physically to this really raw, exhausted, palpable version that's really intimate and kind of epic by the end. And by that time, you've kind of been tricked into an arc of comedy, and then you drop into something kind of reflective and moving. The audience can't quite track what's happening until it's over. So in that sense, I think the costume and set design really help create an epic atmosphere. And help hone the trajectory of the work. 

LT: Also, the music—is this also important in the work? 

HR-J: Yeah, I'm in love with the music. I worked with two amazing composers, Nicholas Roder and Max Dowling, and the process was very back-and-forth. We weaved context, sounds and lyrics from discussions and the world I was building into the very fabric of the music, which really helped connect everything. There is opera, a dangerous club banger and an epic emotional Rocky Balboa track, all spread over different points in the show. The music is broken up by talking in voice modulation that sounds like a robber's ransom voice. There’s a lot of breath and impact picked up by an overhead shotgun mic. 

LT: I understand that you've got a club version of this work called CLUBBLE. You presented this on the program of The Pleasure Planet at the Miscellaneous Club in Melbourne last year. Could you tell me about this? 

HR-J: So, I believe Brodie Kokkinos approached Chunky Move to do this pop-up gig while she was curating Pleasure Planet and Chunky hand-balled it to me because we had recently just done CUDDLE and they thought it would be great in the context. It was really fun. We gave the DJ our music and he remixed it with his set. I was definitely responding to the space and the context of a club. But, you know, in the club, attention spans are different. You don't have the kind of control of a theatre. So we ended up doing this pretty outrageous gig. I moved through the space with Michaela on my shoulders and made our way through the crowd to this podium that was covered with glass and tequila shots. Then we wrestled on that and did a lot of the rodeo moves. It was sick. I mean, the club was just packed. Everyone was pretty locked in by that point.They were all looking up and being splashed as we were landing in puddles of tequila and wrestling the dance. We did a lot of the movement aspects, we cut loose and then we did this fight on a raised stage, then went into the mosh pit and just started dancing with our shirts off. 

Courtesy Prue Stent

LT: How have you found leading the creative process for CUDDLE?

HR-J: It’s been fun; I'm very intuitive and open when I'm making; and I’m quite playful. I feel like Michaela sometimes says, ‘You're not serious, are you?’ And I'm like, ‘I'm serious (insert: big grin)’. I’m obsessive and I follow my obsessions. I love it. 

LT: Why do you think the work is important?

HR-J: I made the work in a car park with Michaela. I'm just obsessed with it and can’t stop coming back to it. I don’t think we need to take ourselves so seriously all the time. I think there is value in something that doesn't have such a clear or obvious significance, yet still feels relatable.

LT: So it was just Michaela and yourself between bitumen and the emotional tumult that is Melbourne weather. What was this like? 

HR-J: You've got rips in your pants already and it's fine to kind of roll on them. There's something fun about training in certain spaces, like under train stations and in empty car lots. I love the gutter and the stoop.

LT: Is CUDDLE going to expand into new mediums?

HR-J: Yeah, I've been doing a lot of photo shoots with Jo Duck. And I've been working on this manual about ‘how to cuddle’, which is like a photo essay. It’s kind of halfway between archival in the sense that we have descriptions of how to do some of the moves, which is also for me and Michaela to refer to when we are remounting it. I have been working in some sculptural spaces. And there's a movie coming out, like a documentary about the work. CUDDLE is becoming its own world and it’s pushing into other forms. I'm really enjoying it. 

LT:  So, you’re morphing CUDDLE into different kinds of dialects across alternative mediums?

HR-J: That's what I'm hoping to do. It’s yet to completely articulate itself, but yeah, that is where I'm pushing it. I'm very excited to see how it bleeds, for sure. 

LT: Where do you want to take CUDDLE next?

HR-J: I guess the hope is that I can share CUDDLE with more people, enjoy it and then also continue to progress Tantrum for Six. I feel like I'm at the tip of the iceberg with where all this movement is going. I'd love to just keep pushing the form. 

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SEE ISSUE #06 HERE. The theme for this issue, Revelations, delves into the unfiltered aspects of life. It’s an appreciation and exploration of raw beauty, where authenticity reigns supreme; the unconventional is not just accepted but celebrated. In a world of manufactured perfection, this issue chooses to validate our quirks and idiosyncrasies. After all, they are what make us inimitable.

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