UNTRAINED is a piece by the Australian choreographer Lucy Guerin that pairs two trained professional dancers with two untrained non-dancers. The latter are auditioned and swapped out with new non-dancers every so often, so as not to let their fish-out-of-water qualities dissipate with experience. The dancers, for reasons unclear to me, are all male; perhaps the persistent cultural encoding of dance as feminine accentuates the awkwardness of the pairing. In any case, the result is highly likable and thought provoking.

The basic structure is that one performer enters a designated rectangular area on the stage, does something, and is then imitated in his action by the next performer. Trained and untrained dancers alternate, thus bringing the dichotomy into focus and, more importantly, into active comparison. It is pretty clear which is which early on; the trained dancers do something only a trained dancer can do and the untrained dancer “fails” in some way that is charming and revealing despite its ineptitude. Sometimes, of course, the untrained imitator does something that has a purity that has been trained out of the professional dancer.

From there, things get more complicated and less clear cut. An untrained dancer starts the game, and the trained dancer who follows can’t quite bring himself to do the same thing – perhaps feeling the need to refine or improve on the action in some way. Then they start doing things other than dance, such as acting out scenes from familiar movies, or singing, or admitting a feeling of physical inadequacy. Beyond the fact that a trained dancer is used to being on the stage in ways that non-dancers are not, there is no logical reason why he should be any better at acting, singing, or self-revelation than the non-professional. And indeed, they are not, although no one is “bad” at anything in UNTRAINED: its central ethic is the suspension of judgment, at least in the sense of one thing being better than another. What one person can express and has available to express is simply different than another.

UNTRAINED is an exceptionally democratic but not naively egalitarian artwork, acknowledging the differences that exist, but refusing to evaluate them in an arbitrary or a problematic way. Great stuff. I’d like to try it myself sometime.