Delusions of grandeur
Sarah Aiken, Make Your Life Count
By Anador Walsh/Performance Review
“I need to hear some sounds that recognise the pain in me, yeah”
The first time I saw Sarah Aiken’s Make Your Life Count was at this work’s premiere at Arts House, Naarm (Melbourne) in 2022. After two years of living alone through lockdown and relating to the world predominantly through the intermediary of a screen, this work affected me deeply. As the lights came on and Aiken walked back onstage to take her bow, I found myself struggling to pull myself together. Tears and snot streaming down my face and makeup pooling at my chin, I was a puddle in a theatre seat. I felt exposed. But when I looked around me, I realised I wasn’t the only one in the audience wracked with emotion. There were many of us.
A world of your own making
Make Your Life Count navigates the relationship between the dancing body and its documentation to explore the duality of contemporary existence. In this work, Aiken employs a large-scale projection and an onstage, fixed camera to create, minimise, expand and extrapolate her own image in real time. In this way, she steps through the digital frame, blurring the line between performance and its documentation and critiquing the constant performance of identity demanded by techno-capitalism.
In 2023, we believe we are all main characters and that “all the world’s a stage”. Our existence is marked by the transformation of our day-to-day lives into digitally digestible content. The star of this content is a larger-than-life persona of our own creation, whose character develops through a combination of self-mythology and mythologisation by others. But despite this cultivation of a grandiose online self, contemporary existence is also tempered with the very real and at times crushing self-awareness that people like Aiken, myself and those around us in the theatre that evening, are largely insignificant.
Conversation with a giant
Aiken reflects on the powerlessness of ordinary people to have any real impact on the pressing issues of our time – like the climate crisis – by staging a conversation with herself. During this conversation, Aiken assumes the role of both a digital giant and an IRL (in real life) figure (herself), who is dwarfed by this giant, even while standing atop a huge ladder. In this conversation, the giant espouses a series of meaningless platitudes, that emulate the kind of wellness jargon that has been co-opted by late capitalism: “To have more impact, busy yourself with ambition and mantras”, “Multiply to multiply success”, and “Take responsibility for your happiness and hydrate”.
In stark comparison to this, Aiken’s own responses are jarringly authentic, offering real, vulnerable insights into her own psyche: “I have no distinguishing features”, “It’s a bit of a mess down here”, and “I’m compared to everyone else”. This exchange came to a head in a heart wrenching exchange, where Aiken inquires: “How do you think you’re perceived by others”? Only to have the giant reply: “I would never ask this broken and fleshy question. Have more ungrounded confidence”. In this moment, Aiken encapsulated what I would describe as the great paradox of our present moment. We are expected to be constantly online, self-promoting and showcasing how 'great’ our lives are. But when we are sincere or express how we actually feel, we are dismissed as if we have broken some kind of unspoken social contract.
You are infinite potential
This is not to say that Make Your Life Count is designed to make you feel bleak about the current state of affairs. Instead, Aiken expertly utilises theatre staging elements to evoke a generative, critical reflection on existence under capitalist structures. This is clearly evident in the final scenes of this work. Following their conversation, the projection zooms in on the imperfect, fleshy surface of the giant’s skin. To a soundtrack of ambient computational noises by Andrew Wilson, Aiken begins dancing. As she moves, her double appears in the projection, mirroring her gestures and dancing across the giant’s cheek. Each time Aiken crosses the stage, another double appears, until eventually there are a myriad of Aikens.
Into this, Aiken begins to introduce shadow and form, spotlighting some of these figures using a series of white, geometric props. She pauses self-reflexively to observe her work, before exiting the stage. At this point, she is seamlessly replaced by an IRL double (Claire Leske), who begins tearing this staging down. As she strips these props away, a constellation of stars enter the projection. Aiken’s digital doubles begin to warp and move backwards out of sight, as if being sucked into the orbit of a black hole, until eventually everything is consumed by Aiken’s pupil. The lights come on, the house music swells and we are left with a timelapse of a giant Corpse Flower growing, as Leske jumps against the screen to highlight a motto in the background that reads make your life count.
Make Your Life Count is a technically and conceptually brilliant work of dance that cleverly co-opts the language of our time – the image – to evoke a contemplation of what it means to live and make art under late capitalism. Using the full arsenal of her skillset as a dancer and choreographer, Aiken builds, confronts and then destroys herself in a way that shatters capitalism’s delusions of grandeur and exposes our insignificance as individuals.
However, Aiken does not present this insignificance as something negative, and this for me, is what makes this work so compelling. Make Your Life Count touches on the disconnect between expectation and reality, and the crushing weight of constantly having to perform yourself, your identity and values. Despite existing in a climate of rampant individualism and the impetus to create a bigger, better version of yourself, this work's core message is that it is okay to just be yourself. This is a universal sentiment that is as beautiful as it is liberating, and I believe, is the reason that I, and those around me in the theatre that evening, were so deeply moved.
1. The Verve, Bittersweet Symphony, Virgin Records, 16 June 1997, CD.
2. William Shakespeare, As You Like It (United Kingdom: 1599), Act II, Scene VII.
3. Sarah Aiken, Make Your Life Count, 2022, performance dialogue, Arts House, Naarm (Melbourne).
4. Aiken, Make Your Life Count.
5. Aiken, Make Your Life Count.
6. Watching Make Your Life Count live in the theatre in 2022 and then revisiting its video documentation twice in 2023, I failed to notice that this was the moment Aiken was replaced by Leske. Instead, I thought Leske replaced her much later, when the time lapse began and the lights came on. Only when I submitted this piece to Aiken for feedback, did I learn that the last 10 minutes of this work are performed by Leske, such is the skill and subtlety of this transition. Aiken also shared with me that this is a common misconception, shared by many people who have seen this work.
Media and reviews
“one of the most moving pieces of dance … blurs the line between performance and documentation, using an onstage camera to create, minimise, expand and extrapolate her image in real time. she critiques the constant performance of identity demanded by techno-capitalism and asks us to indulge in our own insignificance”
Anador Walsh/Performance Review
The Saturday Paper
"a mesmerising journey [...] so many layers to this performance that the overall effect was like an explosion; bodies and images cascading and multiplying, like meteorites. This piece speaks about the commodification of emotion, the monetisation of relationships and the banality of contemporary life in ways that are novel and fresh. With smatterings of Dada and delicious irony, Make Your Life Count seemed to be profoundly received by the audience, who reacted with laughing, gasping and an arousing round of applause at the end. The trajectory of the show felt astral as frames of reference (literal and metaphorical) kept shifting and moving like the prodigal doors in Alice in Wonderland. It felt like tumbling into a rabbit hole of sorts where the view was oddly familiar yet full of surprises, as Aiken undulated across the stage, playing with the projections to a startling revelation in the final moments." - Leila Lois, Arts Hub
“speaks to so much right now, and shares itself with its viewer so generously and playfully.”
Luke George, Independent artist
“The whole first section is just so intrinsically perfect, satisfyingly understated and spacious and beautifully realised and so completely resonant. And the trajectory of the work from the ordinary/ small scale to extraordinary/ cosmic scale is just so impressively, methodically but organically/ naturally built. And it was a really delightful experience... as a viewer, I just took so much delight in the images and the humour and the flatness/deadpan vibe of ordinariness and the incredible depth of the epic scale that was first invoked and then so fully delivered upon. Wow.”
Rob McCredie. Artistic Director, Fling Physical Theatre
"the virtual unexpectedly becomes real, lightening the mood and playfully gesturing toward a world of other people."
The Age 2022
“Her body becomes a sculptural object… beautifully wrought, an exercise in simplicity and innovation”
Varia Karipoff, RealTime on SET
“Aiken’s work is a delight with its own personality, fully engaged with wit and visual verbal wordplay”
Liza Dezfouli, Australian Stage on SET
“…definitional, capstone works of the emerging generation of Australian choreographers”
Jana Perkovic, The Age on WAISTD
Loosen your sense of self in a kaleidoscopic dance work of constantly shifting scale.
Are you too much to handle or too small to matter?
Make Your Life Count is an ambitious dance work that shifts scale in a heartbeat- from the microscopic to the universal. Choreographer and dancer Sarah Aiken encounters her own self expanded to infinite proportions or shrunken to painful insignificance, stretched into new dimensions or flattened into mute landscapes.
This powerful feat of imagination is a serious attempt to grapple with the paradoxes of modern life, in which the individual is swollen to grotesque importance while also reduced to an ineffectual, even invisible impotence.
Whether monstrous and destructive or lost in the crushing scale of humanity, ecology, time and the universe, this perspective-shifting work is a chance to lose yourself, and maybe find something better instead.
A powerful exploration of scale, power and the complexities of a culture focused on individuals, self- actualized at all costs and pitted against one and other, and the environment , MYLC looks for ways of softening focus on the individual - to lose ones self in the patterns of community, ecology and history.
Choreography and performance: Sarah Aiken
Additional performance: Claire Leske
Video: Sarah Aiken
Text: Megan Payne with Sarah Aiken
Lighting: Amelia Lever-Davidson
Sound Design: Andrew Wilson
Technical and creative support: Daniel Arnott
This tour-ready work comes with all creative material and technical specifications as well as artists own video camera, software and show laptop. It requires a large theatre space with seating bank, ideally a white floor and cyclorama with the sides of the space curtained in a uniform colour. Set pieces are minimal and can be sourced locally. They include several white plinths of various sizes, mounted on a dolly and one road case on wheels.
- 2 X 4K projectors. One mounted on the ceiling (minium 12000 lumens), one on floor downstage (minimum 8000 lumens or higher)
- Full width cyclorama hung upstage
- Standard audio and lighting equipment.
- Radio microphone with headset
- IPhone, usb cable and extension (artists own)
- Laptop with OBS (artists own)
- Laptop with QLAB
- HDMI Video mixer (2 channels)
Video and sound elements may be presented as standalone exhibitions.
This project was supported by CultureLab and presented by Arts House, it has been assisted by the Australian Government through the Australia Council, its arts funding and advisory body; the Victorian Government through Creative Victoria. Development supported by Lucy Guerin Inc/WXYZ space residency