Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Anti-Gravity - Chunky Move

Below is my Herald Sun review of Anti-Gravity, published 21 March

At a basic level, Anti-Gravity is about clouds, but the performance hints at multiple mythological and spiritual levels. There’s a cast of six diverse dancers, yet Anti-Gravity emerges more as an interaction of bodies with objects and environments than a dance production. 
Anti-Gravity, Photo by Pippa Samaya

It has the distinct touch of a visual artist - To Tzu Nyen. He closely collaborates with Chunky Move’s artistic director,  Anouk van Dijk, to create an abstracted experience offering gradually evolving images and archetypes. The slowly unfolding activity of the humans with the materiality is a very gradual burn. To get the most out of it, audiences need to submit to the pace, not overthink it and allow it to just wash over them.  
Anti-Gravity, Photo by Pippa Samaya

On the cavernous black stage, in sharp squares of light (by Paul Jackson), individuals relentlessly pursue a single activity. Luigi Vescio rolls and caresses rocks around an astroturfed platform. James Batchelor stares into a shallow rectangular pool of water. Niharika Senapati is immersed with a laptop displaying skyscapes. Bursts from high powered smoke machines, subtle changes in light, the blowing of fans all slightly alter the environment, but the mood sustains.

Jethro Woodward’s spectacular sound score of sub-woofer drones layered with swelling and residing instrumentations prescribes the journey just as much as any other design contribution. 

It takes about half way through the 70 minute piece (just when all the barely moving feels stretched too long) for the individual, internalised vignettes to build into a kind of wild euphoria. Then things get interesting.
Anti-Gravity, Photo by Pippa Samaya

In that frenzy - when the dancers, in their various shapes and sizes, create heaving circles or rousing folkloric lines - are nuggets of Van Dijk’s exciting Countertechnique dance style. The kinetic thrill of the hurling bodies, often in boisterous and surprising duets, brings a much needed visceral punch, lifting Anti-Gravity out of the distant cerebral and into the startling presence before it simmers down again into more solipsistic activity. 

Anti-Gravity will divide audiences. It’s an immersive experience, rigorously developed, but those looking for the physicality of contemporary dance may miss the immediacy and kinetic excitement of more sustained choreography.

*** Stars

Merlin Theatre, Malthouse Theatre
17-26 March 

Faster - The Australian Ballet

Below is my Herald Sun review of Faster, published 21 March

They don’t get the same recognition as sporting folk, but dancers are athletes in their own right. Their training is relentless and their drive to succeed is fierce. 

Opening the 2017 season, Faster is The Australian Ballet’s ode to that endurance and strength. It’s a triple bill of varying works that showcase the Australian Ballet en masse, allowing lesser seen dancers to strut their stuff and principals to duet with different partners than usual.

Trio of Runners in Faster, Photo by Jeff Busby
The headlining work (made for the 2012 Olympics) comes from David Bintley and what it lacks in subtlety, it makes up for in shear crowd-pleasing energy. Dancers dressed as competitors- swimmers, runners, fencers - come thick and fast in a vocabulary mixing blatant sport imitation and fairly cliched ballet tropes, all to Matthew Hindson’s driving score. While it doesn’t hit choreographic heights, it contains eye catching moments like Ako Kondo and Andrew Killian's duet and the lycra-clad running ensembles’ swinging legs and scissoring arms in large scale unison. 

The Australian Ballet in Faster, Photo by Jeff Busby

The energy doesn’t let up in resident choreographer Tim Harbour’s Squander and Glory where 14 dancers become 28 in a large mirrored backdrop (by Kelvin Ho) that not only creates continual body doubles, but also reveals a large abstract sculpture behind. It’s a non-stop flow of angling limbs and quickly changing linear patterns, with Michael Gordon’s accompanying music, just as fierce, pushing the action to a point of (literal) collapsed exhaustion. 

Ensemble of Squander and Glory, Photo by Jeff Busby

After such bigness, Wayne McGregor’s more subtle and nuanced Infra is a calm breath. Above stage, a LED projection of pedestrians suggests a train station in which a coming and going of people unfolds. McGregor’s trademark sinuey, long-limbed post modern style is complex, abstracted movement that has the tendency towards formality rather than emotion. But here, in combination with Max Richter's music and clever staging of many variations on the duet, it is quite moving, with many stand out couples and solos. 

Jarryd Madden and Leanne Stojmenov in Infra, Photo by Jeff Busby

Infra is the most understated work of the bill but also the most powerful, proving that athleticism relies as much on restraint and technical control as muscular energy. 

***1/2 Stars

State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne
17-27 March

Monday, March 20, 2017

Creature and Split

Of the four Dance Massive shows I saw this past week, three were duets. And all three of those duets were contained within very strict spatial parameters. Nick Power’s Between Tiny Cities happened within a circle of audience members. ( Full review in previous blog post.)

Seeing Creature by Jozsef Trefeli and Gabor Varga and then Lucy Guerin’s Split in a row, the similarity really stood out. After Between Tiny Cities a few days earlier, it was getting uncanny - all this dueting in the “round”…or in the case of Split, a square, in front of the audience. 

Uncanniness aside, each piece is unique and has something interesting to offer. You can’t really begin to compare them, as their intentions are completely different. 

In the case of Creature, Trefeli and Varga talk about their work as being about origins; about “ethnographic material under the lens of contemporary dance.” (Trefeli studied at VCA but has lived in Geneva for many years. Varga is Hungarian and also lives in Geneva). 

While I don’t profess to understand Creature on an archival or even socio-culture level, there was a clear sense of objects from various cultures (African, European and beyond) integrated into a movement work in perplexing and unusual ways. 
Creature, photo by Gregory Lorenzutti

Creature was set in a basketball court smack in the middle of the Carlton Baths. We sat in a square of chairs in very bright daylight. The exposed space, with clear glass walls on two sides, looks into a gym in one direction and the foyer in another.  A school assembly would not be out of place in there. 

The men marched in with floral scarves (or perhaps Hawaiian shirts) wrapped around their whole heads and faces. One was a lot smaller than the other, but they had similar long strides and proud chests. Little cymbals on their chunky boots clanked as they arranged poles, lumpy cloth parcels and what looked like small tree trunks around the floor. They marked space and lines with the objects or by lying themselves down on the ground, as if measuring distance with their lengths. 

Amongst the pacing, they broke out in complex, folkloric foot sweeping, the little instruments on their shoes accompanying the strong taps of their feet. At one point they took turns cracking loud whips. Later they crawled around in the tree trunk mask/hats (which stood up quite high over their heads) like strange humped animals. By then they were wearing the lumpy parcels, now turned inside out into shaggy coats with little cloth rectangles attached like thick feathers. 

I was wondering if they would reveal their faces and eventually they did. The piece took on a whole new personal and intimate dimension once they were identifiable humans rather than faceless tree heads. They sang loudly (folk music of some sort, not in English) and made tight eye contact with the audience. 

There was a lot going on in Creature and I just succumbed to the fact that even though I didn't personally recognise all the visuals, they are culturally significant to particular populations and the men were investigating and up-ending them with both respect and a slight tongue in cheek. 

There is clearly method and rigour in the choreography itself - the complex foot patterns, the clearly delineated floor pathways, the choice to reveal faces, to sing, to engage with particular objects - but why those choices...I would like to know more...

Creature remains, for me, a fairly cryptic piece, but one that successfully reflects the mens’ mission to “give birth to a new choreography…a “creature” abounding with codes, intentions and keys to its interpretation.” 

Without dissecting all the cultural meaning (that would probably require a phD), as a performance, it's definitely a new creature, confident in its difference and quite unique as a contemporary dance offering. 

After all the textures of Creature, Lucy Guerin’s Split is extremely sparce. I loved watching this piece in a way I haven’t enjoyed much contemporary dance in a while. Guerin has gone back to movement and space and formality (rather than the theatricality she has recently been exploring.)
Melanie Lane and Lillian Steiner in Split
Photo by Gregory Lorenzutti

It all happens in a large square delineated by white tape on a stark black floor. Two women - Lilian Steiner and Melanie Lane - inhabit the spacious square for quite a long sequence of unison movement. Gradually they bisect the square with more white tape into ever-shrinking halves until they are trapped on top of each other in a tiny square upstage. Paul Lim creates a new lighting state for each tinier square as if each is its own little chapter. 

Steiner is completely naked for the whole performance while Lane wears a light blue short sleeved sweater and matching long skirt, so they appear very different to each other. 

What starts as precise unison movement in the big square (little jumps, tight squats, a slap of the wrist or thigh, shaking cat paws - both big and small accents with subtle shifts of weight and momentum) takes on a different, more sinister feel as the woman become more competitive and grotesque.

As their square implodes, unison gives way to a more predatory dynamic with animalistic arm twisting, rough piggy backs and sinister mauling. At one late point in the piece, Steiner mimes scooping out Lane’s guts and eating them. Yet within all this unfriendly suggestion are plenty of moments of non-antagonism - not an affection per say, but at least an acceptance of each other in the same environment.

Steiner and Lane are both fantastic. Steiner appears incredibly comfortable in her bareness and she’s a fluid, effortless mover, shifting between larger bodyweight changes and more micro-ripples with a muscular lightness. Lane is equally able with the intricate choreography but has a more solid, slightly heavier presence. Their unison is nearly flawless and as their relationship becomes more complex, their commitment and investment seems to grow. 

For all its imagery, Split still feels like a pure dance exploration with all the precision and formality that defines much of Guerin's work. It’s a simple premise, but there’s something spellbinding about its attention to detail and crisp execution. 

Carlton Baths
 17-19 March

Arts House, North Melbourne Town Hall
17 - 26 March


Thursday, March 16, 2017

Between Tiny Cities

Aaron Lim and Erak Mith in Between Tiny Cities, photos by Bryony Jackson
Breakdancing is often a solo display but in Between Tiny Cities choreographer Nick Power turns it into a two-hander between Darwin boy Aaron Lim and Erak Mith from Phenom Penh. It's peppered with a distinctly break dancing vocabulary. But more significantly, it is a duet of intersecting limbs, pulsing unison and a reactive physical banter characteristic of dancers working together, rather than as individuals. 

The boys barely take their eyes off each other for the 40 minute duration and only leave the round space for seconds to grab bottles of water. There's the expected displays of head spins and inverted balances but these are really a small partof a varied vocabulary that borrows even from contact improvisation and the more micro movements of contemporary dance. 

It's playful and exploratory rather than aggressive or overly showy and the boys display both intense concentration and a cocky levity. When Mith removes his shirt and breaks out in phrases of song, Lim, splayed on the floor, seems bemused. Later Lim uses his hand to cover an obvious hole in the crotch of his trousers. Is that intentional or not? There's a constant play between improvisation and structure, held together by Jack Prest's sound design that sometimes drives the pulsing elements and other times seems more background than foreground. 

An audience of around 60 stands around the circumference of a taped white circle. There's no choice but to see the people across from you - some standing, hands across chest; others slumped to one hip. Some fidget or quietly groove. It's an intimate encounter, especially when the b-boys get close to your face, their sweat visible.  While standing recreates the social or competition circle of the street, in the auditorium venue of Arts House it's more self-conscious. Nobody breaks out into dance (although some clearly want to) and nobody dares to sit (perhaps because we were told pre-show that it's a standing affair.) This set-up forces an extra layer of activity and audience engagement which Lim and Mith seem to feed off of while still maintaining their personal focus on each other.  

Lighting designer Bosco Shaw plays with the circle - bisecting it with a thick rectangular light or pulling up the light so high that we forget the circle and see only lots of people in the space. Another time the light accentuates a conversation of forearms and fingers, which zooms focus to a small circle of activity. Like the choreography, it plays around and picks up on various physical states. 

Between Tiny Cities is the end of a multi-year collaboration between D*City Rockers in Darwin and Tiny Toones in Phenom Penh. Power and his artistic crew have created something that feels unique and nuanced. It pushes past conventions of a particular social form and opens itself up to be something different. That vulnerability and curiosity defines the best of Dance Massive.

Between Tiny Cities
Arts House, North Melbourne Town Hall
14-18 March, 8.45pm

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Tap Tap and more Tap

The Adorable Tap Pack Boys. Photo Nicole Cleary.
Not sure why, but all of a sudden there seems to be a lot of tap dancing going on in Melbourne. Well, three shows within six weeks, which is high quantity when there have not been any in years! I'm reminded of how many really good tappers are around - no mean feat as tap dancing is a seriously hard genre to pull off.

So first it was The Tap Pack at Chapel Off Chapel. Have to admit, I had no idea what I was going to see and was expecting something amateurish. Boy was I very pleasantly surprised! It was truly fantastic, totally feel-good and full of extremely virtuosic tapping across a range of styles. It's got serious potential to be a much bigger show that could easily play to much bigger houses. I hope it goes places because it certainly deserves to.

Click here for my review of The Tap Pack in the Herald Sun on 26 July 2013.

Ensemble of Hot Shoe Shuffle. Photo News Ltd.
On the theme of male tapping ensembles, Hot Shoe Shuffle opened Saturday night. Well, a revival opened Saturday night. It's the baby of David Atkins, who, these days, is an Australian choreographic icon. Hot Shoe Shuffle was his big tap musical that toured the country and internationally twenty years ago.

It's classic musical theatre stuff - think 42nd Street. Set in New York,  the cast is rehearsing for a show, broad accents, stock characters...you get the idea. Narrative aside, Hot Shoe Shuffle has lots of classic tap to familiar songs like Song & Dance Man, Puttin' on the Ritz, Ain't Misbehavin'. It's the stuff people know and love and it's great to watch.

As an entire show, the highlight is the last 35 minutes - the big show-within-a-show where the scrim lifts to reveal a big band and a huge flight of curved stairs a la 1940s New York jazz club. The dress is tuxedos and glittery frocks (for lone female April - Jaz Flowers) accompanying a medley of great song and dance. Up to this section, the action has been fairly hammy musical theatre (not there's anything wrong with that). So by the time this spectacular, pure music and happy feet climax occurs it's really special and glamourous.

Atkins performs with a cast of seven enthusiastic young guys who are well-matched in terms of ability and personalities. Flowers is an all-around triple threat, with especially strong vocals which get better as she goes, culminating in her solo, How Long Has This Been Going On.

Click here for my review of Hot Shoe Shuffle in the Herald Sun on 13 August 2013.

Stay tuned for the next tap show, Bang! Crash! Tap! at the Fairfax theatre, Arts Centre Melboure opening 11 September 2013. Sounds like a tap dance meets break dance extravaganza from a young Aussie and British crew.

The Tap Pack, 21 July - 04 August, Chapel Off Chapel
Hot Shoe Shuffle, 10 - 25 August, Her Majesty's Theatre

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Dance and Circus in the 2012 Melbourne Fringe Festival

Aah...the Melbourne Fringe Festival. Each year it comes around so fast. I used to sit on the festival's dance judging panel which involved seeing everything that fell under the "dance"category and  choosing the most promising new work to reward. Depending on the year, that was anything from four to fifteen shows. These days I don't have the time or stamina to see it all, but I try to check out a few choice offerings.
Jade Dewi Tyas Tunggal in Opal Vapour.

Opal Vapour was great - a high cut above average Fringe fare, probably because it was supported by the Malthouse Theatre and included in their Helium season. It's a very developed work. Dancer Jade Dewi Tyas Tunggal and singer/musician Ria Soemardjo collaborated on a thoughtful, well-constructed piece - carefully modulated and broad in influences.

Click here to read my review of Opal Vapour in the Herald Sun on 28 September 2012.

The Faders by Rochelle Carmichael is a really ambitious piece - eight dancers, HUGE, cavernous space at The Substation in Newport. This is Carmichael's most complex work to date. It plays with ideas about desire for fame, celebrity and ideals about the future. There's a fair bit of talking involved - which is usually a dicey proposition in contemporary dance, but here Carmichael manages to find a good balance of text and physical expression. Her dancers (mostly recent VCA dance graduates) are strong technicians and what some lack in vocal delivery they make up for in physical prowess.

The partnering and the choreographic formations shine. Carmichael is really good at curvacous, fluid, sometimes slightly aggressive groupings. (I think this comes from her time with Meryl Tankard...) A strong, earthy physicality permeates the whole piece. Also a highlight is Carmichael's use of the ridiculously deep space - diagonals, lines, clusters, upstage, downstage - she finds a way to use it all.

Gareth Hart in Ellipsis.
Ellipsis also works with a very defined space, much smaller though. An open cube, of sorts, whose sides are lined with strips of red string(desribed as "filament" in the program.) Solo dancer Gareth Hart, using tightly phrased  improvised scores, creates a very internal experience that still translates across to the audience. With his mohawk haircut and his bird-like mannerisms (head forward, thoracic stooped, neck flicks) he reminds me of a disoriented, caged peacock (I don't mean that in any rude way - there are clearly animal influences here...) Ellipsis is one of those pieces that you just watch and let wash over you without worrying about what is actually going on in the dancer's head. The music (attributed to Edward Willoughby, Warwick Lynch and Anne van Schothorst,) along with Hart's amplified breathing and travel sounds comes through individual headphones for a more immersive experience.

Media image for One
One intrigued me because one of the two choreographers, Gilbert Douglas, is Zimbabwean born and I wanted to see what sort of perspective that would bring. Together with choreographer Susan Doel, they direct five very differently-skilled dancers who don't have a natural ease with other. It is billed as a series of solos, but really is more an extended ensemble piece containing solos.The dancers are of varying technical ability and somehow the piece, while very energetic and peppered with some interesting sections of choreography, didn't ultimately gel into cohesive experience. The movement didn't always seem to fit the dancers all that well. Overall, a bit of a mish-mash, with some good ideas struggling to get out of a bloated whole.

Now I haven't seen a lot this year, so unfair to make any sweeping statements or "picks of the fest," but I can say that I LOVED Pants Down Circus. I see a lot of circus throughout the year and most of it is pretty high-quality, skill wise, but it doesn't always engage dynamically or dramatically. This quartet of NICA grads ticks all the boxes for a great show that's kinda cheeky but still friendly enough for the family.

Click here to read my review of Pants Down Circus in the Herald Sun on 08 October 2012.

Melbourne Fringe Festival
Various Venues
28 September - 13 October

Opal Vapour, 21 September - 06 October, Tower Theatre, Malthouse
The Faders, 05 - 07 October, The Substation
Ellipsis, 06 - 13 October, Meeting Room, North Melbourne Town Hall
One, 28 September - 05 October, Meat Market, Arts House
Pants Down Circus, 06 - 13 October, Meat Market, Arts House

Thursday, September 13, 2012


Even though I am primarily a dance and circus critic, I occasionally get to cover children's shows. This production from Windmill Theatre and the South Australian Theatre Company is a highly elaborate, sophisticatedly designed affair. It's probably geared more for older kids than younger ones, but having said that, my four-year old son sat quietly transfixed through the whole production (over two hours!) I do think most of it went over his head, but that didn't seem to matter. I had shown him clips of Disney's Pinocchio movie beforehand, but visually there weren't many similarities between the two productions for him to take in.

Pinocchio has lots going for it - it's slicky executed and filled with popular culture references as well as a couple of good songs. Unfortunately, it suffers from being just too long and having too many different story lines. With another draft and an outside dramaturg to tighten it right up, it would be better bang for buck.

Still, it has excellent performances all around and creates that magical feeling of being transported to a totally different and exciting place.

Click here for my review of Pinocchio in the Herald Sun on 11 September 2012.