Thursday, October 21, 2010

Vertical Road by Akram Kahn Company

Image from Vertical Road.
Photo by Carla Gottgens. 
Click here to find my review of Vertical Road by Akram Kahn Company on

This was the highlight of MIAF for many people, myself included. Not unsurprisingly, the show took out The Age critics' award. 

There's something very visceral, very human about the work. Which sounds trite to say, but in a festival where a lot of work left audiences cold, Vertical Road was an emotional whirlwind - the kind of show that hits you on the inside and then leaves you thinking about it for days. It so easily could have pandered to over-wrought cliche or fallen into self-indulgent traps, but it didn't. The dancing was both powerful and diverse and Kahn, quite remarkably, managed to put it all together in a coherent and evocative way. 

Vertical Road by Akram Kahn Company
Melbourne  International Arts Festival
Merlyn Theatre, The CUB Malthouse
19 - 23 October 2010

Monday, October 18, 2010

Adapting for Distortion & Haptic

Adapting for Distortion. Dancer Hiroaka Umeda. Photo by Alex.
Call me old-fashioned, but to me, dance is about human bodies. Bodies that move.  Not to discredit the power of stillness - which Japanese choreographer Hiroaka Umeda used to good effect -  but what excites me about dance is bodies and all the crazy things that they can do, both on their own and with other bodies - their kinesthetics, their physical force, the way they use momenteum and power.

So when a solo dance piece is about the body subsumed by technology - to sum up Umeda's first solo, Adapting for Distortion, in the most basic of terms - I find it hard to get excited. The work was clearly conceptualised to an inch of its life. Huge black and white grids filtered across the backdrop and floor continuously for the 30 minute solo. Umeda barely moved - he was a small, swirling blip in the middle of the stage, amidst the repetitive grids and he stayed in the same low-level dynamic for the whole dance. I don't think his feet ever left the one spot and he let the texture of the projections filter over, into and above him. He did dance a little bit with a ripply hip-hop aesthetic (elements of popping and locking, some fluid body undulations), but it was so far away and, like the projections, so repetitive that I felt like I got all that the work had to give within the first 5 to 10 minutes.

Umeda's second solo, Haptic, held more interest mainly because it had more variety of states. It also had big washes of intense colored lights, moments when Umeda's body was the focus and the sense that the work wasn't just all about computer projections. There was much more interplay of moving body with background. In Haptic I could see Umeda's actual choreography - and there was more going on dynamically and spatially than in Adapting for Distortion.
Haptic. Dancer Hiroaka Umeda. Photo by Shin Yamagata. 

A program of two solos by the same dancer/choreographer to music by the same composer (S20) was a dangerous proposition. Even one of these solos paired with a ensemble work would have been okay. Unfortunately, monotony was the theme of the day and the double bill left me wanting more. I know some audiences loved this singularity of vision and others found the theoretical implications of the technological/human relationship fruitful. I wish I could have been more excited myself.

The comparisons between Adapting for Distortion & Haptic to Chunky Move's Glow and Mortal Engine are fair to some degree, as they all work with interactive technology. From my very un-technological perspective, the CM works felt truly interactive, with the dancers movements affecting the laser/light projections while Umeda's projections seemed more layered onto movement than integrated into movement. The CM pieces also conveyed a plethora of emotions, images and human interactions that were absent in Umeda's work. When dance employs technology, the technology has to add something that the dance alone cannot, or at least present the dance in a different way than the dance would otherwise be shown. Umeda's work felt like a visual art instillation, the kind of thing you would walk by in a gallery, watch for a few minutes and then move on.

Maybe if I had wandered into Adapting for Distortion & Haptic at ACCA I would have appreciated it more.

Adapting for Distortion & Haptic
Melbourne International Arts Festival
The CUB Malthouse, Merlyn Theatre
14 - 16 October 2010

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Come, been and gone by Michael Clark Company

Dancers Oxana Panchenko and Clair Thomas.
Photo by Jake Walters
Click here to find my review of Come, been and gone by Michael Clark Company on The show seemed to provoke mixed reactions - people seemed disappointed that it was a style over substance affair. It was the big ticket dance event of MIAF, so expectations were high. But it was always going to be about the music - that's why most audiences went, wasn't it?

Perhaps to give general audiences a better sense of what Come, been, gone was actually going to offer (beyond just the idea of dancing to Bowie, The Velvet Underground, Kraftwerk, etc) better program notes would have been helpful. It wasn't that clear that the first work, Swamp, was actually made in 1986. It's not a new work like the rest of the program. Looking at Swamp in the context of 1986 is totally different than looking at Swamp thinking it was created last year. The rest of the show is newer, mostly made in 2009 and from what I understand different sections have been performed at different times and in different combinations.

Carnival of Mysteries

Image by The Sisters Hayes. Photo by Jodie Hutchinson.

Is this not the best image for a show that you have seen in a long time?
Totally intriguing. Really makes you wonder who are all these people are and why are they together. 
Carnival of Mysteries was  chaotic, entertaining, uplifting and deeply macabre all at once. Creators Finucane & Smith took their burlesque visions to new levels of audience participation. Participants didn't just sit around a catwalk partaking in sensually dark acts up-close and personally like they did in The Burlesque Hour. They walked through the space, negotiated crowds, tents, sideshow rooms and made conscious choices about how to spend their carnival cash (although in many cases the pushy spruikers were pretty persistent and made the choices for them.) There were so many acts to see - both serious and tawdry - that every person would have had a different experience. If you tried too hard to see everything, you would have been disappointed. Better to just take what came your way. Take the shonky with the uplifting; the just plain kooky with the sexy.  My experience included an erotic reading in the Victorian library, letter-writer Miss Lee penning me a beautiful postcard to give my husband, a fortune-telling by clairvoyant Ann Povey, a nonsensical melodrama between three Russian sisters and a monotonous monologue about various ways to die. 
Interesting aside: The "special" acts (they costed $10,000 a pop) happened in the Tent of Miracles. This tent is a mini big-top circus tent that seats about 30 people. Finucane  & Smith had been planning its realisation for some time and commissioned eight different visual artists to each design and paint a panel of the tent. The tent looked amazing - full of variety and vibrancy, with each panel having a distinctly different look. In the crowded environment of Fortyfive Downstairs it was hard to take it all in, but when this Tent of Miracles hits the touring circuit (especially if used in outdoor spaces), it will be a very impressive mini venue. 
Below is my review as published in the Herald Sun, Monday 11 October.
Carnival of Mysteries must be the only show in town that credits a carnival ephemerist in its program. This theatrical event invites its guests to wander through an intricately designed traveling circus of yore - packed with grotesque characters, snake-oily sprukiers and circus freaks. In Side Show Alley and the Tent of Miracles the acts range from the titillating and ridiculous to the macabre. Nobody knows what they are getting until they’ve paid their illegal tender and entered the booth. 
But what is certain is that in the capable and eccentric hands of creators Moira Finucane and Jackie Smith, experienced merchants in all that is burlesque and carnivalesque, the mayhem and chaos is tightly organized and fabulously detailed. With a slew of visual artists and costume designer Doyle Barrow, they have constructed an evening that is unabashedly sensual, grungy and and fully interactive with the audience. There’s no choice but to be swept up in the seedy fervour, especially since there’s nowhere to hide - even the bar is the site for acts both refined and lewd. 
When it all wraps up with a feel-good, utterly anachronistic 80s inspired finale, it feels way too soon. Just when the revelry hits a frenzy, this motley crew of carnie folk have to head back to their tents to do it all again. Fans can’t get enough of Finucane & Smith’s odd-ball delights. The only way to score a ticket now probably involves a dangerous back street transaction.
Carnival of Mysteries
Melbourne International Arts Festival
Fortyfive Downstairs
7 - 30 October 2010


Dancer Emiline Forster took the very unsexy topic of mining and ran with it. Sounds odd, but it worked. Dust was inspired by Glenn Beutel, a man, as Forster said in the program, who was "the last man standing in Acland, Queensland." While she didn't go literally into his story, she used it as a jumping-off point to explore the coal industry's effect on the personal.

Her set was a simple home space - a bookshelf, a pot plant and a mailbox. A screen for video projections created the back wall. Wearing a mask and a white disposable sterile suit, Forster began by scattering coal across the floor. Later we saw her as a feminine character in red and white polka-dotted dress soiled with coal markings. Forster maintained these two personas - the industrial and the domestic - throughout and this influenced how she related to the coal that was strewn across stage. She threw it, tried to eat it and even turned it into a pillow and nestled her head into it.

Forster has a rigourous contemporary dance training and it was evident in Dust. While nothing in of itself was spectacular in a kinaesthetically daring way, there was an integrity and method to it. Sometimes it was as simple as tremors throughout her body as she collected her mail from the post box; other times it was more angular and twisted contortion. The most striking moment had Forster in hard hat and construction gear, miming the wielding of a hammer in slow motion with her mouth dropped open, coal grit stuck in her teeth and gums.

A video back drop intersperced the action. Enactments (mostly by her peers and a cameo by Brian Lucas) included mining corporates and government officials patting each others' backs, miners posing like catwalk models and miners dancing around like they were alone in their bedrooms and nobody was watching. While Forster's choreographic work was serious, even angsty at times, the video created a more poppy, humourous depiction of the material. Forster intertwined it all with fluidity and cohesion.

Addendum, 10 October: Dust deservedly won the Fringe award in the dance category. It was a show that encapsulated what the award is about - a young artist with a serious practice creating a production with a well-realised concept.

Keep your eyes out for Emiline Forster in the future.


By Emiline Forster
Melbourne Fringe Festival
30 September to 2 October 2010

Monday, October 4, 2010

Intimate Exposure

Dancer Sara Black. Photo by Six 6 Photography.
Part of the excitement of the Melbourne Fringe Festival is uncovering new and unlikely venues, which is what made the prospect of Intimate Exposure so intriguing. Housed in the recently converted Substation, it is, as the title suggests, a series of up-close and personal site specific dance works throughout the premise. The Substation is an old electricity plant turned into funky new multi-purpose art venue in the unassuming Western suburb of Newport (conveniently a couple of steps away from the train station).

While some of the cavernous brick building has recently been renovated to make way for slick gallery spaces, there are still plenty of nooks and crannies and industrial elements providing great potential for engaging with dance. Probably the most unique space was that used for Amelia McQueen's solo in the bowels of the building and filled with open squares of space within the bricks - like frames missing their windows.  McQueen used them to some effect, posing and pushing into them as she appeared to be in some sort of mild electrical shock. Then she slowly got up, maintained her physical state and walked through the central corridor, past the standing audience and completely out of the space. 

Sound was one of the over-arching themes that tenuously held the different works together and many of them were intentionally unpleasant and confronting.  Jade Dewi Tyas Tunggal sputtered and dry retched her way through a powerfully guttural solo while hurling oranges against the wall and vigoursly whacking her legs into recognizably balletic lines. From less than a foot away and in a brightly lit, white-walled gallery, the audience was right there with her - some even copped desicated orange on their shoes. 

In another space, but to equally confronting and confusing sound ( some generated by the dancers and the majority by sound artist William Bilwa Costa), the two women engaged in a violent, disjointed duet surrounded by the audience. Dressed in only nude underwear and backless flourescent green blousey tops, they counted into walkie-talkies, wrestled in semi-sexual ways, scaled down a wall, violently scattered paper debris around the space and ultimately left the room to peer down on us from the other side of a high window. The closing image was Tunggal slowly pulling on a thread on the front of McQueen's top that began to open the shirt and reveal McQueen's breasts (not the same top that she was wearing in the opening of the piece!)  It was a baffling duet - fierce and committed in its energy but still closer to a work-in-development for the dancers than a piece for general audiences. 

The strongest offering of dance was Simmer: That which bubbles away under the surface choreographed by Carlee Mellow and danced by Sara Black, Madeleine Krenek and Paula Lay. There was both a cohesion and an offbeat sensibility within it that held together. Working with vocal scores and gestures, full of half-finished questions and disjointed conversations, there was the sense that conversations were trying to happen - communication was being attempted - but thwarted along the way (much like real life, actually). In funky, artistically chrocheted outfits and pink gum boots, each of the three women was a unique and strong presence. There was an equality to their contributions and all were totally committed to the absurdity and awkwardness of the material, even the ending which involved splashing in an upstage wading pool and distorting their voices through long tubes.  

Simmer was the only work in Intimate Exposure that felt like a complete work in and of itself, but it wasn't really site-specific to the Substation space. Performed on a raised, white square platform (very much like a stage), it could have been done anywhere. Acoustically, it may have been site-specific - that I am not sure. 

Also included in the itinerary around the caverns of the Substation were stops to see two short dance films, both by Dianne Reid. They were included to offer a different take on the theme of intimacy of personal experience - sleeping and grieving. While nice enough films in themselves, they were made for different projects a couple of years ago and felt a bit out of place, since all the other content had been developed specifically for the event. 

Of late, there has been a lot of dance in site-specific indoor and up-close spaces. Natalie Cursio's Private Dances for the Next Wave Festival springs to mind, as does The Oaks Bride (also in the 2010 Next Wave Festival) at Donkey Wheel. (Donkey Wheel has a similiar feel to The Substation - underground, brick, subterranean). These events generated  massive public interest. Audiences are hungry to experience dance in different ways; to be surprised by new places and to feel close to the performing acts. These events are exciting and engaging - they feel more like interactive artworks than a sedentary night in the theatre. They generally can make the act of watching dance more visceral and appealing. 

While this sort of engagement was the intention of Intimate Exposure, some of the material presented probably isolated rather than invited audiences. But it was definitely a risk worth taking since dance needs to keep finding different ways to manifest itself. It will be interesting to see how the Substation's programming continues to incorporate dance into its multi-modal mix and how the venue will use its unique interiors to support live performance.  

Intimate Exposure
Melbourne Fringe Festival
The Substation
30 September to 09 October 2010

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Paper Man and The 499th Day

Dancer Anna Simm in The 499th Day
 I don’t think of choreographer Rochelle Carmichael as a fringe artist. She has been diligently making dances for close to two decades, but often under the radar. Perhaps this is because the style of her work sits outside of the fashionable Melbourne post modern/ highly conceptual/self-referential style. In recent years, she has been presenting off the beaten path at Theatreworks. The double bill she offered for Melbourne Fringe contained two wildly different pieces. They didn’t sit that smoothly next to each other, but both had promising elements with considered structures.
Dancer Kelly Way in Paper Man
Paper Man was a surreal, character driven piece - a three hander for a man (Taurus Ashley) in a big paper suit, a wide-eyed, youthful female (Kelly Way) and a cluster of red helium balloons attached to a circle of white tulle. It was whimsical, with a touch of a European circus or puppetry tradition (in no small part due to the music by Yann Tiersen from the Amelie soundtrack.) Using simple props like a line of stools, a folding screen and scattered books and clothes, it was full of narrative suggestions and strands of strong theatrical ideas. Elements like Paper Man methodically tearing his puffy white paper suit off of himself and the balloons allowing the meshy fabric to dance and float freely were visuals that could continue to develop.  
The second piece, The 499th Day, was a substantial, abstract duet that never stopped moving for 25 minutes, all to the familiar sounds of Phillip Glass. Wearing removable wings and with a single long peacock feather painted on each of their simple black costumes, the two dancers - Way and Anna Simm - competently delivered the rolling and spiralling motifs of the piece. As is often  its style, Carmichael’s vocabulary consisted of curvaceous, powerful full-bodied movements. There were also many quieter, thoughtful moments with the women in their own separate spaces and projecting inward. Way and Simm were technically proficient - it was not an easy piece and they stayed on top of the demands of the material. But for the work to really take off (pardon the pun), it needed more attack from the dancers - a deeper sense of when to draw out a line, when to suspend and when to retract. If they could find that richer texture along with deeper personal relationships to the movement, the work would become greater than the execution of  thoughtful steps.

Carmichael's company is called Liquid Skin Peninsula Performing Arts Company and is based on the Mornington Peninsula. 

Paper Man and The 499th Day
by Liquid Skin Peninsula Performing Arts Company
Melbourne Fringe Festival
23 September - 02 October 2010

New Site for Dance Reviews

The dance scene in Melbourne is growing by the month. In any short space of time, you can see  shows from independent choreographers, mid-tier companies, The Australian Ballet, tertiary and training institutions and international touring artists.  Add circus, physical theatre and various other dance/theatre hybrids and it is a struggle to keep up with everything going on. 

Melbourne is a gob-smackingly busy artistic hub. Busy artistic hubs should have plenty of dialoguing around and about all the artistic activity taking place. It's part of a healthy eco-system. 

I'm hoping that this site, dance reviews melbourne, can contribute to the dialogue between audiences, artists and any other interested parties and bring more awareness and interest to the events discussed.  More than being consumer guides, I'd like to think that the reviews and articles here make a positive impact on the dance/circus performing artists and communities by discussing and documenting what is the most ephemeral of art forms. 

Please support this site by reading it, commenting on it, linking to it and passing it on. 

Thanks, Stephanie Glickman