Monday, March 28, 2011

Suite Synergy

The launch of Mod Dance Company has generated a fair amount of buzz in the dance world and its opening night was a glitzy affair with dance industry people aplenty peppering the audience. It’s a new dance company with an unabashedly commercial contemporary edge  and artistic directed by Brett Morgan, a veteran of Sydney Dance Company. Several of the 19-large ensemble have worked in Sydney Dance Company (when it was still under Graeme Murphy’s direction). Others come from musical theatre and commercial dance backgrounds and there's even a So You Think You Can Dance Australia finalist ( Henry Byalikov - he was season one's long-haired ballroom dancer.)
With Morgan at the helm, associate director Teagan Lowe also an ex-Sydney Dance Company dancer and Graeme Murphy as the artistic patron of the company, it’s not a surprise that MDC launched themselves to Australia with a Graeme Murphy offering. Strategically, it’s a smart move since Murphy’s extensive body of work is adored by a wide-range of dance fans and he has huge name recognition. He's probably this country’s most prolific choreographer. 

MDC’s debut offering called Suite Synergy is a remixing of Murphy’s Synergy with Synergy (1991) and Free Radicals (1996.) These works were seminal for their collaboration with Australian percussionist Michael Askill (who appears in the work alongside 3 other musicians) and were quite cutting-edge for their time. Looking at them now in 2011, a lot of great elements remain - some explosive ensemble work, campy humour and interplay with dancers and musicians.  With the exception of some costumes and a lacklustre flamenco-inspired tap number and a pointe ballet section, the works do not look that dated. 

Murphy's choreography mixes large rhythmic group dancing with more (dare I say) gimmicky sections - a woman (Emee Dillon) dances with three bouncing lights that tickle and jump around her body; a man (Kalman Warhaft) has a slapstick routine in which everything he touches sticks to himself, resulting in some knotted-up choreography. There's a duet where Askill plays dancer Rhys Kosakowski like a drum kit (see photo below). A lot of audiences will find this character-based material a little forced and rather silly, but it's important to remember that Murphy originally made this material on and for dancers that that he had worked with for years and drew inspiration from particular individuals. Seeing Suite Synergy now, those original personalities aren't there anymore and the new dancers don't yet quite know how to truly make that material their own.   
Michael Askill and Rhys Kosakowski. Photo by Michelle Grace Hunder.

The ensemble choreography is full of jumping, turning, contraction-based action - it’s powerful, explosive movement that engages the whole body. There is lots of "signature Murphy" - a woman walking atop the backs of men like she is climbing a staircase, luscious linear pattens that travel in swirls and arabesque lines that punctuate jumping phrases. It’s the kind of energetic and athletic dance that, when well-performed, can shower exhilaration on the audience and it’s easy to see why these were such crowd-pleasing works in their day. (Synergy with Synergy and Free Radicals are some of Murphy’s most commercially successful and popular pieces.)
Of course, back in the 1990s when the works were made the percussion element was a huge part of their popularity. When Murphy had  Askill and his crew get on stage with the dancers in duets of body percussion the world was only beginning to know about shows like Stomp and Tap Dogs. Now percussion as physical performance is its own well-worn genre, and while the percussion/dance relationship doesn't stand out as particularly exceptional in Suite Synergy, it's a still a major part of the work. There are exceptional moments - the initial image of the percussionists suspended on a platform above the stage (see photo below) and a section of simultaneous duets where the percussionists slap and tap out rhythms using the dancers' floppy, relaxed bodies. 
MDC ensemble in Suite Synergy. Photo by Michelle Grace Hunder.

Some of the critical word around Suite Synergy's Melbourne (and world) premiere has been that the content looks dated, it is not Murphy's best choreography and the dancers aren't up to the rigours of the physically demanding neo-classical work. There are elements of truth to these objections, but we have to remember that this is a brand spankin' new company taking a huge financial and artistic risk. It was a smart move to stick with Murphy, a necessarily cautious choice. And this large group of dancers has never worked together before. Many of them are not trained in the modern/contemporary dance techniques at the heart of Murphy's work - some weren't even born when Murphy made Synergy with Synergy

With more mentorship from Morgan, Lowe and the MDC crew that know Murphy well, the younger dancers can grow into the material and make it their own. Creating a more technically unified ensemble, instilling a distinct MDC stamp on this new company of dancers and building on the individual talents at hand will be crucial to MDC's success. As it is only in its newborn stage, the MDC identity and home style has yet to develop. 

If its programming continues in the direction of accessible, crowd-pleasers like Suite Synergy danced by confident, technically-extraordinary performers, it will earn Australian audiences. There are probably big markets for MDC to tap overseas, especially in Asia where Murphy already has superstar status (as much as a contemporary choreographer can have such a thing.) 
Importantly, MDC is a unique model in this country. It is fully-funded through private money (unless you count the fact that the original dances were made when Murphy worked for a government-supported SDC). While this model is modus operandi in the United States, it is nearly unheard of in Australia.  MDC is under the auspices and infra-structure of the well-established Mod Talent Agency and has four company directors. This corporate model creates much more freedom and flexibility for MDC than relying on the slow and fickle government funding route to establish and then maintain a new company. (On a smaller, local scale, the Melbourne Ballet Company has also established themselves on this model and has presented eight seasons in three years.) 
It’s early days for MDC and it will be interesting to see in what artistic direction  it will wander. Will it stay closely aligned to its artistic patron and retain a Murphy sensibility or will it develop a new ethos? Only time will tell, but congratulations to MDC for realising such a large-scale vision so quickly and even better, giving a promising bunch of professional dancers the chance to both grow as artists and work at an exciting venture. 

Click here for my brief review of Suite Synergy in the Herald Sun, 25 March 2011.

Suite Synergy by MOD Dance Company
State Theatre, the Arts Centre
23 - 26 March 2011
Touring nationally

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Disagreeable Object

This is the third time that Disagreeable Object has had a Melbourne outing. It needs a lot more - as audiences love this tiny-capacity capsule of theatre/dance experience. With only a small number of viewers allowed in at any one time, it’s an intimate and very special 33 minute experience. Goulish, macabre, funny and pedantic all at once, its construction is flawless - a perfect integration of action, light, space, character and movement. 

Conceived by Michelle Heaven, its inspiration is old films, and that is essentially what it feels like - a silent movie come to life.  It is a work that audiences literally enter into. A black box contains a seating booth opposite a square-framed, deep stage. While viewers are intimate with the action, they are equally far away, as visual distance is constantly morphed and distorted through the immaculate design of Ben Cobham from Bluebottle that sharply magnifies and shrinks forms. 
Michelle Heaven. Disagreeable Object. 
And who would have thought that the humble green pea could be the catalyst for so much activity? It’s a compulsive cat and mouse game between the diminutive Heaven and the hulking Brain Lucas who taunt and torment each other in a quest for more of the green stuff. They are ideal foils - She - tiny body in gothic black dress with huge bustle, emphasising an especially round derriere. He - a lumbering, Lurch-like giant in dark suit, his bald head and pale hound dog face almost too large for his blocky body. 

Shadow play and lighting highlight the size descrepancy between Heaven and Lucas to the extreme. Spatial depth is constantly toyed with - Sometimes things are flat, other times, deep and narrow. The opening image of Heaven hunched in a tiny chair, manically munching on a pod of peas is intensely odd. It later becomes doubly-strange when the barreling Lucas sits in the same kid-size chair - his massive knees tucked up into his chin, his face resting on his thighs. Disagreeable Object is chock-full of these sort of set-ups where visual design convolutes and extends the figures while the sound design (by Bill McDonald) emphasises every teeny-tiny action. Heaven washes her hands under a faucet, meticulously rubbing her hands as she stretches forward her torso in a crisp silhouette that makes her body look much taller than it is. Sounds of dripping water accompany her every shuffle. Lucas loudly gulps tiny peas and physicalises them ricocheting through his torso. 

Only seldomly do the pair break out into short frenzies of choreographed dance steps and these serve to emphasis the game of deception and tease at play. 
Disagreeable Object is a rigorous concept piece that requires meticulous attention to detail and Heaven and Lucas's total ability to embody their characters. The whole work never, not even for a second, loses its focus. The duo's command performances combined with the interplay of Cobham's design and  McDonald's rustles, creaks and scuffles makes Disagreeable Object a picture-perfect treat. 

It's not a sugary sweet morsel, but it is surprisingly appetizing. Hilariously unusual, anachronistic and ever-so enticing, Disagreeable Object might come back for fourths if we ask with a pretty please. 
Disagreeable Object
16 - 19 March 2011
Meat Market, Arts House

Friday, March 18, 2011

In Glass

Melbourne has not had the opportunity to see much of Sydney-based Narelle Benjamin. She was a founding member of Chunky Move and performed in their early Melbourne seasons. Over the past decade, she has been steadily choreographing - often for dance film, collaborating extensively with film director Cordelia Beresford.  In Glass, which Malthouse Theatre is presenting as part of Dance Massive, is her first full length choreographic work. It premiered in Spring Dance 2010 in Sydney. Within it, Benjamin's interest in filmic possibilities is clear, as is her yoga practice that artfully weaves within the low-lying choreography.  
In Glass is a two-hander for Kristina Chan and Paul White.  Benjamin could not find more fitting dancers. On a pure brute-strength level, they are powerhouses in all directions - upright, upside down and on the side, but they are also both incredibly supple, sinuous and curvaceously expansive with a weightiness of presence. 
Kristina Chan and Paul White. Photo by Regis Lansic.
Darkly-lit, floor-bound, intertwined, solitary - the action of In Glass is a constant play between being absorbed as a couple and being a self-aware individual. 

Benjamin describes the work as being about states of unconsciousness, altered realities and mythical places.  Film is probably one of the best mediums for this exploration and the cinematic elements (visual design by Samuel James) that spread across and around movable, reflexive panels are well-realised. They dance within, behind and on top of the dancers and reflect, multiply and disembody them in the projections. The vast range of cinematic devices blend seamlessly with the physicality of Chan and White.  

Mirrored screens on three sides hem in the stage. White and Chan glide these around, trapping themselves into smaller spaces. They shine torches; they blend into and out of the often eerie video work; they linger in periods of self-absorbed reverie. White strangles himself with two mirror discs, hungrily licking his own reflection. Chan watches her video doppelganger run through a green field. Their two faces artfully melt into one on screen.  It’s always dark, (lighting design by Karen Norris) with accents punctuated by the flick of a torch or a reflection created off the silvery screens. The symbolism is everywhere - the encroaching mirrors, the constant looking at self, the bodies write large and small and melded with trees/forests in the video; the kaleidoscopic views of the curves on White’s chiseled torso or the way that White and Chan roll head to head, neck to neck, shoulder to shoulder in some sort of symbiotic relationship. 
Kristina Chan and Paul White. Photo by Regis Lansic. 
Bare flesh, rippling limbs - it's narcissism writ large, but continually undercut by the desire for another. The duets are often floor bound - they tie themselves into human knots, then break away and hit an inverted yoga posture. A sideways standing leg splay is just a split second until it morphs into a more organic sequence of movement. 

Spurned on by Huey Benjamin's sound score,  In Glass isn’t cool or detached -  it’s totally embodied and fleshy - in the choreography, the film, the set.  It’s an aesthetic that White and Chan seem comfortably at home in (more than once I thought of White in Meryl Tankard’s The Oracle in which he was a similarly imposing, ego-obsessed force.) 

The saturation of all the pulsing elements could easily push In Glass too far into heavy handed territory and while there are moments when the excess of it all overwhelms the honesty of the movement, overall, it's a powerful and bewitching experience.   
In Glass
Beckett Theatre at Malthouse Theatre
15 - 20 March 2011

Thursday, March 17, 2011


Since Chunky Move settled in Melbourne in 1998 they have premiered many different shows (mostly one a year, sometimes slightly more) and I can remember the theme and essence of every single one. Each season has been so distinctly different from the other. Choreographically they have similarities, but conceptually they are unique. There has been series of dances in night clubs, public surveys to inspire dances and most recently, engagement of high-end interactive software and lasers to create the very sophisticated Glow and Mortal Engine. There's always a bite or hook in a Chunky Move premiere. Some might call this good marketing (which it is), but it is more more than that. Chunky Move’s mission is to engage with contemporary culture - in whatever form that might be - and contemporary culture is always changing. 
Cast of Connected. Photo by Jeff Busby.
And it's not just techno and computers either - it's contemporary art of all kinds - even art that's made of mechanical materials like string, metal and plastic. 

For Connected artistic director/choreographer Gideon Obarzanek embraces a three-dimensional installation designed by American sculptor Reuben Margolin who makes large-scale undulating artworks that “attempt to combine the logic of mathematics with the sensuousness of nature.” (his words) Margolin's contribution to Connected is incredibly beautiful, with hundreds of thick white strings hanging from the ceiling. Dancers attach the ends of the strings together with oblong pieces that create a gridded canopy at the bottom of the strings. Through a pulley system and a metal, loom-like structure upstage the dancers are tied into the strings and make Margolin's artwork move back and forth, up and down by shifting their bodies forward and backward in space. 
The visuals are extremely effective - the vast whiteness of the sculpture against the earthbound bodies and the curvaceous moving of the sculpture against choreography that is often angular, rigid, and brittle. Benjamin Cisterne's lighting smartly accentuates the sculpture's geometric possibilities. The five dancers - Harriet Ritchie, Stephanie Lake, Marnie Palomares, Alisdair Macindoe and Joseph Simons - are at one with Margolin's sculpture and each other. There’s especially nice tension between Macindoe and Palomares when he is tied to the machine and she is (unattached) wilting and rising under the parachute-like base of the sculpture. (As in photo below.)
Alisdair Macindoe and Marnie Palomares in Connected.
Photo by Jeff Busby.

About half way through the work, Connected takes what feels like a totally different turn. Lake returns to stage dressed in a suit, tie and name tag and starts talking about her experiences as a gallery attendant in a museum. This leads to the others reappearing similarly dressed while recorded voices start offering more stories about being museum guards. All of a sudden we are not watching the merging of human with mechanical. We start intellectualizing the context of installation art from the perspective of involved but detached parties. 
The anecdotes are surprisingly compelling - one guard talks about keeping people 20 centimetres back from the works; a woman passes time finding typos in the titles of artworks; another man counts the floor board slats to keep his mind busy and a cleaner thinks a piece of stolen artwork is rubbish and disposes it in the dumpster.
This section of the work doesn’t physically engage with Margolin’s sculpture. In fact, the choreography shifts into simplistic walking patterns  - diagonals, straight arms moving in various angles, gesturing hands in and out of pockets. It’s rigid, it’s banal - perhaps reflecting the guards’ daily experiences. Compared to the sensuality and complexity of what has come before, it’s a visual let-down. But maybe that’s the point.
There are two very different dance works in Connected. Yet, Connected, as a theatre experience, is not disconnected. The juxtaposition is a jarring contrast, but it also makes sense. Margolin's sculpture seems to finds a way to humanize the art that the guards can only see as object. And if that's the case, it begs questions about the context for installation art. How is its relationship with the human body different than its presence in an empty room? Who is it for? What's its purpose? And where exactly does dance fit into the equation? I don't think Obarzanek or Margolin exactly know the answers themselves - and they don't need to. 

Over a decade on from their inaugural Melbourne season, Chunky Move isn't resting on tried and true material. Obarzanek and company continually inquire and explore, seeking out unique collaborations and opportunities. Excitingly, they aren't afraid to venture into new territory even though they don't know where it's going to take them. They keep their audiences (and themselves) guessing what's next. What better way to stay connected to the contemporary?

Click here to read my review of Connected in the Herald Sun, 18 March, 2011.

Malthouse Theatre
15 - 20 March 2011

Connected - Sydney Season

 Sydney Theatre Walsh Bay, 22 Hickson Rd, Walsh Bay
 10 – 14 May @ 8.00pm, and 14 May @ 2.00pm
Bookings: or +612 9250 1999

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Dance Massive kicks off with Sunstruck

Trevor Patrick. Sunstruck. 
After months of anticipation Dance Massive is finally here.With 20 dance shows/events as well as the weekend-long National Dance Forum and an industry day crammed into two weeks, I, unfortunately won't be making it to everything. I can't even if I want to - the National Dance Forum is already sold out! (There is a waiting list though - so get on it if you'd like a chance to still go.) I'll be seeing a lot though and will post prompt reviews of everything on this site.

Monday night is an unlikely night to start a festival, but the first show kicked off tonight. And you only have until Wednesday to check it out. It's Sunstruck by Helen Herbertson and Ben Cobham. It premiered in Melbourne in the Melbourne International Arts Festival in 2008 and was presented in a huge, freezing shed down at the Docklands. Now it is being transported to Arts House, North Melbourne Town Hall. I'd bet that the cavernous, cool nature of the work still remains, even in a smaller space. You will have to let me know, as I won't be able to catch this outing. Here is my review of Sunstruck from 2008.

Herbertson and Cobham have a long history of collaboration and their works are renowned for their depth, attention to theatrical detail and the overall environments that they design. Herbertson takes credit for devising and directing and the design and light are attributed to Cobham. There's no way that you could separate out their individual contributions through - the result is a united and deeply-considered vision.

Herbertson is deservedly regarded as one of the seminal figures in contemporary dance in Australia and I'd need much longer than a blog entry to do justice to her career. It's fitting that her work was also represented in the inaugural Dance Massive in 2009. (Morphia Series is another collaboration with  Cobham.)