Sunday, March 18, 2012

Green Room Awards Winners

The Green Room Awards were announced today in a ceremony at the Playhouse. The dance category's winners are posted below. (Excuse the font - I pasted from the Green Room Awards website.)

It's nice to see Gideon Obarzanek's Assembly pick up accolades, as it was the last piece Obarzanek made for Chunky Move before finishing up his post as artistic director (and founder) of the company. With a cast of over 50 performers, including singers from the Victorian Opera choir, it's one of those pieces that transforms pedestrian movements into an extraordinary whole. The power of numbers - so many bodies organised together and working as a large group - has a mesmerising pull and this was well-exploited in the work.

I was really happy to see that Becky, Jodi, John won the Concept and Realisation award. This little gem made by John Jasperse (American), Melbourne girl Rebecca Hilton and Jodi Melnik (American) was my absolute highlight of the Dance Massive season (and probably the whole year.) A post-modern take on how post-modern dancers think about getting older, it's full of humour and wit and brings relevance to dance vocabulary that has the potential to be alienating and academic. Totally fantastic!

Congratulations to all the well-deserving nominees and winners. Keep up the great work!

Betty Pounder Award for Choreography: Gideon Obarzanek, Assembly (Chunky Move / Victorian Opera, presented by Melbourne Festival in association with Sydney Festival & Brisbane Festival)
Design: Toni Maticevski (Costumes), Richard Nylon (Millinery), Matthew Bird (Nest Design & Backdrop), Gavin Brown (Curtain Design) & Benjamin Cisterne (Lighting), Aviary (Phillip Adams BalletLab in association with Melbourne Festival)
Sound and Music Composition and/or Performance: TIE BETWEEN:
Cast of Assembly (Live Performance), Assembly (Chunky Move / Victorian Opera presented by Melbourne Festival in association with Sydney Festival & Brisbane Festival)
Soloists and Victorian Opera Chorus & Orchestra Victoria (Live Performance), Requiem (The Australian Ballet)
Male Dancer: Luke George, Body of Work (Luke George / Jo Lloyd / Phillip Adams BalletLab in association with Melbourne Festival)
Female Dancer: Kirsty Martin, The Merry Widow (The Australian Ballet)
Ensemble: Concerto (The Australian Ballet)
Concept & Realisation: Becky, Jodi & John (Becky Hilton, Jodi Melnick & John Jesperse / John Jesperse Company and Dancehouse)

Saturday, March 17, 2012

The Peony Pavilion

Ensemble scene from The Peony Pavilion. 

The National Ballet of China last visited Melbourne in 2006 with the epic narrative ballet Raise the Red Lantern. (Click here for a review from Jill Sykes in SMH.) The company is over 50 years old and is China's only national ballet company. Under the artistic directorship of Feng Ying, it's a company exploring contemporary means of expression while also making works directly influenced by traditional arts and stories.

The Peony Pavilion juggles that balance. Its story derives from a 16th century Kun opera, but its choreographer, the thirty-something (I'm guessing) Fei Bo, comes from a modern dance background. The music (played live by the National Ballet of China Symphony Orchestra) composed by Guo Wenjing draws liberally from Western canon (Debussy, Ravel, Prokofiev.) An opera singer plays a character role and frequently bursts into traditional singing. A German designer named Michael Simon has designed a geometric, minimal set.

There's a lot going on here and it's unlikely that foreign audiences (and probably a lot of Chinese audiences too) can understand or appreciate the subtleties and influences at play in the production. (Grace Edwards' review below does a good job in explaining the different elements.)

Act One of The Peony Pavilion. The white platform raises
and tilts off the ground. Set by Michael Simon. 

Not versed in Chinese opera, I can really only look at the work as a dance piece - a modern ballet. As such, it works in parts and gains strength as it progresses. The central character, Du Liniang, is played by three woman. There's the actual Du Linaing, in the flesh, plus two sides of her conscious. This is difficult to express in dance, but once that is established, The Peony Pavilion is a lot easier to take on board.

Narratively, it's uneven. It's hard to distinguish the three different scenes of the first Act and there is little sense of progression or theatrical pacing. A trained singer (Zhang Yuanyuan) plays the "moral restraint" of Du Liniang and sings traditional opera in several scenes. This breaks the flow of physical movement and doesn't build the work dramatically.

The second act is much more cohesive. For a start, there's less singing and more sense of story telling as each scene has both a distinct setting and choreographic style. There's a hell scene with all the sinners wearing black (of course) and the Infernal judge in a long red beard and eye patch. The choreography, although not particularly unique, has a sense of urgency and swell in its floor bound ensemble sections.

Like most ballets in the Western canon, there's a wedding in The Peony Pavilion. It's a union of mortal and ghost. With the whole company of dancers on deck and clad in red, running in thick circles, crotching low and then extending up in climactic waves, it's the strongest physicality of the evening. The program describes it as an "unconventional" wedding ceremony (which made me feel better since I didn't even recognise a wedding scenario while I was watching it.)

Unconventional is a good description of The Peony Pavilion as a whole. While Fei Bo does rely on extremely familiar choreographic conventions to articulate narrative points (even dropping into downright cliche frequently), so many other elements (set, music, opera) unite in unexpected ways as to fashion a rather unconventional work. Somehow, by the end, it all comes together, albeit oddly, and I found an appreciation for the ballet that I did not have at interval.

Throughout it all, the dancers, from corps de ballet through to principals,  shift seamlessly between restrain and melodrama and are equally adroit with contemporary dance vocabulary and technical pointe work.

 Click here to read my review of The Peony Pavilion in the Herald Sun, 17 March, 2012.

Here are some links to other reviews of The Peony Pavilion from the Melbourne Season.

Grace Edwards in Dance Informa  

Chloe Smethurst in The Age

Jordan Beth Vincent in Talking Pointes

The Peony Pavilion
State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne
15 - 18 March 2012

Friday, March 9, 2012

Clouds Above Berlin

Melanie Lane and Antony Hamilton in Black Project 1.
Photo by Ponch Hawkes.
The local arts community talks a lot about  Melbourne contemporary dance being highly "conceptual." A trite description, perhaps, and hard to actually define, but one that we tend to slap onto any complex or highly intellectualized dance piece. Conceptual in the sense that its motivation or inspiration comes from questions or concepts beyond dance and the piece, as a whole, may have little to do with the physical language of dance. Conceptual in the way that most contemporary arts are conceptual - hybrids of ideas, sources, media aiming to create a synthesized whole.

Local audiences watch a lot of dance works with little actual dancing in them and many works feel more academic and formal than visceral. Recently two different factions of the Green Room Awards - the dance panel (of which I am a member) and the "hybrid" panel - passionately debated which panel should give excellence awards to a substantial number of "dance" works presented in Melbourne in the past year  (BalletLab's Aviary and Chunky Move's Connected - to name a few), highlighting the difficulty in defining where a dance work stops and a "hybrid," (whatever that is) takes over.

I'm glad we have smart, thinking dance makers - dance makers that are excited about exploring ideas and detailed interplays of art forms and willing to take risks with challenging and abstract subjects. (These dance makers, are, of course, not limited to Melbourne nor is the broad "conceptual" label.)

When I have the rare pleasure of experiencing a work where concept and kinaesthesia unite in rare and meaningful harmony, I am ecstatic. It lingers in my mind's eye for days. That experience doesn't happen that frequently - often I see a lot of interesting ideas that don't make for engaging performance, dance or otherwise. Many would say that is the way with all contemporary art and we persevere anyway for that amazing 10% that hits all the right buttons.

These thoughts were in my mind after CloudsAbove Berlin, a double bill of  Antony Hamilton's Black Project 1 and Melanie Lane's Tilted Fawn. They are both works slavishly devoted to abstract concepts that involve carving space. Neither one has all that much "dancing" to speak of and they both are relentless in their slowly unfolding methods. This is not to say that they are unappealing works, on the contrary, Black Project 1 is quite brilliant.

 Hamilton's interest and talent with graffiti and visual design is an ongoing inspiration. We saw it in Blazeblue Oneline (also at Arts House) and he's been building on it throughout subsequent works.
With Black Project 1, Hamiliton sucessfully creates a kinetic performance of the creation of an abstract artwork - and that's as hard to do as it sounds! With its intense blackness and slow build, I can't say that I could sit through it a second time, as it might blow my concentration-meter, but I appreciate its conceptual intent AND follow-thru. Starting from complete stillness and blackness everywhere (and I DO mean blackness - see photo above,) it builds, 45 minutes later, to an environment littered with two and three-dimensional geometric designs.

There's a black floor and big black wall and two dancers (Hamilton and Lane) painted in head to toe black and very dark lighting. It opens (not surprisingly in blackness) with the duo laying together in an off-kilter heap like two fallen soldiers. But by work's end, the space is filled with white circles inside circles on the ground, puffs of aerosal paint cascading along the wall, a mess of white, various-sized balls spilling on the floor and zig-zags of tape strips of intricate patterns. Hamilton and Lane, in some sort of gradually intensifying trance, create the geometries.  They start with micro fits and jerks and miniscule surges of energy through limbs - little electric shocks -  and build momentum through straight, circling propeller arms and bent-knee shunts that travel infintesimally through space. There are extended periods of stillness and bursts of hip-hop-inspired, slow-motion riffs.

Antony Hamilton and Melanie Lane in Black Project 1.
Photo by Ponch Hawkes. 

 Other than blasts of strobe light and the strips of slowly-revealing white tape, Black Project 1  is a visually dark piece with a droning, industrial soundtrack (by Robert Henke, Vainio and Fennesz.) It's definitely not a walk in the park for viewers, but there is reward at the end in the sense of journey, albeit (intentionally) slowly, somewhere. The end is different to the beginning (the dancers have travelled from stage left to right by the finish) and the links from A to B are clear.

 Tilted Fawn doesn't have a similar trajectory. Lane's solo (which opens the program) is also relentless. It's also dark (although not quite so literally black) in colour and tone, but it's missing that satisfaction of trajectory and journey. It so soloptic and dry in its 40 minute long exploration of sounds and spatial architecture that it loses connection to audience.

Lane collaborates with a sound artist named Chris Clark who has assembled different compositions inside cardboard bricks. As Lane arranges the rectangles around the minimalist space into shapes and sculptures (at one time a boat, another a neatly staked rectangle), various sound collages are created. The activity is mono-dynamic and doesn't sustain interest for its lengthy duration. Lane walks around stage, moves boxes, thoughtfully stares at said boxes and occassionally breaks into pedestrian stride to strike a dancerly poses. On a pure "conceptual" level, it's well-trodden territory and the physical activity is too subdued to make an impact.
Melanie Lane stacking bricks in Tilted Fawn.
Photo by Ponch Hawkes.

 I have to admit, by 15 minutes in, I was struggling to connect to the activity in front of me. But then... I returned from a heavy blink and Lane was in the centre of the space in only a nude bodystocking and some rickety platform shoes (covered by the body stocking) contorting into the most amazingly awkward curves, throwing her weight onto the sides of her feet, whacking her ankles and wrists in uncomfortable flexions and supinations. It was awesome - amazing. I was gobsmacked. Where did this grotesque and intriguing body come from? Was this the same women who was building bricks?

After this breakout (maybe 5 minutes or so), Lane went back to brick-stacking with the same pedestrian intention and low-energy dynamic as before. And she kept doing this for what seemed like a very long time. Then there was a black out and it ended.

In theory, "concepts" are cool- but watching amazingly articulate bodies do things beyond ordinary is, for me, anyway, so much cooler. When concepts and bodies converge - well, that's rare and total coolness.

Clouds Above Berlin
Arts House, North Melbourne Town Hall
7 - 11 March, 2012