Happy belated New Year!

Happy belated new year! It has definitely been a hot one so far at least.  I chose to make a short trek to Barangaroo, taking part in Wiradjuri artist Emily McDaniel’s ice fishing installation Four Thousand Fish to mark the close of yet another Sydney festival. This was an interactive, family friendly event whereby each participant was given a pail to fill from the jetty, fill fish molds with sea water swapping for frozen fish to place perched on a coolamun, within a weathered metal canoe or nawi, back where we began at the far end of the pontoon. The metal installation was a replica of the traditional vessels which would have been in use by the Gadigal fisherwomen over past millennia. I confess I made my friend come with me on a second round so I could feign ice cube ineptitude and linger in the portable freezers a little longer. My partner in crime and I then proceeded to release our second ‘catch’ directly into the sandstone bay. For a moment, I felt like I was summoning ancestral dissent and it felt good to break the rules. Satisfying.

My participation in Four Thousand Fish seemed like the perfect tail to choreographer Wayne McGregor’s Tree of Codes, which marked the top of my twenty eighteen Sydney Festival experience. Tree of Codes was held at the revamped Sydney International Convention Centre and we were greeted with airport style security measures whereby all bags exceeding the size of a thirty by thirty centimetre surface area had to be cloaked (this also included my plastic bicycle helmet). This was followed by a second bag screening whereby the remaining handheld accoutrements were individually inspected by in-house security personnel as we went through metal detectors. Only after our tickets were scanned were we treated to the complimentary water provided (yes, all water bottles had to be cloaked or dispensed of too) and permitted entry.

As we entered the auditorium I expected the temperature to drop – but no. Had the air conditioning malfunctioned? Was the electrical system maxed out with all the extra security measures? Again, no. I discovered the dancers had requested the air conditioning be turned off so their bodies could handle the ensuing choreographic onslaught. So, we bathed in a communal heat which was intensified by the addition of each new breathing body. Some of us disrobed superfluous layers, others fanned themselves with A4 photocopied tickets. Many stewed in their own juices.

We commiserated together. It seems this unfortunate turn of events provided an opportunity to break the metaphorical ice. I asked a young couple behind me when they purchased their tickets had they seen a lot of dance. They had come to hear the composer, renowned DJ and music producer, Jamie XX who has a big following.  I then scanned the crowd and wondered how many had come for similarly alternative reasons.

I love how nothing need be said for an audience to reach a unanimous conclusion that a show is about to begin and as if on cue, a hushed silence ensued, broken by a steadily augmented rhythmic clapping sound score. We sat in the dark in anticipation, listening to the intricate beating and then the dancers entered. They were individually rigged with LED lighting, producing unnamed amorphic forms, first as solo bodies then as duos and trios.

I had been prompted to do a little research beforehand as the Sydney Festival promotional material had alluded to a book similarly titled Tree of Codes by author Jonathan Safran Foer, which McGregor had used as impetus for the work, only to discover that the book was actually a miniature sculpture in hard cover. Jonathan Safran Foer had taken his favourite book, Bruno Schulz’s Street of Crocodiles  and literally cut out chunks of text, leaving remnants behind for subsequent readers to decipher. New configurations for individual interactive interpretation were made by reading into the negative space.

Armed with this information the roving lights made perfect sense, if not also seeming a little didactic.

Overall the show was a spectacular event. A spectacle of progressive light and sound as set designer Olafur Eliasson utilised light bouncing from multiple reflective surfaces to individualise the experience. This was dependant upon seating arrangement in relation to refracted mirrors and large tinted floor-to-ceiling perspex panes, which opened and titled to illuminate and present the dancing bodies from a variety of angles, in duplicate and triplicate.

McGregor’s choreography heightened the dancers’ physical brilliance, their bodies blinding us like the jewelled facets of (possibly paste) diamonds set in an oversized pendant. I remembered one other choreography I had seen of McGregor’s in Entity at Sydney Theatre Company in Walsh Bay in 2011. I remembered feeling disturbed by the hyper mobility of the dancers’ torsos which were held upright in an affectation of hyper lordotic or swayed back curvature. This time I knew to expect such manipulations of the classical ballet form, but found the physical distortions, while still very pronounced, more subtle in comparison to that earlier work.

I remembered that Entity* had opened with a short repetitive video phrase of a greyhound in full racing stride. Only this year working as a dancer for lighting designer and film/installation maker Margie Medlin (more about that in an upcoming blog) had I learned that image was one in an extensive series by early photographer Eadweard Muybridge. Muybridge had made some of the first extensive studies in motion capture, striving to unveil what the human eye alone couldn’t detect. McGregor is notoriously celebrated for his diverse inspiration and extensive curiosity when choosing subject matter.

As the visibly spent dancers took their curtain calls I stood and applauded. I was surprised to observe that my friend and I were virtually alone in this act. In subsequent Sydney Festival shows I would stand amongst a sea of standing bodies in solidarity of appreciation for a variety of reasons and contexts. I began to wonder about the motive behind the other bodies refusing to get up from their behinds. Was it because we had to ‘suffer’ the heat? Was it because the dance did little for them? When I mentioned McGregor’s choreographic onslaught, it turned out to be an accurate prophesy. There was so much physical virtuosity, occuring continuously and with such intensity that we had little time, if any, to digest and respond to it. In this respect McGregor’s choreography may have failed to capture the essence within Foer’s own artistic response.

I still remember choreographer Jonathan Burrows referencing local Sydney based choreographer Martin del Amo in a workshop years ago as he communicated the importance of peaks and troughs of excitement within any given work. He spoke of engineering ‘boring’ bits to heighten the ‘good’ bits. Maybe the audience as a whole couldn’t get past the plateau of physical virtuosity on offer.

The next day Sydney enjoyed temperatures soaring in the high thirties and forties. I can only imagine the discussions re air conditioning that ensued in subsequent evenings of the season. Ah, if only they had the forethought to bring Barangaroo’s frozen fish installation closer to the convention centre.

Revisit this page next week as I wrap up the Sydney Festival experience.


Vick Van Hout