Image: Pedro Greig, Sydney Dance Company New Breed
It is that time again…
It is that time again when, there’s a sea of bright red and garish green inundating the eyeballs from every angle, signalling crazy times with or without family, as another year draws to a close. While other people are shopping for the festive season I have managed to get in a few shows, to both see and be inside of. Yay.
Last Tuesday I rocked up to the Capitol with one of my besties to see the musical Come From Away. Everytime I enter that foyer I remember how much I love the moldings. It’s been a while. The Capitol’s finishing and furnishings prompt the feeling of entering a plush theatre of yesteryear.
The show’s set and costumes were ingenious as each performer portrayed multiple characters, quickly switching from one to the other by donning a cap, or a shirt, a shawl or a pair of dark sunnies. The set was equally malleable and transformed from a bar, to the inside of an airplane cabin, to a school gym with little more than the re-arrangement of chairs. Manufacturing the woodlands of Canada was achieved by placing the lighting cans on the top of thick poles, representing the trunks of trees, to become the branches.
Set in Newfoundland, Come From Away chronicles the history of 9/11 from a completely different perspective, as planes carrying over 7,000 passengers were diverted to the small town of Gander, when the entire airspace over the United States was grounded.
The choreography was predominantly pedestrian consisting of cleverly stylised gesture to indicate place including the in-flight procedures of buckling seat belts, lifting tray tables, turning on overhead lighting, shifting anxiously in the confines of the seating and peering out of the imaginary windows, all the while singing about remaining an additional twenty-eight hours on a landing strip, in what appeared to be, the middle of nowhere.
It was equally refreshing to see the performers appearing before us, looking like us. The cast consisted of real representations of community in their diversity, of all shapes, sizes and ethnicities. It would be in poor taste to portray such a story in any other way.
It was a true ensemble cast as each performer and the multiple characters they portrayed were equally compelling with intricate backstories that were seamlessly introduced, growing out of the overarching narrative, which chronicled the generosity of the local population, which more than doubled in size until air traffic resumed.
(Note I have not listed cast and crew credits as I am not sure whether this is a strict adaptation of the original production or if it has been restarted for Australian audiences. See link at bottom for list of Australian creatives.)
Sydney Dance Company’s New Breed program was the last show I think I’ll be able to catch before the new year but who’s complaining? SDC celebrates its ninth New Breed season with artists Jasmin Sheppard, Lilian Steiner, Jacopo Grabar and Rhiannon Newton.
Sheppard was first off the block with her work Given Unto Thee which examined the effect of the early missionaries on the Aboriginal population, beginning with the imperative to supplant their cultural beliefs with Christian dogma. In a video recorded introduction Sheppard quoted world renowned anti-apartheid and civil rights activist, South African Bishop Rev. Desmond Tutu who stated:
“When the missionaries came to Africa they had the Bible and we had the land. They said ‘Let us pray.’ We closed our eyes. When we opened them we had the Bible and they had the land.”
The piece opened with a slow roving religious tableau. It was Aleisa Jelbart’s costumes which heightened Sheppard’s piece as by folded manipulations they cleverly transformed into religious accoutrements- from a nun’s veil to a cleric’s robe, and a carpeted aisle for the ordained leader to promenade past a row of pews, made by a succession of kneeling supplicants, as he made his way to the altar. This image of the priest’s slow progression was one of the most memorable with the conveyor belt of kneeling bodies symbolic of the quantity of ‘successful’ conversions in the church’s singular mission.
Composer Naretha Williams’ musical accompaniment was appropriate in that the familiar sounds of a pipe organ added to the sense of scale, magnifying the feeling of devastation and chaos the missionaries left in their wake.
Sheppard’s choreographic strength lay in the manufacturing of the series of tableaux from which the work was composed. I can only assume the piece is but a taster of a much larger work which could convey so much more than the one dimensional portrayal of destruction won by the British colonists.
Lilian Steiner’s Springtime Again was prefaced by a video which began as an orthodox introduction, although as her image faded from the screen, finished as a piece of prose informing us how to view the world that was about to be set forth on stage.
It appears that the fading of her image from the screen was also a cue as to how to decipher her work. The lighting was very low, just bright enough to catch an aspect of the costuming. The dancers were dressed in the blacks of a puppeteer except for various amorphous white shapes that were attached to various body parts. The irregular shapes appeared as if suspended in space and as having their own autonomous agency, yet as our eyes became adjusted to the darkness we were able to catch the intricate choreography which propelled the shapes about the stage. As the dance progressed, I began to see narratives unfold, as Steiner had prophesied in her recorded opening gambit.
The large white irregular shapes, or blobs, were strongly reminiscent of the colour field aspects within Spanish abstract expressionist Joan Miró’s paintings. Steiner evoked an element of busy playfulness akin to Miró’s surrealist Harlequin’s Carnival circa 1924-25. Yet there were deliberate quiet moments reminiscent of Miró’s much more sombre work Dog Barking at the Moon painted in 1926.
This might not have been the favourite of the audience, as it represented quite a departure from what we have come to associate with Sydney Dance Company, although it was definitely one of mine. I couldn’t help but think it would’ve been a perfect entrant for the annual Keir Choreographic Awards, also held at the Carriageworks venue, so consummate was the melding of performative and visual media.
Next up was Jacopo Grabar’s Stereotipo the title of which he explained in his vox pop represented the impetus for his piece, a literal exploration into the myriad of personas we (over) associate with being Italian. Just before the lights came up I immediately thought of two other theatrical pieces that mine this theme: the novel They’re a Weird Mob written by John O’Grady in 1957 and Wogs Out of Work conceived twenty years later. I remember watching a film adaptation of the novel and loving the hapless escapades of the titular character Nino Culotta, an Italian journalist who comes to Australia to write pieces giving insight into the peccadilloes of the Aussie lifestyle for prospective migrants. Although in this day and age I don’t know if the book would be received so well or if it would be written at all considering it’s not a piece of self-determined expression in terms of ethnicity. Despite this They’re a Weird Mob serves as an informative commentary on mid-twentieth century social and historical attitudes. For this reason I hope it is not dismissed by the ever vigilant reps of cancel culture.
The second theatrical forerunner featuring European stereotypes that comes to mind is Wogs Out of Work written by Nick Giannopoulos, Simon Palomares, and Maria Portesi debuting in 1987 at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival. Although this piece is written about Greek culture by the Greek cast of comedians Wogs Out of Work it was of equal importance, if not more so for the transformation of the term wog, which was originally a racial slur, into a positive moniker which people of Mediterranean descent now claim as a kind of badge of honour. (See journalist Paul Clarke’s article in the Guardian re the re-appropriation of the term wog below)
Grabar’s work serves as a useful addition to the Mediterranean/ Anglo cross-cultural canon in his embodiment of our national collective assumptions of the ‘Wog’. He began with the Italian God who casually saunters from stage left to right, followed by the hot blooded lothario who shadows an unwitting female as she crosses the stage. Stereotipo also features the sexy femme fatale who is lured by her (baser?) senses, the mamma in the kitchen, the lovers connected by a single long string of spaghetti and an over the top trio who portray various facets of passion in parody, all cleverly linked by a tomato.
Grabar’s work was clearly the audience favourite if applause was the instrument of measurement. Jacopo played to the dancers strengths, his partner work in particular was exquisite in both virtuosity and execution. Grabar managed to fill an emotive void that Bonachela often leaves in his works by allowing the dancers to express themselves in both face and body extremities. Perhaps in future works we will see more opportunity for the face to be utilised, if not quite in caricature.
Last on SDC’s New Breed program was Sydney independent Rhiannon Newton whose work The Gift of a Warning was a reflective study on the danger of embodied transmission.
While I couldn’t necessarily see the specificity of her intent I did witness both a growth and exchange of power. The Gift of a Warning began slow and deliberate as she did with her piece Explicit Contents for Sydney Festival earlier this year, although as we entered the theatrical space for Explicit Contents dancers Ivey Wawn and David Huggins were engaged in a stylised pedestrian exploration or excavation of the performative area before being reset upstage under the proscenium space, in what felt like the dance proper.
As with her production earlier this year, the stage was augmented with an elemental component. In Explicit Contents it was water which fell from the rafters in almost imperceptible droplets onto the dancers’ bodies and held downstage within two large goldfish bowl like containers for the dancers to resume their interactive engagement. This year geological specimens in the form of large(ish) pieces of what appeared to be sandstone peppered the stage space. Instead of overtly interacting with the rocks it was as if the dancing bodies were also rocks within a static environment. Subsequently when the dancers did eventually move it was as if all of the rocks, human and geological, were endowed with the same potential agency.
There was a strong choreographic link between Explicit Contents and The Gift of a Warning as Newtown employed the same movement vocabulary which involved a hypermobility in the spine. The resulting enchainments were mesmeric in their execution as their backs made large sequential shapes that were akin to the movement of vipers both traversing ground cover and also coiling in readiness.
Ahhh, so there’s the danger. Hindsight is a wonderful thing.
So good to see Newton and in fact Sheppard, who also presented her work The Complication of Lyrebirds at Campbelltown Arts Centre this year as part of the Sydney Festival bill, expand upon themes previously researched instead of beginning a new work entirely from scratch (Refer to previous blogs for Sydney Festival performance reviews). This continuity gives the audience a basis for contextualising their works therefore creating a literacy. Too often an artist feels pressured to move on rather than delve deeper and for this I applaud both Newton and Sheppard.
Just before I go I want to give a special shout out to Ella Havelka, the first Aboriginal performer to join the Australian Ballet, who sat near me in the audience of New Breed. During intermission I asked her what she was doing and she said she was working on her foundation (see link below) which set up scholarships to give financial assistance to young Indigenous dancers who could not otherwise afford the classes. Havelka proudly informed me her foundation is now a national initiative. I am dumbstruck that a young performer in the midst of a fantastic career herself has initiated such a worthy cause. I can’t help but compare her experience with mine and I have to say I am feeling more than a little inept. Ho hum. So if you want to give a gift that isn’t about trinkets which may or may not end up in the back of a cupboard somewhere, maybe throw a little cash toward the Ella Foundation and who knows you may be supporting the next Ella Havelka, Frances Rings or Stephen Page. Way to pay it forward Ella!
For everyone else- see you in the New Year where I will be performing as part of Sydney Festival from twenty metres above the harbour, in a harness, on a two point four tonne block of ice in a durational piece titled Thaw with Victoria Hunt and Isabel Estrella, directed by Joshua Thompson with Legs On The Wall. Epic.
“Cast – Come From Away” https://comefromaway.com.au/cast/
“A bad word made good | Australia news | The Guardian” https://www.theguardian.com/world/2005/oct/13/australia.andrewclark
“The ELLA Foundation” https://ellafoundation.com.au
Vicki Van Hout
FORM Blogger in Residence
Image: Pedro Greig, Sydney Dance Company New Breed