Sydney Festival 2020 and Hofesh Shechter’s Grand Finale

After this year’s Sydney Festival I was feeling the usual carnivalesque hangover but was given an extended reprieve in the form of Hofesh Shechter’s epic Grand Finale. So many shows and so little room on the blog in which to address each in adequate detail – but here goes.

First up was Betty Blokk-Buster Reimagined. Not really a dance production per se, but a show that had me dancing in my seat from go to whoa. Betty Blokk-Buster Reimagined was presented in the Spiegeltent in Hyde Park.

Things didn’t start off so well for me as there was no dedicated parking for bicycles. Small detail I realise, but considering I had to ride through a throng of climate change activists marching on Elizabeth Street en route, the bicycle’s temporary homelessness hit me hard. Then I got over it.

Josh Quong Tart is no Reg Livermore, who first breathed life into the canny maid with the quick wit and bawdy predilections, along with a slew of other equally quirky characters, but he was definitely the perfect casting choice to breathe new life into Livermore’s 1970s Follies for the 21st century. Quong Tart’s voice possessed a captivating dynamic range, which made up for the fact that it didn’t look as if dance was quite Quong Tart’s forte. Some of the favourites from the original made a reappearance, like Beryl, the suffering housewife who was literally chained to the sink. Other characters, like the prancing over-zealous community-watch advocate, made their debut on the simple Spiegeltent stage. This reimagined Blokk-Buster (which, incidentally, was originally choreographed by Keith Bain) was written by Louis Nowra, Mary Rachel Brown and Livermore himself, with additional material by Quong Tart. My friend and colleague Karen Kerkhoven was on thelookout for Reg to congratulate him as she had seen the original production and assured me this one was every bit as good.

Next up, and straight off the back of the very successful Between Tiny Cities, came Nick Power’s Two Crews. This was a larger-scale ensemble, with a cast of eight, four from Paris in the Lady Rocks crew and four from Sydney as part of Riddim Nation. The production was viewed from two sides of the stage, in bay twenty of Carriageworks. This work was more celebratory and subsequently had more audience interaction in the form of well-timed whoops, hollers and calls in appreciation for the physical feats delivered before them. I won’t tell you how, but I was made aware that Power was very careful not to mindlessly adopt the tropes of contemporary dance. Given that Power had already eschewed the immediacy of the cipher in exchange for the proximal distance of the main stage, I think that it was almost inevitable to acquiesce just a little. I applaud his ongoing conscious effort to expand the parameters of his chosen hip hop street form within the black box setting, despite a few elements of contemporary dance which may even find their way in.

I was particularly interested in two extended solos, the first coming from Gabriela Quinsacara from the Sydney crew. Quinsacara’s solo was paradoxically both fierce and gentle and acted as a bridge or metaphor for the real union of the ‘two crews’. She traversed the stage on a diagonal, utilising micro-stillnesses in silence, to punctuate a smooth yet weighted locomotion, facilitated by a soft undulation of the torso. The gestural language utilised in her arms and hands were of an unmistakably Polynesian influence. A short while later dance Azzam Mohamed, also from Sydney’s Riddim Nation, performed a solo which grew in intensity in the amount of space his body covered as his long limbs carved large circular arcs in space. Like a vertical swathe, Mohamed’s body seemed to cut the action in preparation for something new to develop. Again, it was through the introduction and subsequent amalgamation of an (African) style other than hip hop that the work was propelled forward. In the contemporary form it is often very difficult to introduce other dance genres without fear of appropriation. Yet, because hip hop is renowned as a street style, it seems logical that other community or cultural aspects of the actual performers were allowed to come to the fore. In Two Crews those solos provided an opportune change in dynamics and overall dramaturgy.

In Colossus choreographer Stephanie Lake expressed a simple desire, to put fifty people on stage. This is no mean feat and the opening scene was promising. As we entered, the dancers were already assembled on stage, lying flat in a tight formation, bodies touching in a circle, feet pointing inward. The pared-back colour choice of bodies adorned in textured black on textured black, with shadowplay haunting the white cyclorama in long shadows behind, was strangely reminiscent of the old black and white movie musicals, featuring dancers performing en masse on rotating tiered pedestals.

The dancers proceeded to unfurl and unfold across the stage like the rolling scroll of a pianola script and the overall effect was kaleidoscopic. The choreographic crafting allowed each body to shine, allowed the dancers to express themselves as individual jewels sliding across that popular toy’s reflective surface, all working toward one goal, while simultaneously given just enough artistic leverage to stand apart from one another. Just. In future, it might be interesting to see this work shift its focus to include the underscored narrative of working with each new group of dancers. This is an opportunity to explore the sociological similarities and differences which may affect the overall artistic rehearsal process and which may also add depth to the program.

Production Romances inciertos: un autre Orlando was an acquired taste. Now that I’ve written it I realise how redundant this statement is. Dancer and singer, François Chaignaud, was virtuosic from beginning to end in this epic work. Featuring musical accompaniment played on antique musical instruments, comprised of two stringed instrumentalists, a percussionist and an accordionist, the production was inspired by Virginia Woolf’s Orlando (1928). The novel’s premise charts the life of a young male poet and nobleman who catches the eye of the aged Queen Elizabeth, promising on her deathbed never to grow old. The intriguing aspect to Woolf’s novel is that in the course of Orlando’s three-hundred-year existence he metamorphoses into a woman and henceforth Orlando’s gender becomes fluid, abstract, interpretive. When I first saw a movie version of Orlando (1992), directed by choreographer and cinematographer Sally Potter (who would go on to direct The Tango Lesson in 1997) and starring Tilda Swinton, I wasn’t aware of the original author and the period in which it was written, and even then, I remember feeling that the work was almost beyond my reach conceptually. I wonder what it must be like for artists like Woolf who could conceive of such a space that would one day inevitably become an accepted reality.

This work pushed my limits as a regular theatre-goer with its particular blend of performative genres. I appreciated the chance to witness another side of the classical ballet genre from the light aerial jumps and ornate patterning of the Baroque footwork to the unmistakeable influence of Spanish folk, flamenco and contemporary dance. A highlight would have to be a section Orlando performed in stilts, which developed into a dramatic partnering section, utilising three of the four live musicians as extensions of herself. Like puppeteers, the musicians allowed Chaignaud to create magnificent elongated lines, her torso laying back over the shoulders of her supporting cortège. Or the re-entrance from the top of the seating bank as an Andalusian gypsy or Tarara character, flirting with the audience as she descended in death-defying stilettos, embedded with led lighting in the heels to magnify the precariousness of her dangerously augmented gait.

I would be terribly remiss if I didn’t mention how in awe I was of Chaignaud’s ability to sing such intricate operatic scores, whilst pushing his body in equal measures. That the music was given its own time to shine was a wise choice, affording us both a reprieve from, and a chance to meditate upon Chaignaud’s various characters and the obvious relevance to the discourse relating to current gender politics.

The last Sydney Festival event I experienced was Dance Makers Collective’s The Rivoli, which was directed by Miranda Wheen and presented at the Granville Town Hall. The work paid homage to The Rivoli, an erstwhile open air market, cinema, wrestling ring, roller skating rink and dance hall located in Parramatta, enjoying its heyday from the turn of the twentieth century until its closure in 1969.

The work at first reminded me of another previous Sydney Festival work, Puncture, directed by Patrick Nolan, choreographed by Kathryn Puie, and commissioned by FORM Dance Projects. Puncture, like The Rivoli, celebrated the often unheralded role of dance in bringing people together.

From the moment I stepped into the Town Hall I was propelled back in time. It’s not that Anya McKee’s design was overly didactic, even though it was suggestive, in dancer Katina Olsen’s dress with its full skirt, or Luke Currie Richardson, whose pants were held up by suspenders (and if they weren’t, my mind supplied them), the slick back hair styling of Matt Cornell or Rosslyn Wythes’ hair, which always appears to me as if it could have been set with pin curls. Although the three-piece band definitely prompted a time warp. Normally I baulk from audience participation but the pre-performance vibe really did make us feel like we were at a social. The segue into the show proper made us feel as if we were merely taking a break to sit and people watch. I mean that’s just what you do isn’t it? Another pleasant surprise was the fact that the dance didn’t literally reflect, or wasn’t confined to the short non-linear narratives, delivered as recorded voiceovers, which generally preceded them. For instance, one story, told as a distant memory by a woman of meeting up with a boy at the dance, was followed by a beautiful male partnering trio. This reminded me of Sally Potter’s The Tango Lesson, where two men dance the Argentinian tango with a similar compelling mixture of fraternity and bravura. This particular male trio in Rivoli was superbly crafted opening out to include all of the cast members making individual cameos as successive duets. There was something about both Matt Cornell and Rosslyn Wythes’ dancing which sparked a momentary nostalgia for something I will never get the chance to experience. Katina Olsen cut an endearing presence in a brief humorous vignette as she waited on the edge of her seat in anticipation of the invitation to dance. Lastly, a transcendence of time was achieved in what was to be the culminating sequence of the show. I recognised this last pulsating en masse dance formation as part of countless anonymous mergings I have experienced. Such mergings include furiously pogoing as a teen in my punk days whilst trying to get closer to ‘singer’ and frontman John Lydon (formerly Johnny Rotten of Sex Pistols fame) at the Hordern Pavilion, also whilst accidently rubbing up to too many strangers in ARQ nightclub with my tidda-girls in Darlinghurst too many moons ago, and finally at those Big Day Out events (as an oldie doing ‘research’ for various shows). Alas, The Rivoli was over all too soon. As the Greg Poppleton Band struck up its final numbers, we all took our last waltz before leaving.

And now for the grand finale in Hofesh Shechter’s Grand Finale. It is all of the elements of this production that made it what it was. From the eclectic virtuosity of Shechter’s choreography, which was endowed with a pedestrian aesthetic, but demanded an obsessive athlete’s attention, to Tom Scutt’s spare set which involved the moving and manoeuvring of large blocks resembling metropolis monolithic constructs, to the sound, a combination which filled the ears, mind and body to the brim, in assault. This work was both relentless and epic. The title demanded nothing less. Throughout the evening Grand Finale alluded in turn to a crescendo of exhilaration and dread in equal measures. It was a show that demanded a certain stamina from the audience to be able to deal with the onslaught of the senses.

Like Nick Power, Shechter eschews the overarching dominance of traditional western dance forms in favour of the derivatives of the people in folk and hip hop. Like the Dance Makers Collective’s Rivoli, Shechter’s Grand Finale is very much concerned with community and the human condition, albeit on a slightly grander scale, a scale that Stephanie Lake has her sights on, no doubt. All I can say is thank god for shows like Betty Blokk-Buster Reimagined because amidst all the horror, angst and earnestness we are still very much in need of hilarity inspired by sharp wit, coupled with a keen sense of the ridiculous.

Let’s hope March Dance brings it all again, in spades.

Vicki Van Hout