Triple Bills – Dance Sites and Interplay

Image: Interplay, Wendell Teodoro

These past weeks I have seen/experienced a lot of dance, six pieces in two venues.  Two were dancer/choreographer solos and a duet (missing a partner) at Critical Path, as part of the Dance Sites initiative to promote the visibility of independent dance practitioners.  Three works, titled Interplay, centred around the theme of human relationships, by two commissioned choreographers and resident Artistic Director of Sydney Dance Company, at Sydney Theatre.

I joke to others about my preference for seeing ‘the underpants’ of a piece aka works in progress. There is the opportunity for close proximity to the raw creative process, the access to fresh ideas that haven’t been neatly finished or polished but rather invite the audience’s imagination to meet the creator half way, in a time loaded with possibility.

Dance Sites did not disappoint. The three artists sharing hailed from across the country.  Rhiannon Newton from WA, Fiona Bryant from Victoria and local Kay Armstrong from Sydney NSW.

Fiona Bryant performed first with And Now I Know, within a square perimeter of chairs in a theatre-of-the-round setting. The stage area was set up with objects at different posts as Fiona engaged in a performative obstacle course. She began by slowly shifting flat cushions from a casual seated position, methodically rotating and aligning them like a stack of pancakes, before walking to another station to deposit and sit on them, her  bodyweight negotiating and renegotiating to stay upright, highlighting the precarious surface they provided. Fiona moved with a curious purpose, she possessed comedic timing time and again, interacting with tissues, pulled individually at first and tossed at regular intervals whilst turning like a 1970s sprinkler on overdrive. She hugged, threw and placed a basketball between her legs before jumping in a softly-billowing frock that emphasised her ballon.

What I imagined I saw was a critique of dance, each station presenting a new opportunity to illustrate best classic practise, the cushions; a mastery of balance, the donning of the dress; the floating body of the romantic era, the ball; a perfect demonstration of epaullement.

It was revealed that the purpose of engagement with the objects was the exact opposite of my imaginary visions. Both Fiona’s and Natalie Cursio’s (the other half and absent member of this original duo) goal was to utilise each object without any pretence. In fact they had been trialling this process of engagement for the past four years, changing order and objects when the interactions became too representational. This is a valiant if not almost-impossible task, which might have been achieved if I was somehow instructed not to seek meaning first. But would that defeat the purpose?

Next up was Rhiannon Newton’s Assembly for One. The stage area was split into two halves by a double row of undressed speakers amid a jumble of wires, connected to a laptop, concealed by audience seating. Rhiannon Newton is a beautiful mover, improvising large scores on one side, to be dissected, reassembled and repeated on another and erased in a third area, which ran across both halves upstage. This process was punctuated by a pre-recorded sound score, consisting of static loops and jolts, used to instigate change with a compelling aural soundscape from the hum and vibration of subwoofers on overdrive.

I happened to be lying on my stomach, on the floor, which afforded me an exaggerated visceral massage. It also meant that the speakers looked large and close, with a foreshortened effect, in relationship to the moving body. My eye was able to fit both speakers and body in the frame simultaneously, and I could focus on one, leaving the other as a supporting character in an out-of-focus blur. As the sound of the speakers rumbled I could see them shake. The most satisfying aspects, the duet created by the moving speakers and the feeling of sound; the duality of the senses.

Kay Armstrong is an overt performer. She has an ability to rally an audience, to make us/them a community in active engagement. As a manipulator of concept and metaphor she is definitely a master, in fact it is Kay who is one of the artists formerly showcased by Performance Space, who has influenced my practice, with her uncanny ability to seek the adverse human condition in often tragic circumstance to create poignantly humorous vignettes in absurdist situations in extremis.

This performance 100th Monkey was no exception. Getting off to a shaky start due to schedules running overtime, I felt the initial pangs of anxiety to get the ball rolling and keep a captive audience captive. With so many items on offer, this work gained definite momentum, and soon we were immersed in the surrealist microcosm that is Kay Armstrong’s inner sanctum. From fancy foot-shuffling to the mournful sound of a harmonica, to the mouth wedged open in an unnatural prolonged enforced “Oh”, in an exercise of endurance, pitting woman against the banal overtures within a seemingly terminal durational ditty, the scarecrow losing its innards, whilst donning a dinner suit, thrashing to the song ‘maniac‘, to the audience-participatory report, crafted by Kay and read aloud (by myself as unwitting volunteer) in accompaniment to the frolicking angel floating on clouds consisting of pillow stuffing, this was an offering in overload. A real work-in-progress. Perhaps the most arresting image was of Kay moving behind a piece of plastic sheeting, her form fuzzy, distorted like a baby in a womb and clearly trapped, clearly defined when pressed close. This too was accompanied by written text, gently prompting us to see/read loss, pain, absence and beauty that served to fulfil the work’s original purpose.

I was one of a privileged few to see the last dress rehearsal of Sydney Dance Company’s triple bill Interplay featuring choreographies by Gideon Obarzanek, Jacopo Godani and current Artistic Director Rafael Bonachela.

Bonachela’s work was set to Bach’s Partitas for Solo Violin, with intervals composed and mixed by Nick Wales. The set consisted of a clinical square lighting frame tilted at a lower angle upstage and suspended overhead with matching frames within frames of lighting, with a down-projection resembling a luminescent bar code which appeared periodically as centrepiece on the floor and a horizontal strip of lighting on the back wall representing the horizon.

The dancers were predominately arranged in trios, duos, and solos, entering the space before they began the dance. There was a constant turnover and strict adherence to confinement, with the solos inhabiting the bar-coded floor projection making the body seem an ephemeral mass of moving energy.

Rafael is a master of composition and small body manipulation, particularly in his intricate partner work. His movement language was full of small body isolation; rolling wrists and rippling torsos. Curiously this work reminded me of our ability to disconnect as humans, to compartmentalize, to be alone within a sea of action, only reinforced by the Mondrian-like set which the dancers inhabit.

Jacopo Godani’s Raw Models was arresting. The dancers moved within a black cubic set, with no beginning or end, no visibly discernible wings, appearing and disappearing in blackout. The lighting was dramatic, on… off, strobed and an eerily blue whitewash that gave the dancers an appearance of patchy white-painted limbs. This piece, like the one preceding it, pushed the dancers’ abilities to their limits.

Unlike the preceding work, Jacopo’s Raw Models saw the dancers’ sinewy movements cover the floor like a virus or one of HR Giger’s renderings of half-machine, half-human organisms sinister in intent/portent (think Alien). A standout moment the duet between Andrew Crawford and Charmaine Yap. Their bodies achieved what no mere mortals should.

Lastly Gideon Obarzanek’s L’Chaim,  meaning ‘to life‘,  was definitely the unique voice on this bill. As former Director and Founder of Chunky Move, Gideon used this work as a platform to interrogate the role of the dancer/performer, the audience and dance as an overall arts practice. With an actor as unseen interrogator planted amongst the audience, the cast were asked a series of prescribed questions concerning their age, their jobs, allergies, pets, competencies and relevance whilst folk dancing, organising and re-organising themselves in groups, executing small pedestrian gesture to complex quirky vocabularies, constantly shifting in dynamic, speed and direction.

This was a singular device which made the work appear like that in progress (and maybe on first impression, better suited to the Dance Sites project), mainly because it was obvious that some of the cast was more adept at the task in hand than others. This also made the work more endearing for our rare insight into the vulnerabilities that the dancers, so otherwise physically consummate, unwittingly shared.

What became obvious was the choice of audience each event was geared toward: Dance Sites; the arts practitioner, eager to invest in the greater artistic objective;  and Sydney Dance Company,  the general public, ready to be entertained. Of course this is a general statement with each event also owning other measures of performative prowess and intellectual engagement in turn.

Check out the Critical Path website for activity updates and Sydney Dance Company’s Interplay has at least another week in season.

– by Vicki Van Hout