Your guerrilla semiotician has recently been treated to a series of short choreographic works on all sides: Australian Ballet's Interplay, a program of total art, Ballets Russes-style collaborations of musicians, choreographers and designers, closely preceded by Australian Institute of Classical Dance's showcase of young choreographers, Dance Creation 2008. On the other side of popular taste, VCA has presented Transmutation, a two-part panorama of student dance, with choreographies signed by names such as Phillip Adams, Neil Adams, and Stephanie Lake.
Dance Creation 2008, while unexpected and underattended, was very appreciated. Apart from the disappointing Reed Luplau and Sydney Dance Company, the range and breadth of the choreographies was quite stunning. Beautiful, in particular, was Wakako Asano's collaboration with koto musician Satsuki Odamura, performed by four very, very young girls (not older than twelve, I would guess).
Australian Ballet's Interplay, in comparison, was a lukewarm affair, not living up to the grand promises. While executed with almost robotic formal brilliance, and featuring a range of fantastic music, Stephen Baynes's Night Path and Matjash Mrozewski's Semele sacrifised the possibilities of movement to stream-lined narration, in a way that seemed awkwardly anachronistic. Nicolo Fonte's The Possibility Space, rejecting, perhaps, the expectation of palatable ballet as Disneylike fantasy, was a much more interesting dance. Eschewing narrative, it is emotionally sophisticated and formally surprising, a thingof aqua costumes, bare feet, and set halfway between Logan's Run and a pacific island. Coming at the end of the interminable performance, however, my partner and I were already too exasperated to care. Interplay was loudly hailed as an experiment in innovation and brilliance, and perhaps it was our mistake to take the tag line to the letter.
I don't consider myself an enemy of ballet. I admire the skill, the precision, I am respectful of the transformation that classical ballet inflicts on the human body, turning it into a symbol, a non-living thing. I think Nedelands Dans Theater is magic. I am in love with what McGregor did to the Royal Ballet. I even spend long hours watching non-revolutionary works, such as Sleeping Beauty, for nothing but the music box effect. I left a rose on Diaghilev's grave! However, there was something strangely antiquated about Interplay, a sense of observing an archival piece, that I hadn't seen in the theatre in a very long time. It seemed a mere recombination of elements that had solidified in form a long time ago. Ballet can be beautiful. Interplay was just a little creative warm-up.
Along with two original choreographies, Transmutation 2: Graduation Season re-staged Phillip Adams's Bocage, a 2007 commission for VCA, and Neil Adams's Stormstill, from 2001. Considering that Graduation Season is usually one of the highlights of the year, it is a little surprising that in 2008 it was not as successful as Season 1, featuring 1st and 2nd year VCA cubs. While Season 1 was pure delight, both in terms of choreographic quality, execution and programming, building up audience reaction with controlling intelligence, Season 2 was just a bit dull.
Stormstill is an energetic, physically demanding choreography. Frankly balletoid, it is a clean fantasia of abstracted insects going mad in a sort of summer storm. While accomplished, and Neil Adams does have a way with synchronised bodies in large numbers, it lacks the subtle brilliance of his Season 1 work, Traverse, which is choreographically more interesting, and more carefully aligned with Jon Adams's music (now what is it with all the Adamses?). Traverse was, at points, an engagement with music of such clear-thinking complexity that Keersmaker wouldn't have been bored watching.
Natalie Cursio's Nature Strip starts trés promising, with dancers in pastel costumes evoking the brilliance of Australian fauna, launching into a series of physical attacks on one another. Half the ensemble come on stage with take-away coffees, and first take pleasure in observing the other dancers (“He's so cute!”, one exclaims), but then start throwing cups at them. So far so good. Before long, however, the dancers have undressed, names of endangered species are written on their backs, and the entire show drops a couple of notches in intelligence, turning from a sardonic fight for survival into a lesson in environmentalism.
Stephanie Lake's All Together Now, on the other hand, is another example of the Chunky/Guerin school. Alison Croggon has suggested that their choreographies resemble poetry, and I am willing to agree. There is something in the rambling, fragmentary nature of Lake's choreography that reminds me of Ginsberg, for example, a long trawl of free association, of ideas not quite adding to a whole, but going from A to B to the rest of the alphabet without ever coming back, or paying great attention to the starting point. However, while such work will stand on the merits of the choreography alone, fiercely unintellectual as it is, it may also dissipate into circus tricks, which is what All Together Now unfortunately does. The opening sequence, all legs stomping in the dark, is delightfully silly, and the audience shrieks in laughter when some of the girls mop the corps de ballet off the stage. It has nowhere to go from there, sadly. There are another few moments in the piece that are quite lovely. A long row of kissing, rhythmic, lips, shoulders, knees, elbows. A group choreography is broken down by a girl crying, helped by a boy crying, which disperses the dance into another moment of empty time, dancers teasing one another off the stage. The rest, however, is a long ramble of disconnected quirks, of easy jokes, a string of simple ideas. I can see how this type of dance can be wildly popular, but, choreographically, it equals a diet of fairy bread and cupcakes.
Phillip Adams, however
Phillip Adams's Bocage, on the other hand, is a tremendous work. Viewing it in tandem with his Season 1 show, Oliver Pink in Amsterdam, is a rewarding experience, as the two dances are totally different in style, yet profoundly similar in sensibility.
Frances D'Ath, the most articulate Australian dancer living (overseas, of course), has written some very smart praise about Phillip Adams in the past, but that's about as far as intelligent domestic assessment of his work gets. Yet he may be the most interesting performance-maker in this country right now, and the contrast between the sheer quality of his two dance pieces, and the underwhelming disengagement of Barrie Kosky's The Women of Troy, playing simultaneously on the same tram line, could not be more graphic. Kosky and Adams are both iconoclasts, both disproving images, but whereas The Women of Troy was a mechanical juxtaposition of conflicting images, showing no concern for the audience as the active angle in the performance triangle, Adams has made his two dances so articulate in their conflicting, overabundant imagery, in total control of the intellectual storm raised on stage, that the detail and the structure never infringe one on another.
Bocage is fin-de-siecle, decadence and melancholia. Girls around the piano, calmly observing the piano player, then falling underneath and sliding over, like tragic birds unable to live from all the Weltschmerz. The quadruple duets breaking down, the male dance interrupted by a story of losing a bird on a train in Italian, while two girls recite the train time-table in French. The birds will appear again, framed in pictures the dancers hold up on their chest, a cabaret-looking singer will sing wistfully, and the dying swan will be a semi-naked man. Oliver Pink, on the other hand, best described as a primal parody, is a loud, over-the-top, impolite little dance full of crying, screaming, megaphones, and nudity. Some memorable moments include a weeping girl being rolled from one side of the stage to another, and back, chanting dancers collapsing, a chorus line in red socks and golden clogs, and the incredible final image of three naked dancers, two boys and one girl, still wearing clogs, perform a ritualistic choreography of circular self-punishment, stomping on the wall, curling up on the floor, and rising. For the final applause, they will come out wrapped in towels, all youth and exuberance.
Both are fantastic choreographies. What Adams makes, in terms of movement, is ultimately very simple, but it's the simplicity of someone who thinks complex. He will not complicate things unnecessarily either for the viewer or for the dancer – indeed, his student pieces are remarkably executable – because it's the total feast that seems to matter, not the decoration on the cake – and equally, he will use clean, simple images that hit the mark from such unexpected angles that one honestly, honestly thinks while ogling the beauty. Bocage parodies decadence, for example, by having pretty vaudeville dancers, all in black and lace, hit their heads in unison against the piano, and by bringing up birds in all shapes and forms, from head feathers to little framed paintings the dancers will hold in front of them. That birds have always been considered particularly erotic animals (and that peacocks are the symbol of decadence par excellence, birds unable to fly, crippled by their own beauty) is not unknown, just a thought we don't entertain too often, and such clicks of recognition abound in both dances.
It is hard to put the finger down on what is in these works that keeps them together, that makes them feel so coherent in the way they awake our mind, and Adams's program notes, while always useful, never spell it out. For Bocage, he writes: Bocage is a fantasia of Victorian transitional worlds. For Oliver Pink in Amsterdam, slightly less opaquely (but with equal charm): I have devised a triumphant onslaught of choreographic hysteria ascending to heaven. This fascination with the epiphany and universal phenomena is performed against repetitive mantra, phrase and hymn-like voices. What has transpired is an examination of false hopes and religious stereotypes that promise a new beginning.
Both works, above all, are full of appreciation for the beauty and the pathos and the absurd of a particular side of humanity, in a way that never feels exploitative. Oliver Pink, through images of public abandon to mass hysteria, pokes at organized religion, cults, subcultures, society, political movements, but more than anything at the human need for collective experiences. Bocage, on the other hand, with its costumed prettiness, seems to trace our very affection to decadence, to the nexus of beauty and death, and the melancholia that follows (call it 'nothing', like Louis Quatorze court ladies, or 'mono no aware', like Kyoto court ladies). However, there is courage and freedom of representation and meaning-making in Adams's work that is quite unprecedented in Australian dance, even theatre. The reason why he can do it so successfully, I think, is in the very quality of his empathy. Adams understands how ideas, ideals, needs and aspirations live and mutate through images, through simplification, and he uses images to trace them, subverts images to startle us out of easy complicity, creating a rich emotional experience for the viewer. If he can do that, though, it is because his are works made from the inside, by someone who knows how these images feel, and is aware of the effect they will have on the audience. Adams performs a forensics, but felt forensics, and does it as a humourous, empathetic exploration that is usually reserved for traits of national character, anthropology of social classes, and similar micro observations of behaviour.
Oliver Pink in Amsterdam and Bocage are not dissimilar from The Castle or Absolutely Fabulous, caressing and teasing and exposing at once, but parody of universal human traits is not a usual ingredient of any art, let alone Australian theatre, all caught up in telling national stories, all Kath and Kim for the self-presumed highbrow palate.
The phenomenon of the VCA is worth another paragraph. Chris Boyd, the most articulate dance appreciator in the state, has qualms about reviewing student shows, but treats VCA dance as professional, for its sheer quality (and cannot quite explain why it is as good as it is). On Daniel Schlusser's blog, about a year ago, there was a small discussion regarding the reviewability of VCA productions, and the crude fact that professional directors (and choreographers) are flocking to work with the students, while the audiences treat it as a performance season to look forward to.
What does it mean, in Australia today, when the most exciting dance is danced in a school, and the national ballet company makes neo-museum exhibits? Whose point of view does a critic try to inform? What point of view does she try to align with, in terms of general audience? Who does the general audience become?
Dance Creation 2008. Presented by Australian Institute of Classical Dance. Choreographic works by Wakako Asano, Tim Harbour, Reed Luplau, Kim McCarthy, and Tim O’Donnell. Melbourne, 31 October – 1 November, National Theatre.
Interplay. The Australian Ballet. Choreographic works by Stephen Baynes, Nicolo Fonte and Matjash Mrozewski. Sydney, 6 – 25 November, Sydney Opera House, with Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra.
Transmutation, Program 1. Victorian College of the Arts. Choreographic works by Neil Adams, Phillip Adams, Brett Daffy, Anna Smith. Melbourne, 12 – 15 November, Gasworks Arts Park.
Transmutation, Program 2. Victorian College of the Arts. Choreographic works by Neil Adams, Phillip Adams, Natalie Cursio, Stephanie Lake. Melbourne, 19 – 22 November, Gasworks Arts Park.