This review has appeared on Spark Online.

Dancenorth’s Underground, presented at the Arts House at this strange gap at the tail end of the year, when much of the theatre on offer is perfunctory and much is splendid, itself sits in this gap,being in turns yay and nay.

It opens in an underground station, looking dangerously like Shaun Parker’s This Show is About the People,and proceeds to exercise some very similar muscles. (I haven’t seen Parker’s show, I am basing this on hearsay. The production photos,however, were stunningly alike.) Both Parker and Gavin Webber, the director and choreographer of Underground, had worked with Australian Dance Theatre under Meryl Tankard, and the influence shows. Undergroundis worldly, emotionally mature, and cool. The music is pumpin’; there is gum stuck under the seats, so to speak. This is a dance tribe quite separate from Melbourne’s own Chunky/Guerin clique; there is no space in its manic rhythm for finding one’s inner Isadora. It transpires with Europe, with Pina, with sex and physical violence, everyday clothes and places, everyday emotions. And it’s filled with everyday Australian characters (a business-sleaze, a clueless Asian tourist, a semi-chroming dirtbag, a private-minded book reader), and an everyday,domestic sort of unthreatening torpor.<

The mix grates at times. There are two types of conflicting progression in Underground.First, there is the playful lateral movement from quotidian to magic realism, with a sparkle of stand-alone ideas. The underground station,thus, will be the place where territorial skirmishes slowly escalate into full-blown wars, and looking for a lighter grows into station seats spinning on their axes, a text-messaging girl hanging off them and sliding down. An instance of slasher-film sounds while the Asian girl is revealed to be a martial-arts champion.This is a brainstorming quality present in much local dance, circus and may-I-suggest comedy. Tense Dave,in 2006, was one such inconsequential brainstorm. Yet there is also a detached hipster short-film feel to it. Filling the stage wall-to-fourth-wall with music and motion, varying the tempo to a great simulation of a film switching between slow and fast forward, it is the epitome of the Cool of one Vandekeybus, or the Vice magazine.

On the other hand, though, there are meanderings of humourless Germanic moodiness, a deliberate push for the heavy themes, with the grotesque and the confronting used with some nonchalance. The shift is mirrored in the use of space, which opens up from the tight, rigidly structured underground platform into a loosely defined, dreamy space of trauma, fear, anger and revenge. Interspersing the mundane with grotesque images of a business man dripping sleaze all over the Asian girl, the softly comical magic realism will suddenly shift into MTV-powered battle scenes taken verbatim out of Ultima Vez, with whom Webber has trained. While theirs is certainly an interesting technique,all violence of the sexes, bodies spinning, flying through the air,grating against one another, bouncing off, it is never certain if the acrobatics weren’t imported wholesale just for the looks, with little meaning surviving the voyage. At the risk of making it sound hugely derivative, it looked like Akram Khan’s recent Bahok without the dramaturgical girdle: whereas Khan’s was insipid stage action rendered absolutely bullet-proof by hard dramaturgical logic, Undergroundwanders in and out of themes with much less precision. Once introduced,the darkness is never fully banished, and alienation of proximity, and individual action in the disperse responsibility of the crowd, are mercilessly explored. Yet the progression is, in the last moment,undoubtedly circular, returning the Teutonic inquiry into the safe territory of the never-changing Australian eventlessness.

Moments of semantic void are usually not the moments of stillness:the intellectual flattening is created by empty movement, rather than the empty stage. The strongest moments of the performance are precisely in the pauses, many of these U-turns of stage activity that throw the viewer completely off balance, our expectations completely confounded.Thus the assumed ordinary reality will suddenly shift into a hint of a disaster outside (nuclear error?, environmental catastrophe? gas attack?), leaving the single bookish Kate Harman trying to make sense of a darkened station. Re-emerging out of semi-slapstick and mundane gadgetry, standing on the seats, she stretches out on the tips of her toes, trying to reach the neon lights, and this moment of endless inscrutability makes up for much of the needless running that happens before and after. At 75 minutes, however, it also assumes an epic quality (another nod to Vandekeybus), which justifies some of the variability, hinting at the rich family of sagas, operas, and all those endless theatrical rambles that accumulate significance and weight just from refusing to finish.

Overall, despite the logic of a hipster film, despite looking like a collage, Undergroundis a rewarding experience. However, it is a production strongest at the joints. All the influences, nods and loans, remain distinctively separate and, while the epic accumulation certainly works, do not add up to the most brilliant dance theatre in the country. The in-between moments, the contrasts, are moments when Underground overcomes itself, and makes strange.

Undeground. Dancenorth. Arts House, North Melbourne Town Hall.
Season: Wed 12 – Sun 16 Nov.
Tickets: $25-18.
Bookings: artshouse.com.au or 03 9639 0096.

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