A tale of two longer haunts

24 June 2023

Will two successful short dance works stand up to being revived and extended for West Australian Ballet’s 2023 STATE program? Kim Balfour finds out.

STATE, West Australian Ballet
State Theatre Centre WA, 23 June 2023

The 2023 iteration of STATE, West Australian Ballet’s annual program of contemporary dance, invites the audience into two very different kinds of purgatory landscape.

In GAINSBOURG, we dive into the introspective mind of French pop provocateur, Serge Gainsbourg. In Slow Haunt we descend into a futuristic underworld with a dire warning of things to come.

GAINSBOURG and Slow Haunt are expansions of shorter works, first presented in 2021’s State. The revamped versions of both have benefitted from exceptional design and production values.

But whether the developed works justify their extended runtime may be a matter of individual taste.

Adam Alzaim’s GAINSBOURG draws inspiration from the life and work of artistic polymath, Serge Gainsbourg. The scene is set in one of Gainsbourg’s favourite smoke-filled Parisian bistros, given life by lighting designer Damien Cooper in moody sepias and sensual reds.

The work opens with a fast talking Maître d’, dubbed Maître Demon (Candice Adea). Giving off strong Edna “E” Mode vibes, she manages the bistro’s melodramatic patrons, while manufacturing mischievous mayhem of her own.

A line of dancers, dressed in suits, pulling funny faces, except for one at the end who wears a hoop-style skirt and sunnies, and a grin.
As the Maître Demon Candice Adea manages the bistro’s melodramatic patrons, while manufacturing mischievous mayhem of her own. Photo: Bradbury Photography

Alzaim is also responsible for the set and costume design, where copious smoking of Gitanes, bottles of Bordeaux, sartorial nods to Gainsbourg’s early era, and bentwood chair dragging effectively signify the hazy haunts Gainsbourg most likely frequented.

Within this unruly yet choreographically ordered disorder, GAINSBOURG seeks to express the creative spirit and unconventional lifestyle of Gainsbourg. It’s an exploration of the tension between liberation and societal expectations.

Juan Carlos Osma (Gainsbourg) – especially during his main solo – poignantly conveys Gainsbourg’s shadow side, with Asja Petrovski (Brigitte), Dayana Hardy Acuña (Birkin) and Polly Hilton (Lizzie) also deserving of mention.

WAB’s artistic director Aurélien Scannella challenged Alzaim, presumably with the assistance of dramaturge Polly Hilton, to “grow the narrative”. While Alzaim’s 2021 work felt tight and bursting with promise, the extended version of GAINSBOURG falls somewhat short in terms of narrative and choreographic growth.

GAINSBOURG is danced well and the production values and atmosphere excellent. But after a tantalising start, the work plateaus into a lingering scent of Gainsbourg, rather than a work punctuated with a contrasting progression of choreographic and narrative beats. This observation aside, the audience were positively engaged and responsive to Alzaim’s Gainsbourg.

Melanie Lane’s Slow Haunt is a dark, ethereal ballet that captivates from its first moments.

Dancers appear in striking costumes (Akira Isogawa) comprised of multi-coloured, densely layered fabric strips and a profusion of pockets and pouches, resembling something out of a studio Ghibli anime. The beings dart across the stage, sometimes deep into the ground, sometimes walking on their toes, creating an otherworldly aesthetic.

A group of dancers in Slow Haunt are draped in fabric, referencing the Wilis in Giselle. They pose like statues.
The Romantic ballet ‘Giselle’ is one of the influences in Melanie Lane’s ‘Slow Haunt’. Photo: Bradbury Photography

Lane says inspiration for Slow Haunt can be traced to WAB’s 2019 production of Giselle, in particular the ghostly figures of the Willis and Myrtha. Lane has combined this influence with that of other films, visual art, folklore and contemporary storytelling to arrive at a work of speculative fiction.

Scenes with elements resembling Giselle’s ghostly entities involve unearthly wraith-like beings. Dancers are cloaked in airy, black, translucent fabric that resembles swirling black smoke, enshrouding and transforming their lithe statuesque bodies into ominous, menacing forms.

Damien Cooper’s deceptively simple but clever lighting transports the audience to a dystopian place. One of the features of the show is a powerful use of the theatre’s lighting rig to depict the transition of a people to an immortal underworld.

Cooper’s lighting complements Isogawa’s intricately designed costumes exceptionally well, the colours and designs morphing and transforming in sync with the misfortunes, seductions and destructions of the damned otherworldly travellers.

Clark’s electronic score contributes immensely to the work’s dark, atmospheric, uncanny soundscape. The dancers’ evolving forms writhe, pound and leap to the deep EDM beats. While Lane is an independent contemporary choreographer, the classically trained dancers’ long lines and form emphasise the alien uncanniness of the work.

Though Slow Haunt‘s transition to a longer format is more successful than Gainsbourg‘s, both works have strong aesthetics, solid dancing and clever production values, and the program as a whole delivers a highly immersive experience to audiences.

STATE continues at the State Theatre Centre of WA until 1 July 2023.

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Author —
Kim Balfour

Kim Balfour is a writer and former professional dancer, who has danced with companies such as WA Ballet and Sydney Dance Company. Kim has worked as a freelance writer for more than 15 years, including the role of dance writer for The West Australian newspaper. In 2020, Kim was selected as a writer-in-residence at the Centre for Stories, and is writing a work of creative nonfiction on gender identity and expression in dance. As a child Kim was sometimes seen sitting on a gently spinning playground carousel, deep in thought, staring at her feet as they dragged along the ground.

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