Dance, News, Performing arts, Reviews

The techno-digital sublime

Review: Rachel Arianne Ogle, i have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night ·
PICA, 5 June ·
Review by Jonathan W. Marshall ·

Rachel Arianne Ogle’s superb precipice concludes with a reveal at the back of the darkened stage, where a curtain draws open to show an intensely glowing, curved wall situated at the rear of a small box, within which stands a sun-struck dancer. i have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night takes this image and turns it into a short, stand-alone performance installation, with glitchie live electronic music from Luke Smiles and a blindingly purist lighting design and luminescent projections from Benjamin Cisterne.

Smiles, Ogle and Cisterne build here on the optical games and devices that immediately preceded cinema proper, such as the spinning, slotted zoetrope, or the carefully lit and crafted panoramas and moving dioramas of the nineteenth century. Cisterne has previously experimented with patterned moiré effects in lighting with his design for Sydney Dance Company’s 2 One Another (2012). Robin Fox’s use of digital projection and intense, immersive digital noise for Chunky Move is clearly another influence (Smiles previously danced with Chunky Move), as is, presumably, the regular to DarkMofo and the Melbourne Festival, Ryoji Ikeda, with his supra-minimal techno and lighting works for dance and installation. The strongest resonance, though, is with the landmark Morphia series, which dancer Helen Herbertson created with designer Ben Cobham of Bluebottle in the early 2000s, featuring an often agitated, naked Herbertson suspended in a blacker than black space, housed in a glowing white box.

Photo: Mick Bello

The movement of i have loved the stars too fondly is, however, more minimal than Herbertson’s intimate gestures. Halfway through i have loved the stars too fondly, there is a blink-and-you-miss it section in which Ogle briefly tilts onto an extreme angle and folds herself onto the floor, legs protruding above her, whilst lit by a totalising, white wash. Elsewhere she ever-so-unsteadily walks slowly and with very small steps down the centre line from the back of to the front and then back again. She is, therefore, more object than dancer, more a sculpture than a human.

The sheer over-stimulation of optical and aural signals means that the audience’s perception itself begins to warp (as in a zoetrope or Ikeda’s installations). As the sound pummels us (featuring, for a period, some of the most intense bass thuds I have heard outside of the work of Fox or Decibel), and as the light excoriates Ogle from behind, there are times where it seems she may be perhaps mouthing a silent cry. But the solarisation about her head and shoulders, and the silhouette effect it produces, is such that one cannot be certain.

The framing of the performer within i have loved the stars too fondly, therefore, echoes the work of performance artist Stelarc, who insists on calling himself “the body,” signalling his status an entirely impersonal, fleshy sensate unit sewn into a non-human, technological system. The effect, then, is that the body itself is almost blown apart, shattered and digitised (think the origin of Dr Manhattan in Watchmen). This is the techno-digital sublime in the extreme, producing a mildly terrifying feeling of euphoria and amazement. In the most impressive visual effect within the production, when Ogle stands at the front of the stage, the rapid shifts in the colour and directionality of the light create the illusion of up to six or eight shadowy figures, arrayed in a semi-circle before us, each swimming into existence as its predecessor is blown away by the lighting.

This effect is staged early in the piece, and to some degree the dramaturgy has nowhere else to go. The distorted white dots on the back wall are patterned according to random transmissions picked up while the show is in progress. As Ogle moves away from us in this slightly more forgiving light-and-sound world, one is tempted to read this as a return of the human after its technological auto-da-fé.

But closure is denied and she keeps her back to us. The conclusion seems to arise out of its duration more than it does out of any musical or choreographic evolution per se. While it seemed a shame to end on a whimper rather than a bang, precipice and i have loved the stars represent the sort of work which drew me to dance in the first place: austere, formal, painstaking, and scenographically brilliant – two of the best movement works of 2019.

i have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night runs until June 8.

Read a Q&A with Rachel Arianne Ogle.

Pictured top is Rachel Arianne Ogle in “i have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night”. Photo: Mick Bello.

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Calendar, Dance, June 19, Performing arts

Dance: Unmanned

8-9 June @ Redmond Theatre, Prendiville Catholic College, Ocean Reef ·
Presented by Momentum Dance ·

Temporarily unmanned due to injury and travel plans, it’s the Momentum Dance women’s turn to shine. New works by choreographers Alice Lee Holland and Claudia Alessi complete the feminine touch. Our 3rd season highlights disconnection, touch and reconnection, playful remembering, and individual interpretation of Task- based choreography. 
Join us in the foyer afterwards where you can purchase drinks and nibbles and chat with the stars of the show.

Bookings: https://www.trybooking.com

More info: www.facebook.com

Photo: Damian Doyle

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Hairy, horrifying… and heart-warming

Review: Michelle Aitken, Unrule ·
The Blue Room Theatre, 30 May ·
Review by Claire Trolio ·

It’s a great thing when a show comes along that is acutely relevant to your personal taste or interests. A feminist consideration of the female body using comedy and horror devices? Sign me up!

It’s even better when that show delivers insightful, relatable, thought-provoking and jovial entertainment. Thursday night’s premiere of Unrule did just that.

Created and directed by Michelle Aitken, and devised/performed by Chelsea Gibson, Mani Mae Gomes, Alicia Osyka and Rhiannon Petersen, Unrule mixes recorded and spoken stories with short vignettes that explore experienced body horrors.

Bathroom elements reference ‘Psycho’ and ‘Carrie’: Chelsea Gibson in ‘Unrule’. Photo: Susie Blatchford, Pixel Poetry.

The horror genre has long been linked with the body and its mysteries. The theme of adolescent transformation is a popular trope within that genre, and films like Carrie (1976) and Teen Wolf (1985) – both of which are referenced in Unrule – are just two of many examples. It’s the parallels between the bodily changes of adolescence, and those played out through the supernatural, that make this theme a popular one.

And it’s not just the adolescent body that’s ubiquitous in the horror genre. The Cartesian separation of mind and body reigns supreme in such texts, and – no surprises – it’s a gendered binary. The female body is often represented as the site of something sinister; the feminine is linked with weakness, unpredictability, evil… in opposition to the rational, in control masculine. As a result, female characters in horror narratives are often treated with distrust and apprehension. Women are frequently seen succumbing to temptation, in thrall to their bodies rather than their minds. Sexually active women are often punished by the text or presented as villains. Such narratives are a manifestation of men’s lack of understanding, a fear of the unknown and, importantly, a desire to control.

Unrule interrogates these horror devices in various ways. It’s the women who control the story here, by performing, creating and sharing both metaphorical and literal stories involving abject horror. The performers explicitly criticise the separation of mind and body in patriarchal discourse. They admit that bodies are unpredictable, and that humans experience their own physical horrors, whilst arguing that – too often – the medical profession ignores women’s concerns and patronises female patients.

Unrule covers issues of bladder leakage, endometriosis, giving birth, breastfeeding, menstruation and more. Playing with intertextuality, wigs – representing unruly body hair – come alive à la the Gremlins (1984) or Critters (1986) franchises; an attack of flying sanitary pads references The Birds (1963). Being a woman is hard, it admits, but don’t pity us. Unrule asks that women be listened to and respected: it’s that simple.

Wigs come alive: L-R: Chelsea Gibson, Rhiannon Petersen and Alicia Osyka. Photo: Susie Blatchford, Pixel Poetry.

Olivia Tartaglia’s elaborate set design is an integral part of the message. With a DIY, crafted feel, it is as raw and emotive as the performance itself. Covered in sanitary pads and allusions to menstrual blood, with the aforementioned synthetic wigs, and bathroom elements that reference Psycho (1960) and Carrie (1976), Tartaglia’s set complements and carries the performance.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of this show – and I am reminded of Charlotte Otton’s 2018 work Let Me Finish – is the sense of inclusivity and an optimism that comes with not being alone. Whilst Unrule concedes that interpretive dance murder will not beat the patriarchy, being in the audience of a show like this engenders a feeling of progress. It’s conveyed not just through the subject matter and delivery, but via the intimate seating arrangement and shared snacks. You are made to feel a part of the fight, and it feels good.

Aitken, Petersen, Osyka, Gomes and Gibson have made a raw and honest work. Though a little green and underdeveloped (yes, it could be tighter), Unrule is a funny and heartwarming show that’s a treat to watch.

Unrule plays until June 15.

Pictured top are Alicia Osyka, Mani Mae Gomes and Rhiannon Petersen. Photo: Susie Blatchford, Pixel Poetry.

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An exhilarating ride

Review: Rachel Arianne Ogle, precipice ·
Studio Underground, State Theatre of WA, 29 May ·
Review by Nina Levy ·

Silence.
Two thin beams of light mark the stage with a giant “x”. A dancer in each corner.
Standing. Waiting.

From the opening moments of precipice, local independent choreographer Rachel Arianne Ogle places the viewer on edge. The prolonged silence at the start of the piece – before two of the four dancers tip off-balance into a run – sets the scene for a work in which movement, light and sound unite to repeatedly push the dancers and, by extension, the audience to that edge… to the precipice.

It’s a wild ride; visceral and invigorating. Though the work is abstract, there are clear arcs – sensual rather than narrative. And though precipice is unquestionably a contemporary dance work – the movement is often athletic in that way that makes you draw your breath sharply – it’s the deft interweaving of the choreography with the lighting and visual design by Benjamin Cisterne and score/soundscape by Luke Smiles that makes the ride feel so immersive.

Niharika Senapati and Tyrone Robinson in the 2014 season of 'precipice'..
The female dancers become perilous dolls: Niharika Senapati and Tyrone Robinson in the 2014 season of ‘precipice’.. Photo: Traianos Pakioufakis.

And finally, though it is designed around ramping up the senses, there is a poetic quality that infiltrates precipice. Now the stage is sliced in two by one of those beams of light from the opening. Against a swathe of ghostly electronic sounds, we see a dancer (the wonderful Tyrone Robinson) twisting, falling, staggering, limping. On the other side of the line, the remaining three dancers (Niharika Senapati, Yilin Kong and Linton Aberle) move through a series of supine tilts, rolls and suspensions that trace circular patterns on the floor and through the air.

Those circular patterns repeat throughout; we see them again as the two female dancers move through balances in which their legs and arms bring to mind the hands of a clock marching endlessly through time.

Though it’s hard to pick favourite sections (there are many), the synchronised male-female duos are a highlight. Apparently immobile, the female dancers become perilous dolls, to be manipulated by the male dancers who diligently insert themselves between the women and the floor. This morphs into a dance of fanning and falling counterbalances as the lighting gently oscillates between warmth and cool. The strength and focus required to pull off this movement material is considerable and on opening night, Aberle, Kong, Robinson and Senapati ensured this section had the audience mesmerised.

Another memorable movement phrase sees the dancers lie across one another as though their bodies have been plaited. To a soundscape of lightly pattering beats interspersed with electronic surges, a pattern of planks and folds ripples through the quartet; a strange caterpillar labouring through a field of light circles.

Storm Helmore, Tyrone Robinson, Imanuel Dado and Niharika Senapati in the 2014 season of 'precipice. Photo: Traianos Pakioufakis
Though the work is abstract, there are clear arcs: Storm Helmore, Tyrone Robinson, Imanuel Dado and Niharika Senapati in the 2014 season of ‘precipice. Photo: Traianos Pakioufakis

There is relatively little to separate audience and performer at the Studio Underground and in the penultimate scenes of precipice, the energy from the stage feels encompassing. Engine-like noises become increasingly loud and urgent as the dancers variously move as one, separate, pause, and explode into the space. The tension builds and builds until, with a blinding flash of light, it hits an almost unbearable peak. No spoilers – you’ll have to see the show to find out what happens next.

As aforementioned precipice depends heavily on the physical and mental discipline of its dancers. On opening night Aberle, Kong, Robinson and Senapati gave an outstanding performance.

This is not precipice’s first outing. The work was originally presented in the same theatre in 2014. As Ogle notes, it is rare that independent work is granted a second outing. Watching precipice for a second time, it’s easy to see why the State Theatre Centre of WA and Perth Theatre Trust chose to break with tradition and program this work.

Together with her creative team, Ogle has made a work that is exhilarating.

precipice plays the Studio Underground until June 1.

The sequel to precipice, i have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night, plays PICA, June 5-8.

Read a Q&A with Rachel Arianne Ogle about the two works here.

Pictured top is a scene from the 2014 season of ‘precipice’. Photo: Traianos Pakioufakis.

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Back to back

Thanks to funding constraints, it’s rare to see a body of work by one independent choreographer, and even rarer to see independent works remounted. In the next two weeks, however, Perth audiences will  be have the chance to experience both. A remount of Rachel Arianne Ogle’s 2014 work precipice, will be closely followed by a season of its 2019 sequel, i have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night. Nina Levy sat down with Ogle to learn more.

Rachel Arianne Ogle. Photo: Pedro Greig.

Nina Levy: precipice was your first full length work… how did the concept for this work come into being?
Rachel Arianne Ogle: precipice began as an exploration of various physical states in opposition. In my own movement practice I have always explored a physicality of being off balance – generating and riding momentum, falling and surrendering weight to gravity – to take risk and play more in the extremes of the unknown. This physicality informed my creative interests for this work. As I explored a series of physical provocations through movement, the larger concepts of the work began to reveal themselves to me. I have always been fascinated with space and the universe, and as the movement ideas developed it became apparent these concepts were all very much alive in the work. From there the work began to guide me, and tell me what it was about.

NL: And talk me through the creative process of making that work…
RAO: When I began to create precipice, I had no ambition to be a choreographer. But I had arrived at a point in my artistic life where I had some ideas that I was curious to play with and, for the first time, I felt like I was ready to do that with some bodies in space that weren’t my own. It was really the first time that I had stepped out from being on the inside, in an attempt to explore something, which shifted my focus considerably.

I would often start with a simple image, and then allow that image to invite my imagination and intuition to guide me, while offering the perspective of being the outside eye to what was unfolding. It was only at the end of the first stage development, that I realised I was making a show. From there, it continued to grow for two and half years before we arrived at the premiere season in 2014.

Tyrone Robinson and Storm Helmore in Rachel Arianne Ogle’s ‘Precipice’ (2014). Photo: Traianos Pakioufakis.

NL: It’s not often that independent works get a second outing. What’s it been like remounting the work?
RAO: It is an incredible privilege, so rarely afforded to an independent artist, to be able to revisit work in repertoire. It is invaluable to have the opportunity to reflect on where I have come from, and to consider the work in the context of, and relevance to, my creative present. I see my history, my lineage, and my influences in this work – but I also see a moment in time when I was beginning to unearth and trust my own creative voice, and my crafting of ideas.

The opportunity to be back working with the dancers, and to see how far they have come in the five years since we premiered… their own maturing as artists and performers brings a whole new depth to the work. At the same time, new cast members hold me accountable to justifying the work and the decisions I have made within it, as we transmit the information to new bodies. It has been a very short and intense remount period, but an incredibly joyful and rewarding one.

NL: Your design team for the two works (Luke Smiles – sound composition and Benjamin Cisterne – visual design) is a dream team. How did you come to work with these two creatives?
RAO:Ben, Luke and I all worked together with Melbourne dance company, Phillip Adams’ BalletLab, so we had been friends for many years. Luke is also a dancer, and he and I performed together in one of Phillip’s shows for which Ben was lighting designer, which we all toured to the US in 2007. Alongside his career as a dancer, Luke always had his parallel career as a composer/sound designer, through which he has a long history of collaborating with Ben. I had always thought that if I ever created work, I would love to have them both as the design team. To be honest, I think I just got lucky that when that time came, they both said yes.

Tyrone Robinson, Imanuel Dado, Storm Helmore and Niharika Senapati in the 2014 debut of ‘precipice’.

NL: Did you always envisage a sequel to precipice? How did the idea for i have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night  have come about?
RAO: i have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night began from a design concept that has a momentary presence in precipice. During the production week in the theatre for precipice in 2014, my design collaborators – Ben and Luke – and myself, began to discuss the potential for that design element to have a show of its own. So it started from there, and the work became a response to the design. Because the design element was born from precipice, it always felt very connected to that work. And conceptually the work continues the themes of where precipice arrives at its end, but also takes it in a different direction… like going down a different worm hole. It very much feels like an offer of what comes next, or like “the other side” of precipice – therein being its sequel.

NL: What made you decide to make a solo work this time?
RAO: i have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night was always going to be a work for a solo performer, I think, largely due to the design concept we were working with and what felt appropriate for that. It never felt like a question that the performer would be me. This work is incredibly personal to me so I felt like somehow I didn’t have a choice in it… the work had already demanded that it come directly through me to the audience.

NL: And talk me through that creative process…
RAO: We watched a lot of science fiction films! And had many nerd discussions about space stuff… like black holes, the warping and manipulation of time and space, death, and what lies beyond. These filmic references unconsciously and inevitably fed into the work. During the first development we kept finding ourselves sitting for long periods of time just watching the lights and sound interact with the installation. We eventually realised that this hypnotic state that we were being drawn into was the experience we wanted for the audience. Once we made that decision it was about shaping and refining the elements to create that experience, and exploring the relationship of the body to that environment. Placing the body inside of the installation added the human element and completely shifted the perspective. The interaction of the body with the moving lights in front of the installation, created a visual illusion, distorting the perception of the reality the viewer is seeing. It was quite a magical discovery, and for me that sense of warping reality is really the essence of the work.

Choreographically, I originally started developing some improvisation scores, exploring different qualities and textures, and states of transition. However the more we explored the dialogue of the body with the installation, the more we realised that I needed to do less. So it became a process of stripping back. The choreography became quite distilled, but very rigorous in terms of the tension and focus in the body.

We further developed the work during a residency at EMPAC (Experimental Media and Performing Arts Centre) in New York in 2017. We continued to develop these ideas by integrating a live feed of radio communications from different airports around the world, which directly manipulates the lights and the sound. Ben and Luke then respond to this stimulus in real-time, shaping the already moving lights and sound into an improvised score and structure. So they are live onstage with me creating the design in real-time, and the work is slightly different every performance as a result.

NL: What’s next after these back-to-back seasons?
RAO: I am currently developing a new work, which is my most ambitious to date in terms of scale and vision. I am planning a design development for this work later this year, and will undertake a larger development with the dancers early in 2020. I will also be creating a smaller site-specific work in Tasmania in August, and undertaking some international travel to participate in a 3 month intensive improvisation project in Brussels later in the year. I’m dreaming up lots of new projects at the moment… so stay tuned!

precipice plays the State Theatre Centre of WA, May 29 – June 1.

i have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night plays PICA, June 5-8.

Pictured top is Rachel Arianne Ogle in ‘I have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night’. Photo: Mick Bello.

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LINK warms up for world stage

Review: LINK Dance Company, ‘The Body Politic’ ·
Geoff Gibbs Theatre, 23 May ·
Review by Nina Levy ·

I’m always curious to see LINK Dance Company’s May season. Part of the Western Australian Academy of Performing Art’s Dance department, LINK is designed for postgraduate students, as a fourth year of training to “link” the tertiary and professional sectors. With a fresh cohort starting every year, the annual May performance is our first chance to see the company’s latest crop of dancers in action.

As is traditional, this year’s debut season is a triple bill. Entitled “The Body Politic”, the choreographic line-up – an attractive mix of local and international talent – only added to my anticipation ahead of opening night, as did a sneak peek at a rehearsal last month.

I wasn’t disappointed.

The program opens with an aesthetic that is at once space-age and retro. Eight dancers are clad in sleeveless, A-line skirted silver (including the one male dancer – I’m loving the recent shift away from gendered costumes). The action takes place on the perimeter of, and within, a large circle of light. Composed by WAAPA lecturer Michael Terren, the score of electronic strums lends a touch of sci-fi to proceedings. This is Shrink, a new work by local emerging choreographer Scott Elstermann.

A scene from Scott Elstermann's Shrink
Scott Elstermann’s ‘Shrink’, performed with engaging precision. Photo: Stephen Heath Photography.

Watching this work it’s easy to see why Elstermann was the first Australian to win a coveted Pina Bausch Fellowship. There’s a dance-off, of sorts, as tension builds between those dancers moving with an organic, breathy movement style and those whose style is comically mechanical; a robotic blend of jazz and aerobics. Gradually the automatons take over, framing and re-framing around a single dancer until all have been absorbed into a droid-like dance of snappy claps and gestures.

And then almost imperceptibly – even magically – things are being pared back, until the focus is on the dancers’ fingers, and movement and music bring to mind automated insects. Shrink is a smart work, and it was performed with engaging precision and attention to detail by the 2019 company.

Next up is Chasing-breath, choreographed for LINK by visiting Israeli choreographer Niv Marinberg, with sound design by Brett Smith. The program notes for this work – which talk about the effect of emotion on our perception of time, and the effects of feeling breathless on our movement and behaviour – belie its glorious humour.

From the outset, the mood is potentially seedy. To the seductive sounds of Egyptian composer Umm Kulthum’s “Enta Oumry”, dancers – dressed for a night out – variously strut, slump or stagger across the back of the stage, which is stripped to its bricks and lined with various bottles plus two champagne glasses. As the work unfolds, to David Fray’s moody and distinctive interpretation of one of Bach’s Keyboard Concertos, various dancers move in slow motion, their limbs unfurling into prolonged balances that are disturbed as another dancer (Thomas Mullane) careers amongst them.

Things deteriorate. Now a dancer (Emily Tuckwell) is spitting what look like mint balls, while another (Giorgia Schijf) takes a swig from one of the bottles to become a human fountain. The increasing contrast between the mood of the dancers (unrelenting silliness) and the mood of the music (sombre) only heightens the entertainment value. On opening night, its clear that both audience and performers were enjoying it very much.

Mesmerising: Raewyn Hill's 'Carnivale.3'. Photo: Stephen Heath Photography.
Mesmerising: Raewyn Hill’s ‘Carnivale.3’. Photo: Stephen Heath Photography.

Closing the bill is Carnivale.3, choreographed by Raewyn Hill, artistic director of WA’s state flagship contemporary dance company, Co3 Australia. Like previous iterations of this work, Carnivale.3 is a 15 minute feat of endurance, designed, says Hill, to create group cohesion amongst the dancers as they navigate its challenges.

That sense of group cohesion radiated from the cast of eight as they forged their way through the loose-limbed leaps, deep lunges, rippling, rolling jumps and triumphant wordless cries of this mesmerising work. Rather than tiring as the work progressed, the dancers seemed to become strangely energised by the fatigue they must have felt; as Eden Mulholland’s rousing score built in intensity, so too did their performance.

“The Body Politic” is a credit to LINK Artistic Director Michael Whaites. Running at about an hour, the pacy and engaging program showcases the considerable talents of this year’s LINK dancers. It’s pleasing to note that the company is about to take this impressive triple bill on tour to France – do try to catch the show before they head off.

“The Body Politic” closes May 25.

Pictured top is a scene from Niv Marinberg’s “Chasing-breath”. Photo: Stephen Heath.

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A woman (Katherine Gurr) tries to hold back two men (Ian Wilkes and Andrew Searle)
Dance, News, Performing arts, Reviews

A richly layered work

Review: Co3 Australia, The Line ·
Heath Ledger Theatre, State Theatre of WA, 16 May ·
Review by Nina Levy ·

At the heart of Co3 Australia’s latest contemporary dance work, The Line, is a story of racial segregation.

This story may be unfamiliar to many West Australians, but it’s part of our not-so-distant past. Between 1927 and 1954, there was a law in place that banned Aboriginal people from entering the City of Perth’s boundaries after 6pm, unless they could prove that they were in “lawful employment”. The work’s title refers to the boundary lines of what was known as the Prohibited Area.

It’s a tough topic to tackle, particularly through the non-verbal medium of dance. Nonetheless, The Line’s directors – Co3 Artistic Director Raewyn Hill and Artistic Associate Mark Howett – have created a work that resists the temptation of a simple plot. Though interspersed with narrative elements, it is up to the audience to draw the threads together.

What we do see is an Aboriginal man (Noongar dancer Ian Wilkes) and a white woman (Katherine Gurr), who appear to be a couple. They are repeatedly pursued, interrogated and attacked by a man – some kind of policing officer – played by Andrew Searle.

The design elements of the work are immediately striking. As the curtain rises we see seven swings hanging from the fly loft, suspended by long chains that slice the space. A narrow tube of light crosses the darkened back of the stage, intersecting the vertical lines of the swings. Perched high above the dancers, it appears stationary… but time will reveal otherwise. In the dim, hazy light, the atmosphere is eerie as two dancers (Wilkes and Gurr) make lazy, sweeping arcs, on symmetrically placed swings. The peace is broken as the official-type man shouts loudly “YOU!” and mayhem ensues.

A man hold his hand like a gun to another man's jaw.
Constant tension: Ian Wilkes and Andrew Searle. Photo: Daniel Carson

From here the choreography oscillates between anguish and slapstick. Though the conflict is primarily between the Aboriginal and the white man, all three characters seem to be constantly wrestling with one another, and with themselves. The tension rarely lets up, and though this is, no doubt, intentional, it’s exhausting to watch. An exception is a gorgeously soft solo that blends Auslan signs with gestures from traditional Aboriginal dance (beautifully danced by Wilkes), followed by the soothing to-and-fro of the three dancers swinging, bathed in pyramids of light.

It can’t last though and soon we’re plunged back into the cartoon-like violence that punctuates the work. Though horrifying to watch, these repeating scenes of slow-motion violence are fascinating for the skill of both choreography and execution.

Throughout the work, Eden Mulholland’s score is, quite simply, fabulous. Played live in the main, the layers of sound range from long and eerie notes interspersed with storms of recorded voiceovers and ominous rumblings, to a rollicking, romping, 1930s jazz vibe. With James Crabb on classical accordion and Mulholland on a startling array of instruments (various guitars, piano, synthesizer, vocals, percussion), the music is a glorious performance in itself.

The design elements of this work are exceptional too, and with such a rich visual and musical backdrop, a cast of three – the number dictated, presumably, by budget limitations – seems too small, especially in relation to the scope of the issues that the work is tackling. It seems odd, too, to have only one Aboriginal performer, given the work’s context.

That said, the three dancers gave compelling performances on opening night, displaying admirable physical and emotional stamina. Though the duo and trio work was impressive, it was in their solo moments that each dancer shone brightest, Searle slicing and dicing, Gurr arching and melting, and Wilkes gently gesturing.

The repetitive structure of this work, in combination with the near-constant tension, feels unrelenting and – ultimately – unresolved. Though these artistic choices are effective, in terms of representing the discrimination that Aboriginal people have suffered and continue to suffer, personally, I found myself longing for relief.

But perhaps that was the point. Around me, audience members rose to their feet to applaud.

The Line plays until May 19.

Read an interview with directors Raewyn Hill and Mark Howett.

Pictured top are Ian Wilkes, Katherine Gurr and Andrew Searle in “The Line”. Photo: Daniel Carson.

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A scene from Water, featuring Glenda Linscott. Amy Mathews. Emily Rose Brennan. Richard Maganga
News, Performing arts, Reviews, Theatre

The perils of polemic

Review: Black Swan State Theatre Company, Water ·
Studio Underground, State Theatre Centre of WA ·
Review by Varnya Bromilow ·

As we all come to grips with the most pressing issue of our age – humanity’s impact on our planet – it’s only fitting that this theme makes its way onto our stages. As is often the case, theatre is miles ahead of cinema or TV in grappling with this topic – it’s hard to make art that reflects our growing concern, while not straying too far into the boredom of strident polemic. So far, at least, it’s been left to theatre to press the case.

With Water, Melbourne-based playwright Jane Bodie has created a work for Black Swan State Theatre Company that is as ambitious as it is broad-ranging. Set in three different time periods and places, the play examines two of Australia’s thorniest political challenges – climate politics and refugees.

The first and strongest act is set on Molloy Island off WA’s Southwest in the not too distant future. Water has become scarce, birds have all but died out and food rationing is in place. We meet Peter (Igor Sas), a disgraced politician, recently forced to resign over his handling of refugee policy; his wife, Beth (Glenda Linscott) and the couple’s daughters Gemma (Amy Mathews) and Joey (Emily Rose Brennan). Gemma, a corporate lawyer, and Joey, a hippy traveller, have returned to the family’s holiday home to celebrate Peter’s birthday. Joey has been travelling for years and, as with all prodigal offspring, her return is cause for joy, dampened slightly by the fact that she has invited along a friend (and African immigrant), Yize (Richard Maganga).

A scene from 'Water', set in a holiday home on Molloy Island.
An undercurrent of tension: Igor Sas (Peter), Glenda Linscott (Beth) and Amy Mathews(Gemma) in the first act of ‘Water’. Photo: Daniel J Grant.

Bodie begins slowly, casting out small measures of narrative and context that makes the play an enjoyable tease for half of the first act. Why exactly did Peter leave politics? Why is Beth so on edge? Why does Gemma seem so irritated? What are Joey’s motives in inviting Yize? Director Emily McLean paces the show beautifully, creating an undercurrent of tension that is bound to explode. She is aided in this effort by a gorgeous soundscape and score from Clint Bracknell. Beginning with the clatter of parrots, an echo of a more bountiful time, Water is notable for its aural sparseness. We feel the absence of the birds, just as we feel the absence of water. The silence at the show’s beginning builds via stilted conversation, elongated pauses, until finally – with a remarkable soliloquy from Yize – the dam bursts. Maganga’s performance here was so impassioned, so utterly authentic, that it was followed by spontaneous applause from the packed house.

But, despite the talent of the actors, Water is a deeply flawed work. For a contemporary piece written by a female playwright, the raft of characters is alarmingly cliched. We have the absent poli dad; the long-suffering, needy wife; the wild, irresponsible daughter and the corporate careerist. I understand the seduction of writing about characters we are familiar with – there’s little an audience enjoys more than seeing itself reflected onstage – but for a new work, these roles seemed all too predictable. Of course the roguish daughter is there to cause trouble! Of course the corporate careerist is secretly unhappy! In writing such broad caricatures, Bodie underestimates the capacity of her audience to comprehend something more nuanced.

A scene from 'Water'. A nurse examines a patient's throat.
Bodie takes the audience to Ellis Island in 1921. Pictured are Amy Mathews and Glenda-Linscott. Photo: Daniel J Grant.

By the end of the first act though, we are engaged. We know these people, we care about them. Minor irritations like the distraction of Gemma’s resignation can be overlooked in favour of the over-riding pull of any good story – what happens next? But, in an ill-advised attempt to underscore the injustice of Australia’s refugee policy, the next act deprives us of this satisfaction. Instead, Bodie takes us to Ellis Island in 1921 where an elderly white Australian couple is attempting to emigrate to the United States. By drawing an apt but facile comparison with immigration systems elsewhere, Bodie again underestimates her audience. Her point was already made with stirring eloquence through the vessel of Yize – the clunky comparison doesn’t make the point stronger, it weakens it.

Similarly, when we are then transported to Queensland in 1905 in a brief reference to the slave trade that supplied the labour for Australia’s cane plantations, I had no idea where we were or why. Compounding the confusion is Bodie’s decision to use similar names for the characters in each setting. But what happened to the people on Molloy Island? When, finally, the playwright brings us briefly back to the characters of the first act, we are left without any meaningful resolution.

By divorcing us from the characters of the first act, Bodie sacrifices audience enjoyment to belabour her point – our climate policies are failing; our refugee policies are inhumane; we are not learning from history. As someone who agrees wholeheartedly with Bodie’s politics, it pains me to see this sort of didacticism onstage. Making theatre with a political message is extremely difficult; making theatre with a political message while avoiding the perils of polemic is even harder.

Water plays until May 26.

Pictured top are (L-R): Glenda Linscott (Beth), Amy Mathews (Gemma), Emily Rose Brennan (Joey) and Richard Maganga (Yize). Photo: Daniel J Grant.

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News, Performing arts, Reviews, Theatre

Why a caged bird sings

Yirra Yaakin Theatre Company, Cracked ·
Subiaco Arts Centre, 11 May ·
Review by Xan Ashbury ·

Cracked is a play about a mother’s struggle for freedom. It opens and closes in song.

In mournful yet hauntingly beautiful song. And by the end of it, we know why a caged bird sings.

Frances (an outstanding portrayal by Bobbi Henry) is an Aboriginal woman, 15 months into a prison term. She misses her children, who’ve been put into foster care, and she sings in the prison choir. Her plight reminded me of the bird in Paul Laurence Dunbar’s classic poem, Sympathy. The poem describes the awful experience of a bird trapped in a cage. The bird flaps its wings and sings, not because it is happy but because it is desperate and sad. Dunbar used the bird to represent the oppression of his fellow African-Americans in the late nineteenth century.

Like that bird, Frances wants to be out with her flock. She wants to nest; she wants to fly. But her life has steered off course. Intergenerational trauma, poverty, insecure housing, lack of education and employment, domestic violence and methamphetamine use; these factors and more have led to Frances into crime and prison, and now threaten her prospects for parole and a new chapter with her kids. Frances speaks for Aboriginal Australians in similar circumstances.

Motifs of birds and flight are woven throughout the production, directed by Eva Grace Mullaley. They feature in the script, by Barbara Hostalek, and in the evocative soundscape by Mei Swan Lim and multimedia projections, by Mia Holton.

Bobbi Henry as Frances with (L-R) Luke Hewitt (John Rogers), Rayma Morrison (Aunty Pat) and Bruce Denny (Dwayne).

Despite help from her Aunty Pat (played to perfection by Rayma Morrison) and well-meaning community corrections officer Edwina (Holly Jones), Frances becomes frustrated and overwhelmed. At least behind bars she is assured of “three square meals a day, a roof over your head and no risk of getting smashed up.” So much for The Lucky Country.

The scenes charting Frances’s tentative freedom are gut-wrenching but skilfully executed. Sara Chirichilli’s clever set features a cell on a circular, revolving platform – as the plot nears the resolution, its symbolic value becomes apparent.

Holly Jones as Edwina and Matthew Cooper as Joel.

Hostalek’s characters are beautifully drawn, defying stereotypes and injecting energy and humour into what could otherwise have been a bleak play. Luke Hewitt is superb as an affable prison officer and Matthew Cooper is beautiful to watch as Edwina’s jaded colleague, Joel.

This is a memorable play with an important message. Perhaps Edwina best sums up that message, in her conversation with Joel about her clients: “They’re broken beyond all repair but I don’t want to give up on them.”

Cracked plays until May 18.

Pictured top is Bobbi Henry, as Frances, with (L-R) Bruce Denny (Dwayne), Luke Hewitt (John Rogers) and Holly Jones (Edwina).

All photo: Dana Weeks.

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Dance, News, Performing arts, Reviews

A rare treat

West Australian Ballet, La Bayadère ·
His Majesty’s Theatre, 9 May ·
Review by Amy Wiseman ·

La Bayadère or The Temple Dancer is not widely known; curious perhaps, considering the 1877 ballet was originally choreographed by none other than Marius Petipa – of Swan Lake and Nutcracker fame. The universal themes of love, betrayal and redemption combined with an exotic setting, lilting music by Ludwig Minkus and technically challenging choreography meant the ballet became a revered hit in Russia, and eventually in Europe when it was finally staged in full, late in the 20th Century.

This co-production between West Australian Ballet, Queensland Ballet and Royal Winnipeg Ballet sees the classic story modernised by choreographer Greg Horsman, injecting Petipa’s original choreography with new sequences and setting the story in a more “real” India, in 1855. Die-hard ballet fans will still recognise Kingdom of the Shades (Act II, Scene I) repertoire and many of the solos, which are regularly performed as competition or gala excerpts around the world. This version’s story, however, hinges on a political treaty to bring an end to hostilities with an arranged marriage and, as a result, a tragic love triangle.

On opening night, the West Australian Symphony Orchestra was in excellent form under the careful guidance of conductor Judith Yan. Nigel Gaynor’s musical arrangement, with its initial strum of a sitar, instantly gives the ballet a sense of place. Visually, too, the production is striking with sumptuous sets and luxuriously detailed costumes – both designed by Gary Harris – complemented by Jon Buswell’s glorious lighting, which features rich dramatic sky-scapes that stain the stage pink and orange. While a spectacle for the senses, aspects of the design and direction waver dangerously into religious ambiguity and clichéd “exoticism” – a detail that, one would hope, would be considered in a modern re-telling.

Kaleidoscopic images. Pictured front is Carina Roberts. Photo: Sergey Pevnev

Despite a lengthy three acts, the story moves swiftly, thanks to considered scene changes and clarity of story-telling, assisted by strong character roles. Seasonal Artist Andries Weidemann, as the Maharajah of Cooch Behar, and Company Ballet Master Craig Lord-Sole, as the Governor-General of India, are noteworthy in reinforcing the themes of familial honour and obligation with appropriate sobriety and concern. To keep the peace, a marriage between their children, Prince Solor (Matthew Lehmann) and Edith (Chihiro Nomura), is arranged. In secret, however, Solor has already declared his undying love and devotion to Nikiya, a temple dancer, played by recently appointed Dayana Hardy Acuña.

Lehmann’s trademark ease in partnering and accomplished acting were evident in this challenging role, that demands prowess and stamina. Acuña also shone as Nikiya, with beautifully articulate port de bras, breath-catching control and graceful expression. The stand-out performance on opening night, however, was Nomura, who not only excelled technically but captured Edith’s full emotional gamut, from comic cheek to furious rage, gushing fiancée to wilful seductress.

Acts I and III blend genres of dance, from kaleidoscopic images of a Hindu deity, to vast ballroom scenes incorporating waltzing tuxedos and turbans in equal measure. But it is Petipa’s famous Kingdom of the Shades scene in Act II that is a particular highlight.  This is ballet at its most exposing. Mesmeric sequences of arabesques performed slowly, carefully one-by-one down a moon-lit ramp and across the stage require exceptional focus and strength from the corps de ballet. Exacting formations and vulnerable balances felt both artistically ethereal and technically rock solid in the performance viewed – the choreography bold in its simplicity and precision. Special mentions to Candice Adea, first to enter, for her poise and control and to soloists Carina Roberts, Ana Gallardo Lobaina and Polly Hilton, for demonstrating immense skill and generous artistry in their difficult solos. Opening night jitters or perhaps a slippery stage created a few tense moments for Lehmann and Acuña, though they remained composed and recovered swiftly.

Despite some issues in this re-telling, La Bayadère has something for ballet fans and the uninitiated alike. It is a rare treat to see this technically challenging production in Perth.

La Bayadere plays until May 25. 

Pictured top is Alexa Tuzil as Nikiya (photo is from a different casting, due to unexpected cast changes). Photo: Sergey Pevnev.

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