Perth Festival review: Attractorby Gideon Obarzanek, Lucy Guerin, Dancenorth and Senyawa ·
State Theatre Centre, 8 February ·
Review by Varnya Bromilow ·
A group of people sit around in a semi-circle, in the centre of a Spartan stage. Just as the audience is becoming restless, a couple of the figures start to move, robot-like, up from their chairs. Others join in but two people in the middle of the semi-circle stay put. As the bodies around them expand their movements, one of the two remaining figures picks up a large instrument and out of the silence comes a crashing metallic chord. Here we go…
Attractor is a unique beast – a joint creation from two of Australia’s luminaries of contemporary dance, Gideon Obarzanek and Lucy Guerin. Obarzanek is best known for his founding of Chunky Move, the Melbourne-based contemporary dance outfit in part responsible for the popularization of the genre in Australia. Guerin is one of the country’s leading choreographers whose company Lucy Guerin Inc is renowned for its innovative, challenging works. Both are credited as choreographers for Attractor while Obarzanek alone designed the work. It shows – while the frenetic blur of movement may be familiar to anyone who has seen works by either Obarzanek or Guerin, the sinister underlying tone is distinctly Chunky Move-ish.
The collaboration does not stop there. All the dancers, save the excellent Harrison Hall from Lucy Guerin Inc, are from Queensland’s esteemed Dancenorth. But the centrepiece of this extraordinary collaboration is provided by Senyawa, a two-piece duo from Indonesia. Incorporating elements of doom metal, folk and acapella, Senyawa’s music is a sonic trip. The soundtrack of Attractor becomes the focal point of the performance – when someone is screeching into a microphone, accompanied by reverberating chords of pure noise, it’s hard to focus on anything else.
To be honest, I had no idea what instrument guitarist Wukir Suryadi was playing. Was it a Chapman stick? Was it some kind of guitar indigenous to Indonesia? I had to look it up. Turns out, Suryadi created the instrument himself – it’s a bambuwukir (namecheck!), an amplified zither made out of bamboo. It’s loud, really loud. And whether Suryadi is coaxing doom-like horrors out of it, or something more melodic, it’s incredible to behold. That is, you think it’s incredible to behold until you shift your gaze to Suryadi’s partner in crime…Rully Shabara. Shabara vocalizes (one cannot call it singing) as though he is possessed by the same spirits that created Suryadi’s instrument. He wails, he ululates, he growls and groans and shrieks.
Surrounded by this sonic furore, the dancers flail and pop, sometimes in unison, sometimes in a mess of discrete movement. There is no particular narrative here – we’re being taken on a trip, a trance and there is nothing to interpret, we are here to observe. The choreography is as intense as the music – contorted exertions that ripple with energy. Some of the most effective phrases are those performed in unison, the dancers slicing through space, jerking and bustling with near-perfect cohesion. A solo from Samantha Hines is absolutely gob-smacking. Her arms and hands shuddering, her back arched, head thrown back – all while Shabara howls gutturally into the microphone. Intense doesn’t begin to describe it.
Propelling its dancers into a state of ecstatic physical abandonment, Attractor has been a hit at festivals in the Eastern states. Ahead of the work’s Perth Festival season, Nina Levy spoke to co-director and co-choreographer Gideon Obarzanek to find out more.
The creative team behind the dance work Attractor is something of a super group. Directed and choreographed by two of Australia’s best-loved dance makers, Gideon Obarzanek and Lucy Guerin, and presented by two renowned Australian dance companies, Dancenorth and Lucy Guerin Inc, the work is also a collaboration with Indonesian music duo Senyawa, who fuse traditional folk music with sounds borrowed from heavy metal bands.
With such a stellar creative line-up, perhaps it’s no surprise that Attractor, a contemporary interpretation of the Javanese tradition of entering trance through dance and music, has garnered praise from audiences and critics alike, taking out the 2017 Helpmann Awards for Best Choreography and Best Dance Production.
“Attractor really blurs the line between professional and amateur, between performer and audience,” muses Gideon Obarzenek, as he reflects on the work’s success. “Senyawa play live and they’re really charismatic, powerful performers. So really it’s also a music concert. And then the virtuosity of the Dancenorth dancers, the power that they have in their bodies, combined with the accuracy, is very attractive, people are drawn to it… and the relationship between the music and the movement works so well.”
Attractor’s popularity with both audiences and critics is due to its clarity of purpose, Obarzanek believes. “From a popular perspective, the dance is very connected to the music, and the music to the dance. That relationship is very straightforward… it’s not some kind of cryptic work,” he reflects. “And yet it is quite sophisticated… it pushes itself hard, physically and musically, and becomes quite impressive in that way.”
The dance is very connected to the music, and the music to the dance. That relationship is very straightforward… it’s not some kind of cryptic work. And yet it is quite sophisticated… it pushes itself hard, physically and musically.
The concept behind Attractor is about experiential art rather than aesthetics. “The performers are not creating beautiful shapes in space or aesthetic compositions,” explains Obarzanek. “They’re getting into a kind of movement pattern, which repeats and goes in circles. It draws the audience in rather than performing out to the audience. And then people begin to join that, from the audience.”
For Obarzanek, who spent his early childhood on a kibbutz in Israel, the motivation to make this kind of work came from a desire to return to his artistic roots in Israeli folk dance. “After many years of working with professional dancers and making highly virtuosic dance, I chose to go back to my early influences in dance. I wanted to make this work which was more like folk dancing and participating, and being in something rather than being outside and looking in,” he elaborates. “When [Lucy Guerin and I] listened to the music of Senyawa, which was very much influenced by trance rituals in Indonesia, this idea of submitting to some state of otherness by doing something over and over influenced us a great deal.”
And how did the group of artistic dynamos come together?
“The background is really quite simple,” replies Obarzanek. “Kyle Page had only been director of Dancenorth for a short while when he asked Lucy [Guerin] and I if we would each make a piece for Dancenorth. We suggested making a single work together. I had been working indirectly with Senyawa in Indonesia. They had taken me on a journey to see some traditional dance and music ritual in far-East Java. We had been discussing the idea of doing a contemporary, secular ritual based on these traditional forms that interested us.”
Obarzanek took this idea back to Guerin who was keen. “Then we proposed a larger work than the resources that Dancenorth had at the time, which was a limited number of dancers,” he continues. “So Lucy suggested a co-production with her company [Lucy Guerin Inc] and we supplemented Dancenorth’s cast with a few other dancers. So it’s a larger cast than Dancenorth would normally have.”
I usually hate audience participation and so does Lucy. We designed it from the perspective of people who don’t like audience participation.
While the ingredients were all there in terms of creative talent, there was something else at play when it came to making to work, says Obarzanek. “I find, with collaborations, that a lot of it is the people but a big part of it is luck as well. We happened to work well together. We had the right balance of respect and interrogation, and knowing when to work together, and when people needed to go off on their own trajectory and make things that were not collaborative to bring back as a proposal to add to the work.”
One of the more unusual aspects of Attractor is that, just over half way through the work, the dancers are joined on stage by 20 audience members. While the volunteers are not rehearsed in advance, arriving just an hour before the show to receive their instructions, this section took a lot of studio time to perfect, says Obarzanek. “We spent between and third and half of the creative development time working on that aspect of the show. During the show there are 10 professionals on stage and then, just after half way through, 20 audience members join the performance. They’ve never seen the show and they get directed by Amber Haines, via these inner ear monitors. It works really well now but it took a lot of test groups for us to get the right instructions to get the outcomes that worked for the participants and worked for the audience. So that was a big part of the development of the work.”
The feedback from participants has been extremely positive, says Obarzanek, perhaps because both Obarzanek and Guerin are not normally fans of audience participation. “I usually hate audience participation and so does Lucy,” says Obarzanek with a laugh. “We designed it from the perspective of people who don’t like audience participation. So I think we’ve made something… you never have to express yourself or ‘perform’. The instructions are very literal. They’re straightforward. They’re not hugely creative. The participants appreciate it. They don’t have to think of anything to do. Once you’re being guided along, you give over to that very quickly and easily. And it’s fun… and it’s busy. You’re so busy doing the show that I don’t know how much time you really have to reflect that you’re on stage with these dancers.”