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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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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2 contemporary dancers on stage
Calendar, Dance, June 19, May 19, Performing arts

Dance: precipice

29 May – 1 Jun @ Studio Underground, State Theatre Centre of WA ·
Presented by State Theatre Centre of WA and Rachel Arianne Ogle ·

Inspired by tectonic shifts, gravitational torsion and states of emotional rupture, ‘precipice’ is a dance of abandon and precarious control. Australian choreographer Rachel Arianne Ogle wields her technical and extremely physical style to draw immense unseen forces in the bodies of four dancers.

Ogle has assembled leading performance designers to create a multi-sensory experience where choreography unfolds within an electrifying light and sound installation. Contrasting precision and strength with mounting tension and fragility, this is a bold and unique work of contemporary dance from one of Australia’s rising choreographic artists.

precipice returns to the State Theatre Centre of WA after premiering here in August 2014 to critical acclaim. It was subsequently nominated for a Helpmann Award for ‘Best Dance Work’ and an Australian Dance Award for ‘Outstanding Achievement in Independent Dance’ in 2015.

“precipice began its life as an exploration of various physical states in opposition. It very quickly grew to take on a voice and direction of its own, to transcend my initial points of departure and delve into territory encompassing grander concepts of the universe. The infinite space in which we exist and to which we are intimately interconnected, and the invisible forces that are constantly at play within this, are beyond the realm of my conception. Through considering our place in this immense system, we unveil a profound vulnerability and fragility that is both ephemeral and enigmatic.” – Rachel Arianne Ogle

“A knockout production… Rapid high-tech triggers transport us into an expansive universe through light, sound and dance… a ticket to another dimension” – The West Australian

“An intriguing visual feast… the resultant whole assaulting the senses and stirring emotions.” – Artshub

Choreography by Rachel Arianne Ogle
Performance by Tyrone Robinson, Niharika Senapati, Yilin Kong, Imanuel Dado
Visual Design by Benjamin Cisterne
Sound Composition by Luke Smiles / motion laboratories
Costume Design by Colleen Sutherland
Produced by Sam Fox

More info:
www.ptt.wa.gov.au/venues/state-theatre-centre-of-wa/whats-on/precipice/

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From the intimate to the comic

MoveMe Festival review: The Farm, Cockfight; Kynan Hughes, Love/Less & STRUT Dance, “Next” ·
State Theatre Centre of WA ·
Review by Varnya Bromilow ·

The theme of toxic masculinity is getting a lot of (long overdue) play in the Australian cultural landscape of late. With the possible exception of those packs of lycra-clad bicycling dudes, nowhere is this societal trope more evident than in the corporate workspace. It’s this setting that Queensland dance theatre ensemble The Farm has selected for their new work, the aptly named Cockfight. But if you’re worried about being bludgeoned by some unsubtle political posturing, fear not! Cockfight is 90 minutes of hilarious absurdity, wrapped in dance. I have not heard a dance audience laugh this long or this hard in a very long time.

The work opens with a deskbound Gavin Webber, playing with those corporate fidget toys – you know, the prototypes of the ones we now give to kids with ADHD? He’s nervously awaiting the arrival of young upstart, Joshua Thomson. Thomson is the new guard, the successor of the empire Webber built and Webber is none too keen on giving up the swivel chair. What ensues is an epic battle of the male ego – youth vs age; strength vs wit; innovation vs experience. Utilising all the accoutrements of your bog standard office, Webber attempts to intimidate and overshadow his nemesis. Filing cabinets are ravaged, chairs are thrown, desks are repurposed as dancing platforms. There are reams of paper, flung aloft or folded deftly into airborne missiles – one particularly memorable scene sees Thomson catch such a missile neatly in his mouth. Webber congratulates him with that most masculine of accolades – the hearty handshake, which steadily metamorphosises into a full-body, limb-swinging assault.

In another phrase, Thomson finds himself atop the filing cabinet. The next thing we know the two men are whooping around the office, knuckles dragging, chests beating. For a dance work tackling male ego and power, this is perhaps an obvious choice, but the beauty is – I never saw it coming. In a similar twist, the chairs the men are fighting with become antlers as the two bucks battle it out. Again, not surprising but somehow gleefully unanticipated.

It’s impossible to stop watching the charismatic Webber. Now silver-haired, he still has the grace of someone half his age and watchability that must be the envy of any dancer in the country. Thomson is a wonderful foil and with his (dare I say it?) youthful vigour, the better dancer. Together, whether they’re discussing the migration patterns of the Sooty Shearwater or hurling each other through the air, their chemistry bristles.

This is slapstick on the desktop. The gags – and the laughs – are relentless. By the time it was over, it was almost unclear what we had witnessed – was it dance, theatre or comedy? No matter – whatever it was, it was marvellous.

A male dancer holding a female dancer by her arm and leg
Ambitiously physical: Marlo Benjamin & Alexander Perrozzi in Kynan Hughes’s ‘Love/Less’. Photo: Emma Fishwick.

Independent local choreographer Kynan Hughes and that invaluable hub of contemporary dance in WA – STRUT dance – have produced a showcase of fine offerings as part of the MoveMe Festival. The program includes a full-length piece, produced and choreographed by Hughes, alongside two short works presented by STRUT (performed on alternate nights) – #thatwomanjulia by Natalie Allen and Sally Richardson and the one I saw, Blushed by Yilin Kong. The latter is an unashamedly sensual exploration of femininity performed by Kong in three sections. Kong’s movement is exquisite and the 20-minute work, while erring on the side of repetitive, is beautiful to watch.

Love/Less is the second full-length work from local choreographer Kynan Hughes. While the first, 2017’s Valentine, received mixed reviews, this new offering demonstrates that Hughes is coming into his own.

Inspired by the death of Hughes’ father, Love/Less has actually been in development for five years. In the program notes, the choreography is credited as a joint effort between Hughes and his dancers – Rachel Arianne Ogle, Marlo Benjamin and Alexander Perrozzi. It’s an ambitiously physical work, demanding great athleticism of the performers, all of whom rise admirably to the task. While there is not a strong narrative thread, the work’s movement and its flawless execution by the dancers easily holds the audience’s interest. Ogle is always extraordinary to watch and she is in peak form here. I’m sure she doesn’t mean to do it, but her onstage magnetism is so strong at times it tends to overshadow anyone performing alongside her. That was not the case on this occasion – when Benjamin (who I had not had the pleasure of seeing before) started in on her solo, I was gobsmacked. Like some sort of hypermobile elf, Benjamin’s control of her vessel is so impressive, her economy of movement so incredible, I could have watched her all day.

Aided by an evocative soundtrack by Sascha Budimski and gorgeous lighting from Joe Lui, Love/Less is a truly remarkable feat of dance. Dance for dance’s sake, if you will.

You can catch both these programs at the State Theatre Centre of WA until September 22. 

Pictured top: Hilarious absurdity, wrapped in dance: Gavin Webber and Joshua Thomson in ‘Cockfight’. Photo: Darcy Grant.

a girl in a crouched, swirling position
Rachel Arianne Ogle is extraordinary to watch. Photo: Emma Fishwick.
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The road to Valentine: Kynan Hughes

Ahead of the premiere of his first full length work, Valentine, choreographer and dancer Kynan Hughes talks to Nina Levy about his life in dance.

I first met Kynan Hughes at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA). The year was 1998 and we were both starting first year. Although 16 year old Hughes was the baby of the group and I was nearly the oldest at the grand old age of 23, I rarely thought about the age difference when we worked together. A deft and beautiful mover, Hughes was an old soul, sensitive and highly creative. I never thought to ask him why he chose to leave school early, perhaps because it was clear from the start that he was going to flourish at WAAPA.

In fact, he tells me 20 years later, the decision to leave was fuelled by his absolute conviction that he wanted to dance, coupled with an intense dislike of school. “I was desperately unhappy at high school,” he remembers. “I liked learning things, but I didn’t like everything else about it.”

Growing up dance was a ‘necessity’ for Kynan Hughes. Photo: Jenni Large.

WAAPA was a revelation to Hughes. “I feel like I hit the jackpot with my year group. I had a really supportive home life and a really supportive peer group who were more than happy to have a 16 year old running around with them. It was the first time that I felt great in the education system.”

It dawns on me, somewhat belatedly given our two decades of friendship, that I have also never asked Hughes how he came to dance in the first place. “My story about how I got started is fun in one way and about necessity in another,” he tells me. “When I was about 18 months old I came down with this thing called Kawasaki disease… it’s a relatively rare auto-immune disease. It slowed my movement development, which meant that as a child I wasn’t very physically adept. Sport at school was hell for me. Climbing on monkey bars I really sucked at. All those things that are a great joy, I had trouble with. So as a little guy I wasn’t very physical at all.”

The turning point? Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. “When I was 8, I was in the lounge room at a friend’s place watching TV and ABC put on a Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers film. And I loved it. I thought it was one of the most amazing things I’d ever seen. My mum remembers me going home that night and shuffling around and pretending to tap dance.

“Shortly after that I was at a birthday party, and all the mums were in the kitchen. A new dance school was offering adult tap dance classes and one of the mums said, ‘I’ll only do it if Kynan’s mum does it,’ and my mum surprised the other mum by saying ‘Sure!’”. The class happened to be on night dad had to teach late at TAFE, so I was taken along to the class and because I had just seen Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, I wanted to join in. So I did… and that was how it all started for me.

I don’t know what I’d be like as an adult, in my body, if I hadn’t done dance.

Soon Hughes was taking ballet and jazz classes as well. “My mum was really worried because she had spent my entire life to that point dealing with the distress that comes when you’re not as physically co-ordinated as other kids. As an adult she told me, ‘You were so excited and I was so worried it would be another thing you couldn’t do,’ but it actually helped. In that way it was a necessity. I don’t know what I’d be like as an adult, in my body, if I hadn’t done dance.”

It’s not surprising that Hughes finds it difficult to imagine life without dance. He has worked with an impressive range of companies and artists, including Leigh Warren and Dancers (where he got his first break), Dancenorth, Buzz Dance Theatre, Natalie Weir, Emmanuel Gat, Kenneth Kvarnstrom, Chrissie Parrott, Sue Peacock, James Berlyn, Sally Richardson and Natalie Cursio… and, of course, three years with Sydney Dance Company (SDC).

Hughes dancing with Charmene Yap at Sydney Dance Company. Photo: Jez Smith.

Hughes tells the story of his successful audition for one of the country’s most prestigious dance companies with customary self-deprecating humour. Although he had always wanted to dance with SDC, when an audition opportunity came up shortly after the appointment of current director Rafael Bonachela, he felt like it was “out of [his] league”. After encouragement from friends, he sent in his application on the day of the deadline. An invitation to audition arrived the next day.

At the time he was working with Leigh Warren and Dancers in Adelaide. “So I flew in to Sydney and I walked into the room and there were all these hardcore, amazing dancers in their unitards,” Hughes recalls. “The audition was intense. We did a ballet class first. I was right at the front of the room because it was alphabetical and that was where “H” landed up, right in front of the panel and I thought, ‘I’m screwed. Ballet at this point? Not my strong suite.’ I think I was in the third class of the day – they had a huge number of people auditioning. So I wrote myself off, and thought, ‘At least I can look around Sydney.’

“But I didn’t get cut. So we went into repertoire, and each time there’d be a cut, I’d think, ‘Ok, this is it. And then we got to the end of the day and they said, these are the people we’re keeping for tomorrow’ and my name was called out. I got back to my hotel – it was an airport hotel because I thought I’d be flying out fairly shortly – and I was so sore, so chronically sore! I remember getting into the bath and thinking, ‘How am I going to dance tomorrow?’

I remember getting into the bath and thinking, ‘How am I going to dance tomorrow?’

“The next day we rocked up at nine in the morning and it was a two-hour Cunningham technique class. I was like, ‘Well this will be it. I can hardly walk…’ but to my surprise I was still not shunted out the door. So we did more repertoire. Then we finished the day with improv and I think that’s probably what got me the the job. I think Raf was looking for people who could really contribute to the creative process.”

Hughes danced with SDC for three years,  2009 – 2011, and describes his time with the company as a whirlwind. “It’s a machine,” he observes. “It’s wonderful, it’s terrible, it’s all-encompassing. You get home, you eat, you sleep, you go back the next day and you dance really hard. It’s amazing to be a part of that. I watch the company now, and I have to pinch myself to remember I did do that. It doesn’t seem possible now.”

While Hughes’ entry into SDC was a fairy tale, his decision to retire from company life and return to Perth was wrapped in reality. “The decision to leave was twofold,” he explains. “I hit 30 and I went, ‘Ow. It’s much harder [physically] than it was a year ago. I’m not bouncing back as easily as I was.’ And the schedule was punishing.

“The other factor was that my father passed away. I had the sudden realisation that I had not been around my family for about 12 years. My father’s death affected me really deeply in terms of that realisation of how brutal change can be. I needed to step back, re-connect with family and my body needed to have a break from that level of intensity.”

Hughes has always been fascinated with masks. Pictured is Natalie Allen in ‘Valentine’. Photo: Pixel Poetry.

While the reasons for coming home were not happy ones, Hughes has no regrets. He has found employment as an independent dance artist and as a teacher with the WAAPA dance department. “I feel I’ve been able to give back to the community here by teaching at WAAPA. I got so much from WAAPA as a student, it was so formative, that the thought that I can give a little bit back is quite lovely,” he reflects. Dancing for local independent choreographers and directors, such as Sue Peacock, Chrissie Parrott and Sally Richardson, he relishes the contrast between life as an independent dance artist and life as a company dancer. “You get to do what you want as an independent! That’s a great joy,” he explains. “Of course, I learned so much in company situations… but it’s empowering being able to choose where you put your energy.” There are challenges, though, he adds. “Being an independent affords you a freedom that you don’t have in a company, but what you get in freedom you lose in security. In a company you have an income and you have a schedule. I miss a schedule. You know your life is planned. All you need to do is sleep, eat and stretch.”

In a company you have a schedule. You know your life is planned. All you need to do is sleep, eat and stretch.

Thinking back to our WAAPA days, Hughes was a keen choreographer, so it’s no surprise that another advantage of being an independent is that it allows time for him to pursue making his own work. Currently he is in the thick of rehearsing his first full-length work, Valentine, which will be performed by Hughes with renowned dancers Natalie Allen, David Mack and Rachel Arianne Ogle. Shaped by the characters of commedia dell’arte – the innocent, the bully, the manipulator, the object of desire – Valentine explores loneliness and desire through dance, theatre, puppetry and mask play. “Commedia is something I’ve always been fascinated with,” remarks Hughes. “And mask work… you know when you make those paper plate masks in primary school? I loved doing that. Commedia is interesting because it’s so influential. You still find the characters and archetypes in film and literature today, the journey man, the fool, the Pierrot. It’s pervasive across all art-forms.”

Commedia dell’arte is about story-telling but many of the traditional stories are problematic from a contemporary perspective, particularly in terms of the way women are represented, says Hughes. “There are interesting questions that arise from using an old story with such inherent problems in a modern-day context. The work hopefully starts to interrogate some of those things like, what is ok to retell? Should we be finding new stories to tell? Maybe they are cautionary tales – maybe we tell them to illustrate how we don’t want to be. Stories are really powerful. The power of narrative is persuasive – we see Trump trying to control narrative, political parties trying to control narrative, take news. Art can interrogate that, asking how does this story apply to us now? What do we need to do it to for it to carry weight?

“So Valentine looks at commedia like that, it distils everything that’s been and questions whether it’s something we still want to talk about, or whether it’s something we can leave behind.”

You can catch Valentine at the Blue Room, 14 November – 2 December.

Top: Kynan Hughes, photographed by Jenni Large.

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