Alarming artwork

Bunker (Lisa Wilson and Nathan Sibthorpe)

Metro Arts, New Benner Theatre

October 19 – 22

Metro Arts’ underground black box New Benner Theatre is certainly an appropriate location for the world premiere of “Bunker”, given the scenario at the core of its premise and instruction to seek immediate shelter. As overlay to the tension of its opening moments, we are offered reassurance by an initial voiceover telling us to remain calm while the building’s alarm systems are tested. It’s all a drill we are assured, until we are asked to consider if maybe it wasn’t. The scenario is explained via teletext information across the back of the space; it’s January 2018 when as a resident of Hawaii, we receive a text message alert of an inbound ballistic missile due to hit in 20 minutes. What would we do?

The bold new intermedial dance work from Lisa Wilson and Nathan Sibthorpe begins with an incredible and incredibly gripping opening scene. Black-clad performers Asher Bowen-Saunders, Jayden Grogan, Hsin-Ju Ely and Alex Warren release together in shuttering frenzy in unison with the work’s cresendoing soundscape (original score by Guy Webster) and vigorous lighting (Lighting Designer Christine Felmingham) in keeping with the show’s promised heart-pounding visually-stunning exploration of how we respond to the unexpected and unimaginable. As the costuming begins to morph into all white, movments slow into a more lyrical duets and alike as characters connect to take is into another technical impress as created character shadows separate from their owners to operate independently (video design by Nathan Sibthorpe and Jeremy Gordon).

The work seeks to find the beauty between scenarios of chaos and the quieter moments of fragility, and Lisa Wilson’s choreography certainly ensures that there is light and shade to its realisation, but also space for contemplation, plus appreciation of the physical and technical skills being showcased in the cross-disciplinary collaboration. The integration of dance, an original score and dynamic video projection is also well balanced. Technology features not just as another character in the tapestry of its storytelling, but the primary one, evident in a variety of guises that build upon each other, such as when Hsin-Ju Ely moves in sync with a projected shadow outline, impressively given the precise definition of each perfectly timed and controlled movement.

Rozina Suliman’s design is deceptive simple, given its initially unimagined versatility. Large picture frames that hang above the stage, for example, feature in various guises throughout the show. Jayden Grogan hangs from one only to then envelope his body into the confines of its border and Hsin-Ju Ely moves one onto the ground to frame a projected puddle in which she sits in huddled hug of self, in assumed attempt to self-protect or soothe from the physical threat of virtual alarm 

The work’s exploration of digital fear remains integral throughout. Mobile phones handheld by performers are used to film live scenes projected on screen in real time, but not always realistic imagery, such as when a late segment shows us in thermal imagery like colour, water tracking down a dancer’s body, which adds some additional shades to things.

The intersection of digital technologies with contemporary dance that is central to the show’s premise and realisation, means that “Bunker” is a work for both fans of dynamic dance and theatrical invention alike. Its complexity is evidence through a layered approach that see all aesthetic aspects working in unison, definition and blurred lines alongside each other in compatibility rather than juxtaposition. Its sometimes askew rather than centered projections of movements happening on stage, for example add a unique interest.

“Bunker” is not only technical impressive, but also a physical show demanding stamina of its performers and it seems well-timed at an hour long without interval, even if there is a pre-emptive moment when outcome is revealed and audience members assume an ending with deserving applause. Whether premature of not, however, this thrilling new artwork from two of Australia’s most accomplished artists is certainly deserving of the acclaim.

España experience

Flamenco Fire

South Bank Piazza

September 4

Flamenco is not just a complex art form, but a feeling. This is clear from Brisbane Festival’s “Flamenco Fire” which sees Australia’s only national flamenco company of the same name, taking its audiences to España. The hour long show is a showcase of the art form in all of its guises, from contemporary festive dances to heart-wrenching traditional songs. As exquisite and explosive as the range of numbers is, however, without any narration, it feels like opportunity to fully appreciate the dance form’s ancient textures, diverse influences and contemporary connections is lost to those largely unfamiliar with the combination of guitar, song and dance.

Regardless, the complexities of its frenzied rhythms are clear and clearly appreciated by the enthusiastic audience. It’s a vibrant celebration of Spanish splendour, with colour and movement coming from striking costumes as much as the dancer’s decisive movements, all woven together through its elaborately orchestrated score’s mix of traditional and contemporary flamenco music and song.  

Prolific Sydney-based songstress Zoe Vélez, one of only a handful of Australian based flamenco singers, is captivating and Kacey Patrick provides some beautiful vocals to take audiences on the show’s journey through flamenco styles, supported by fiery guitar et al musicianship. It is the dancers, however, who make things fire, thanks to their effortless fluidity and intricate technique. Fernando Mira, who has been performing with Flamenco Fire for decades, shows passion and precision in his rousing numbers. The relentless rhythm of his steps is mesmerisingly hypnotic, especially when the spectacle settles into the distinctive stamps and taps being the number’s only sounds. Indeed, it is easy to appreciate his international acclaim. Simone Pope is similarly impressive in her poise and elegance, especially when she turns her flamenco shawl into dramatic prop. It’s an intricately choreographed number, that shows off her artistry in a frenzied contrast to other slower moments of beautiful hand and arm movements.

“Flamenco Fire” is a beautifully crafted ensemble show of heart-wrenching traditional songs and fiery contemporary guitar pieces. It is full of infectious energy and passion, making it a thrilling experience that will not only leave you wanting to see, but also know, more about its art form in all of its guises.

Without doubt wonderful

An American in Paris (The Australian Ballet and GWB Entertainment)

QPAC, Lyric Theatre

January 8 – 30

“An American in Paris” ‘S Wonderful, without doubt, from even its opening moments. The keenly-awaited Australian premiere collaboration between The Australian Ballet and GWB Entertainment begins with the simple imagery of a lone piano on stage, before we are launched into theimmediate aftermath of French liberation from Nazi occupation post-World War II. Arising from the ashes of the conflict is a city of explosive colour and energy that becomes a character itself as much as a backdrop to its ensuring love story.  

Inspired by the Academy Award-winning MGM film, the four-time Tony Award-winning Broadway musical tells the entrancing story of a young American ex-soldier, Jerry Mulligan (New York City Ballet principal dancer Robbie Fairchild) and a beautiful French ballerina Lise Dassin (Leanne Cope of London’s Royal Ballet). Mulligan has remained in Paris following the Nazi occupation’s downfall to try his luck as an artist, alongside fellow (now-wounded) veteran Adam Hochberg (Jonathan Hickey). Young Parisian dancer Lise, soon becomes the romantic focus of both men, without them realising her beau is their new friend, aspiring performer Henri (Sam Ward).

With wealthy American patron, Milo (Ashleigh Rubenach) financing the ballet that Adam is writing, in which Lise will appear, the show is, at its core, a tribute to art. Dance is central to its experience from the start; with inventive choreography including intricate ballets, musical theatre and jazz style numbers, chorus lines and tap routines. Act One’s late montage literally brings art to life as we are danced through the Parisian art world, the ballet’s rehearsals and a harlequin masked costume party at which Jerry realises Lise is engaged to his friend.

Under Christopher Wheeldon’s precise direction and choreography, the show is a celebration of both spectacle and skill. Reprising their roles as Jerry and Lise, Broadway and West End leads Fairchild and Cope cannot be faulted. Their signature pas de deux are enchanting in their dreamy romanticism as they soar across the stage. Fairchild, in particular, glides about with effortless ease, but also clear control, creating lithe lines that even those without intimate dance knowledge can appreciate.

With so much dance, the score features less than the usual number of songs for a musical and while sweeping romance is at the core of its identity, lively ensemble numbers, such as when the three main men bond in friendship and imagination of a brighter future in Act One’s toe-tapping ‘I Got Rhythm’, also feature amongst the highlights.

Familiar George and Ira Gershwin tunes such as ‘But Not For Me’, ‘’S Wonderful’ and ‘They Can’t Take That Away From Me’ soar gorgeously under Vanessa Scammell’s musical direction. In particular, Act Two’s ‘Stairway to Paradise’, in which Henri’s fantasises of performing an elegant number in Radio City Music Hall is an absolute art deco, heel and toe, tux and tails triumph of ritzy showgirl razzle dazzle.

A stunning design aesthetic elevates every scene as the enchantment of Paris is realised. Minimal set pieces dance across the stage establishing scene-by-scene locations and clever design allows sets to transform before audience eyes. Costumes changes, too, often happen as if by magic, such as when Lise blossoms from a shop girl to prima ballerina and detailed impressionistic projections awash things with beautiful Monet-esque watercolour palettes.  

The culmination of artistry that is Act Two’s lengthy titular ballet is a masterpiece of design. The elaborate number is enlivened by the orchestra’s bright jazz sounds and projections of avant-garde geometric Picasso-esque shapes. Its unique blend of classical and modern dance makes for sensational show-stopping number that allows for celebration of The Australian Ballet dancers, and even a mid-routine opening night applause for Fairchild’s series of perfectly turned out pirouettes.

Along with its beauty, “An American in Paris” has its humorous moments, such as when Act Two opens to the energetic number ‘Fidgety Feet’, which only adds to the show’s essential charm. The classy production uniquely takes its time, but also never sits still within the extravagance of its top production values. And while its lovely lavishness may be what impresses most, its optimistic romantic escapism to Paris, appropriately also lingers in reminder that from darkness can come light.

Photos c/o – Darren Thomas

Computer says go

Forgery (Australasian Dance Collective)

QPAC, Cremorne Theatre

September 22 – October 2

The Australasian Dance Collective (formerly known as Expressions Dance Company) is a leading Brisbane-based contemporary dance group of much acclaim, whose unique shows celebrate collaboration and risk-taking in equal measure. “Forgery”, commissioned for development by award-winning Melbourne-based dancer, sound designer, choreographer and creative coder Alisdair Macindoe, perfectly encapsulates this core ethos.

The world premiere is innovative in its intent and execution given that it is directed entirely by cutting-edge technology. The resulting improvised choreographic score makes each performance a uniquely authentic experience for dancers and audience members alike. Beginning with direction for its six dancers to find their way to the stage, the shows sees its ensemble of performers then fed instructions live on stage by a complex series of algorithms which also dictate lighting, costumes and music. Initially, the directions are given as part of the sound design, before morphing into earpiece instructions that the audience sees projected at the back of the stage, effectively including us in the creative process as we see the show’s duration tick down in time.  

From its choreographic start, the bespoke Brisbane Festival show progresses to solo and duo work before a returning choreographic conclusion, with increasing speed and decreasing gaps between instructions in its exciting final minutes. Each performance sees a different order of different things, such as a long duo, leaving four dancers off stage in Saturday’s matinee performance.

When the dancers, Chase Clegg-Robinson, Tyrel Dulvarie, Lonii Garnons-Williams, Jack Lister, Jag Popham and Josephine Weise are all on stage, it is often difficult to know where to look as they each independently translate the instructions in simultaneous solos, finding their own styles inside the structure as phrases are often played out in different sequences or with pauses at different spots. Still, highlights mostly come when the group flock together or are moving en masse across the stage.

“Forgery” is fast moving and reactive at its core, such as when dancers have to navigate out of each other’s spaces upon instruction to spread evenly across the stage or are told where certain limbs are to be placed and when to interact in physical connection with others. Yet, it is a clear celebration of unique ways of thinking and moving as individual interpretations of a common language are communicated using different physical tools.

At just 45 minutes long, it is certainly short and sharp, catering to the attention economy of the digital world from which it has originated, as variables are added to the skeleton of each structural segment. It is, however, crammed with depth and an intensity that makes its short show time entirely apt, given that instructions are sometimes changing every 10 seconds. The limited time this gives dancers to complete ideas gives added invigoration. With so many instructions to translate (over 3000 during the season), hasty, condensed responses are required to convey physical ideas before they are changed.

Silliness settles its appeal to even dance laymen, giving us humour in instructions such as ‘your eyebrows are your thighs’ and affording a connection through easily identifiable concepts like Incy Wincy Spider, a Mexican wave, tai chi and the Thriller dance. And the soundscore of compositional works from Macindoe is often evocatively ominous towards a thunderous climax, supported by collaboration with Ben Hughes’ lighting design.

With all of its unique challenges, “Forgery” celebrates the flexibility and skill of its performers, but also encourages appreciation of the language and discipline of dance. To be given the rare opportunity to see chance choreography not just done, but done well, is thrilling in and of itself, but the work also brings with it an integral depth in its lead towards contemplations around creative agency and consideration of what is meant by choreography. As all great art does, however, “Forgery” constructs no finite answers, giving its audiences further reason to want to go again to more of its season of premiere productions of the work.

Making men

This Ain’t No Pussy Show (Kate Harman & Toby Angus)

Metro Arts, New Benner Theatre

September 16 – 18

From its title alone one could easily suspect that “This Ain’t No Pussy Show” is going to be a down-with-the-patriarchy type of feminist manifest. But the world premiere Brisbane Festival show from Kate Harman and Toby Angus reveals that it’s actually a lot more nuanced than just this. (The ‘Boys Don’t Cry’ Cure music poster should have given it away that this is instead a show about the making of men.)

We begin pre-show with Metro Arts’ New Benner Theatre transformed into a teenage boy’s bedroom. Within its beanbag untidiness is Toby (Toby Angus), a 16-year-old about to be interrupted from his Xbox by his mother Kate (Australian dancer and choreographer Kate Harman), who isn’t really his mother we learn later as more of the shows premise about how to navigate growing up as a boy is unpacked. The complicated navigation though the show’s provocative theme of gender equality requires some guidance, so first we are given a road map of how the how long show shall proceed via a dance break, big reveal and a phallic segue.

Dance features heavily in the highly physical show, providing many of its highlights as Harman and Angus dance together and against each other in realisation of its themes. Anna Whitaker’s dynamic composition and sound design also helps with the creation of some memorable moments such as Harman’s ‘Killing in the Name’ rage against the machine. At the core of her frustration as a mother is knowing how to parent a boy in the current social and political climate. And in this regard, there are few answers provided. Indeed, rather than giving answers the show inspires questions about how to make Kate a better parent, such as if she should teach her son to fight and it there are dangers to validating his vulnerability.

Under the direction of performer Kate Harman and writer/co-director Gavin Webber, “The Ain’t No Pussy Show” reveals a nuanced approach that elevates it above many similarly-themed social issue works. The years spent on its development may have seen performer and collaborator Toby Angus grow out of his initial character type, as he asserts in one of its many metatheatre moments, but they have clearly helped in the creation of a cleverly crafted commentary on coming terms with manhood in a rapidly changing world. It’s an appropriate metaphor too given the shifting landscape that Kate and Toby must navigate together.

It is quite the ride through its 50-minute duration as through the relationship of a mother and son, ‘This Ain’t No Pussy Show’ explores everything from feminism and masculinity to privilege, patriarchy and pizza shapes. To set such powerful themes against the art from of dance, not only emphasises the urgency of its ideas, but also enhances audience engagement. An early highlight comes when Katie appropriately begins a high-energy boxing routine to the pumping sounds of Peaches’ ’Flip This’, which morphs into the two performers switching between the gendered roles being signposted. And Kate’s memorable ‘Killing in the Name’ trip off the map anger in relation to the actuality of space abundance is grittily angsty and angular in its movements.

While the show is interesting in its examination of language, it’s not always subtle in its messaging, not that it presumes to be. There is no pussyfooting around the commentary, when, for example, Toby is made to envelope himself into taking up less physical space with direction to tense up and hold everything in. But such blatancy is tempered by its many moments of humour, such as wen Toby acts out the possibilities of what Kate’s six-year-old son might be, as an accompaniment to her pondering. And Toby’s words of wisdom at the show’s end come as an endearing surprise, cementing the show’s worth as a complex, original and rewarding theatre experience.

Pink Matter empowerment

The Type (Pink Matter)

Metro Arts, New Benner Theatre

September 10 – 13

Pro-girl gang, Pink Matter’s “The Type” brings together five female dancers from different cultural backgrounds and of all shapes and sizes. In the languish of the show’s opening number, they are entwined and bonded to each other in slow angles and with some sizzling synchronised Fosse-esque isolations. Though there is no clear narrative from here, there are distinct themes to the repertoire on display as the performers break apart and return together to share some empowering street dance, inspired by their lived experiences around representation and body image, blended with the power and strength of fusion movement. Accordingly, each dancer is given individual moments to shine in the world premiere performance as part of the Brisbane Festival. And shine Floss Moloney, Wanida Serce, Monika Stojevski, Kimberley Smit and Amy Zhang, all do, as they each show impressive movement, expression, emotions and stage presence that captures the audience.

As the chain of dancers breaks, lighting warms the stage along with the seasawing sounds of Yaeji’s electronic ‘Raingurl’ and performer, creator and Creative Director Wanida Serce’s impressive fusion and conceptual free form choreography/freestyle starts to take shape. The work’s hybrid hip-hop, R&B and House music soundtrack works well to elevate its experience, reflecting a sense of journey through life’s lived experiences of lapses and learning. By the time we get to Missy Elliott’s ‘She a Bitch’, the collective’s all-original sensibility is clear as the stage pumps with athleticism, intricacy, flexibility and palpable pop and lock energy and attitude, especially in a later acrobatic number from Serce.

The show is full of light and shade moments too, enhanced by Serce’s considered choices which aid in the creation of memorable imagery, such as when Smit leads the others in formation of fluid ensemble movements like a flock of beautiful birds soaring into flight. Creative elements such as Christine Felmingham’s lighting design, similarly, aid in the creation of memorable moments such as when bespeckled lighting washes over a dramatic overhead lift.

A well-chosen soundscape enhances, without overwhelming the effect of routines, which speak volumes alone as they set about challenging the standards of beauty and success that shape entertainment today. This is evident, most notably, in a powerful number from Floss Moloney, which sees the powerhouse performer encircled by mirrors in what emerges as an ultimate celebration of self-efficacy.

Diverse as the talented dancers may be, their synchronicity is always excellent, and transitions concise. It is nice, also, to see choreography that allows for facial expression beyond blank stare, yet never detracting from the collective’s upbeat spirit, and formidable and fearless big girl power energy. This is clearly a hardworking company of proud performers trying to push the envelope of dance’s legacy of tired, carbon-copy stereotypes and “The Type” not only contributes to this, but energises their audience along for an electric and entertaining physical conversation.

Photos c/o – Logan Preste