Dance dynamism

100 years of the History of Dance

Brisbane Powerhouse

July 31 – August 3

“100 Years of The History of Dance”…. it does what it says on the tin, but also so much more. 100 Years of the History of Dance as Told by One Man in 60 Minutes with An Energetic Group Finale is its more accurate, albeit verbose, title. The new work by Australian director, choreographer and performer Joseph Simons is absolutely entertaining, interesting in its discoveries and above all else, heaps of fun.

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The show is framed around goal-driven schoolboy Jacob’s (Joseph Simons) oral presentation on the topic of his own choice. What unfolds is an exploration of influential choreographers, in which Jacob not only discusses them, but demonstrates their signature styles. Rather than presenting the journey sequentially, however, content is shared as a family tree of influence, ‘because everyone overlaps’, which serves as an early signpost to one of the show’s themes about the fine lines between inspiration, influence and imitation.

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Non-chronological sequencing not only adds interest through anticipation of what is to come next, but contributes to its roller coaster experience through the work of choreographers like Martha Graham, Alvin Ailey, Gene Kelly and even Paula Abdul (and also the titbit trivia of their personal lives). The show is more about chorographers than dancers, but all audience expectations as to anticipated inclusions are met, although unfortunately without an Australian mention. Even those with only a passing knowledge of dance will find enough in its content to be entertained by recreation and explanation of the Broadway hi-jinx of Bob Fosse and others.

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Simons’ is a wonderful storyteller. He is infectious in his energy and his comic timing is spot-on, however, “speaking of…” transitions between segments are not entirely smooth and his push through audience laugher creates some disconnection. Beneath the schoolboy demeanour and uniform, is Simons’ dancer’s body, which we first see when ‘Jacob’ recreates Soviet ballet dancer and choreographer Rudolf Nureyev’s classical technique, hovering high in the air in an undeniable show of strength and skill. Indeed, in each illustrative segue he captures the characteristics of the performers, switching easily between a range of forms. Also of particularly note, his illustration of DV8 Physical Theatre and the work of Lloyd Newson, while narrating with accompanying explanation is absolutely brilliant in its deliberately-nuanced, gestured movement.

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“100 Years of The History of Dance”is tightly directed by Emma Canalese and clever in its simplicity, which is enhanced by the intimacy of the Powerhouse’s Visy Theatre. A lone school desk and chair are the only props, transforming even into a podium in recreation of Michael Bennett’s Tony Award receipt for “A Chorus Line”. Meanwhile Jacob’s school uniform costume transforms into all sorts of dance dress, most notably in a vivid Jellicoe Cats number with reappropriated lyrics in tribute to the chorographer of ‘England’s first dance musical’, Gillian Lynne.

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Simons is a charming performer and in his hands “100 Years of The History of Dance” is a unique and rewarding theatre experience. Its blend of dance and theatre may be unusual but it is thoroughly entertaining, especially when, in conclusion, the audience joins together in realisation of their own choreographed routine, for dance is, after all, about music, movement and connection.

“Do it big do it right and do it with style”, Jacob tells us, quoting Fred Astaire. True to these words, “100 Years of The History of Dance” is a dynamic exploration of dance as a discipline but also the ideas of influence, fame and legacy and, as such, it is a show not to be missed.

Feasting for influence

The Dinner Party (Expressions Dance Company)

QPAC, Cremorne Theatre

May 10 – 18

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Premiering to rave reviews in 2015, “The Dinner Party” (former title “The Host”) is a gripping contemporary dance work from Queensland’s award-winning Expressions Dance Company. And in its 2019 reincarnation, the work, which is choreographed by internationally renowned choreographer and former Artistic Director Natalie Weir, has audience members once again absorbed, from the very first frame of its visual aesthetic.

There is an art deco-ish feel to its immediate appeal, with a group of elegantly-dressed guests seated around a table against a sparkling backdrop… like a scene from “The Great Gatsby”, besides the bare feet. It’s just the kind of formality expected for the start of a sophisticated dinner party. Things soon relax as the night progresses, however, even though the power play between the guests is just starting.

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Influential young host (Jake McLarnon) is the proceeding’s initial puppet-master, evident from his initial pose upon the table to control seated guests with little but an authoritative click of his fingers. They, however, are having none of it, each set upon enacting their own agendas. And there are agendas aplenty thanks to a younger woman, The Lover (Isabella Hood), having an affair with the host, a socially ambitious but insecure Party Girl (Josephine Weise), The Wannabe (Jag Popham) trying it on with the ladies, the ambitious but charming Rival (Bernhard Knauer) for The Host’s position and the seductive but solitudinous Hostess (Lizzie Vilmanis).

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From amidst this complicated relationship web, the reoccurring motifs of jealousy, ambition and attempted control continue through manipulation of movement, including within the Host’s relationship with the Hostess, with the pair joining together as a couple in breaks but at other times conveying the fractured nature of their relationship. And there is some satisfaction to seeing how things transform between then over the show’s hour long experience.

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As The Host, Jake McLarnon performs in duet with each of the party’s guests, and is excellent in every instance, despite their different nuances and tones. Guest artist Lizzie Vilmanis is captivating as The Hostess, her ballet-based, old-world deportment deflating as her brave-face fades, while, in contrast The Party Girl becomes empowered by her manipulation. It is Jag Popham, however, as The Wannabe, who provides audiences with the show’s most memorable moments when, like a ventriloquist’s dummy, he is folded and flung sharply about the stage in the ultimate act of manipulated manoeuvring, resulting in spontaneous end-of-scene applause.

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“The Dinner Party” is contemporary dance at its most dramatic, often hypnotic in the excellence of its execution of its lifts and leaps, whether in solo, duet or otherwise examination of individual character personalities and interlaced relationships. Embedded with some recognisable canonical classic call-backs, its score of recorded music by Southern Cross Soloists also contributes significantly to the spectacle, taking the mood from exuberance to playfulness and through romanticism, defeat and hollow victory.

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Musical motifs assist in characterisation too, staccatoed detachment for the confident and calculating host and regal pomp for the well-to-do Hostess, working with Ben Hughes’ evocative lighting design to underscore tonal changes. And acclaimed Australian fashion designer Gail Sorranda’s costumes are pretty much perfect in their conveyance of character and their changing inter-personal intertwinings. Staging is also simple yet effective; the table that begins centre-stage is moved about the place and into various positions, even facilitating a duet with dancers hanging off its up-ended side.

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While Natalie Weir may have moved on from her role as the dance company’s Artistic Director, it is fitting that her legacy be paid tribute in this first mainstage season of 2019 and the artistic feast that is “The Dinner Party”. While it may not have the narrative clarity of last year’s profoundly moving “Everyday Requiem”, this ambiguity and its catalyst for post-show conversations about the illusion of control is all just part of its appeal.

Photos c/o – David Kelly

Bespoke beauty

Bespoke (Queensland Ballet)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Powerhouse Theatre

November 9 – 17

As the saying goes, “I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like.” For me, this is especially the case when it comes to the art of dance; I don’t have familiarity with the vocabulary of ballet moves, however, I can appreciate the overall aesthetic of the art form. And aesthetic is what Queensland Ballet’s “Bespoke” is all about.

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In illustration of the company’s varied repertoire, the creative intersection of art forms sets out to challenge assumptions about what dance is, what dancers can do, and how dance is experienced. And in its three-work 2018 attempt to achieve this, it more than succeeds, creating an experience of contrasts for audience consideration.

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Three distinct works by three different choreographers each explore unique themes. But the on-stage works represent just some of the night’s sensory dance experiences. Before even entering the theatre, there is Cass Mortimer Eipeer’s dance film about duality, ‘Brute’ and a photographic exhibition of dancers emerging from darkness, in the Brisbane Powerhouse foyer spaces. The positioning of the contemporary dance program against electronic media is an integral part of the intent of the experience and represents much of its success. This is particularly evident in the evening’s first and most substantial work ‘Parts per Million’ (concept and choreography by Craig Davidson), which looks at human behaviour patterns and the idea of change.

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The vision is of poetry in motion as dancers glide across the stage in formation within lines of light, like the disinterested, indifferent subjects of John Brack’s iconic ‘Collins St, 5pm’ muted oil painting of urban Melbourne’s repetitive nine-to-five office life drudgery. Though there are some visually impressive moments as dancers cannon in movement, the most impressive moves are when they break free from the uniformity in partner and solo work, sometimes in struggle, before ultimately conforming again to what appears to be their pre-determined course.

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Movement is lyrical, yet deliberate with dancers all showing disciplined, statuesque control in execution of traditional pointe-technique type moves amidst the essentially contemporary dance sensibility that is signposted by a soundscape (composer Nicholas Robert Thayer) of evocative strings rising through dramatic percussion to a jazzy resolution.

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There are some powerful moments too as lighting (Cameron Goerg Designer) is used to create stunning silhouettes against the industrial backdrop of the heritage-listed location. Light and shade are used metaphorically and literally throughout the work, such as when the ensemble dance in the dark, in a scene of added interest, that could have been enhanced beyond just a front-row treat by having at least low lighting on dancers’ feet.

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And when light shines its awareness to force change from conformity, structure and content are subverted, especially when a portable screen is glided across the stage as part of the action.

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The second work, Jack Lister’s ‘B-Sides’, is a contrast of colour and Creole opening sounds as dancers shimmy and shake their way through a selection of popular artists from the 1960s, complete with retro vinyl end-of-record sounds. Taking advantage of the large Powerhouse Theatre space, three art installation type block colour rooms of yellow, blue and red serve as settings for some of number’s stories.

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The narrative through-lines are easy to follow; a woman in red anguishes about in angular angst in reaction to spying a man in similar coloured dress, sultrying with a woman in blue to Nina Simone’s ‘Don’t Smoke in Bed’. Again, expectations are subverted though, with share of an alternative point of view as attention switches to the assumedly cheating woman’s partner in blue, alone.

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Behind the imagined closed doors of the coloured rooms, a lot is happening as a male dancer dons the cheating woman’s dress in lyrical plea to ‘just let me be yourself’, to the exhilaration of ‘You Don’t Own Me’. As partners are mixed, physical strengths are showcased as dancers ascend and hang from compartment walls. Despite the provocation of duets within the confines, the overriding feeling is one of vibrancy and fun with New Orleans colour and movement touched by tango and step dancing dynamism.

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The final work, ‘Carbon Field’ also makes excellent use of the vast stage space. The collaboration between Queensland Ballet and Expressions Dance Company showcases both steely strength and subtle fragility in its exploration of duality. Hued together, the masse of dances ebb and flow like the ocean, spilling in ripples and crashing in pattern on the stage before netting themselves outstretched across its expanse in joined limbs.

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There is an immediate organic feel to Gabrielle Nankivell’s choreography as the dancers dome together tightly like a diamond before relaxing vulnerably into the carbon of all living things. The continuous movement means everything is interesting, even the effect of the work’s muted common costumes of grey, black and white, with individual details.

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With such rich aesthetic interest, “Bespoke” is not only an engaging experience but a provocative one. And while its two interval format may be to enable to substantial set changes required for each number, it also provides wonderful opportunities to discuss personal reactions to and interpretations of the works’ intended messages.

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Everything about the evening is high calibre and the fact that it comes at such as accessible ticket price can only be an added bonus. Indeed, “Bespoke” represents all that needs to be celebrated about contemporary ballet and Queensland Ballet should be commended for not only producing high quality, beautiful dance such as that on show in this program, but also for their contribution to the landscape of the art form through the ongoing creation of new and impressive works.

Photos c/o – David Kelly

Everyday Expressions

Everyday Requiem (Expressions Dance Company)

QPAC, Cremorne Theatre

October 12 -20

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I’m not necessarily a dance person and I’m not particularly emotional, so to be moved to tears by Expression Dance Company’s “Everyday Requiem” was a surprisingly profound experience. It is not because of its beauty, although it does include a number of exquisite moments, but rather due to the relationships and emotions evoked by its dancers.

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The World Premiere and very special lyrical contemporary work from the critically acclaimed Queensland company serves as Artistic Director Natalie Weir’s swan song after a decade at the helm. And what a show with which to exit…. unanimously appreciated by an enduring standing ovation form an emotional opening night crowd in acknowledgement of its original choreography, integral all-vocal score and all-round beautiful story performed by stunning dancers and singers.

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Its breathtaking experience begins with a group mournfully gathered around tables in the centre of a fairy-lit Cremorne theatre. The space is obviously more intimate that the expansive Playhouse stage of the company’s most recent 4Seasons and, as it unfolds, this turns out to be entirely appropriate for a show telling such a personal, but also universal, human story.

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The touching tale is of a man’s life revisited by his aged self, guest artist, veteran Brisbane performer Brian Lucas, an early-days EDC dancer and, for seven years, the Company’s Assistant Artistic Director. Against the backdrop of Australian History from the 1950s until today, the man is played by four men, each responsible for a particular generation of his life; the Old Man guides his younger self back to revisit memories and moments, sometimes forcing emotional connections of his younger self in order to heal unresolved disharmony. Thus, the show takes the audience through The Man’s infancy, childhood and adolescence towards maturity.

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The accompanying relationships are told in sequence, beginning with the wondered play of carefree childhood, school days and sibling tussles (Jag Popham as The Man’s Infancy and Childhood). After The Man’s (Jake McClaron as The Adolescent and Young Man) infatuation with Young Love (Isabella Hood), including a love triangle also involving his brother (Scott Ewen), he meets The Wife (Lizzie Vilmanis) and heads to the conflict in Vietnam, where as The Mature Man (Richard Causer), he can only read in a letter of his child’s birth.

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Immersed in the performance, The Australian Voices choir provide textured and expressive acapella accompaniment in delivery of Artistic Director Gordon Hamilton’s sublime original music, as we witness the boy become a man who lives a life. The soundtrack is physicalised by powerful, skilled dancers who clearly convey the narrative and also the emotional sensibilities of its experience, whether it be the slow burn sensuality of a new couple’s lives entwining, the more masculine competing physicality of in-conflict brothers or the tumble of male dancers in representation of their turbulent time at war. And the four male dancers are excellent in each credibly inhabiting what the others have and will create as the same character.

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Guest artist Lizzie Vilmanis is particularly memorable, especially as the wife left-behind. Her accomplished range is evident in way she takes the audience along from the painful yearn of these fluid movements to playful interaction with The Daughter (Alana Sargent) in juxtaposition to the child’s resentment and rejection of her returning father. Another particular highlight is the impressive partner work, especially when, post-war, the couple expressively rejoice in the glory of over a decade of their love for each other, connecting together fluidly in vulnerable but united movement. Then he is alone, conflicted in witness of his daughter’s grief. It’s an incredibly powerful scene full of the contradiction of fragmented frenzy and at the same time, profound emotion, thanks to Weir’s choreography of the entire body. (Even a short mid-show evacuation opening night interruption could not impact upon its resonance).

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So many transformative moments occur during the 75-minute work, just as they do in a life. And its celebrations, conflicts, reconciliations and tragedies of everyday experience certainly offer reflective fodder for audience members who may be wondering how its life summation might be applied to their experience.

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The simplicity of its beauty emerges from its relatable everydayness which also comes courtesy of lyric lists of school supplies, groceries and alike. At one stage the Australian Voices members (Sophie Banister, Samuel Boyd, Isabella Gerometta, Rebecca Hocking, Jamie Moffatt and Daid Upcher) even sing while gargling and bushing their teeth, all-the-time never being of anything but outstanding voice as they accompany and also sometimes cleverly interact with the action on stage, like a Greek chorus. Holistically, it’s a large vision that works well to bring big-scale reward.

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There is a deliberateness to every aspect of the experience’s examination of life’s relationships. David Walters’ lighting design adds to the aesthetic representation of each juncture in the journey from infancy to mature man. Similarly, small details in costumes and lyrics provide contextual clues, symbolise transitions and work with repeated movements to signpost ongoing motifs. All of this combines to make the narrative at-once easy-to-follow and engaging, especially as special guest dancers from WaW Dance join on-stage towards the work’s satisfying conclusion.

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My choreographic illiteracy means that usually watching dance leads to a wandering mind, but this is far from the case this time, such is audience investment and anticipation of how we will get to the story’s end. Indeed, “Everyday Requiem” is a very clever, layered work that will resonate both in the moment and long after in cathartic release of the range of emotions evoked in its experience. Even if you only have a passing interest in dance, this is a show you must see, as testament not only to the talents of two Brisbane-based companies, but the power of an art form to speak to our collective human experience of the ups and downs of family and life and realisation of the things that are truly important.

Photos c/o – David Kelly

4Seasons display

4Seasons (Expressions Dance Company, City Contemporary Dance Company Hong Kong and QPAC)

QPAC, The Playhouse

June 14 – 22

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“I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like,” the old saying goes. With some tweaking, this pretty much describes my approach to Dance… “I don’t necessarily know what exactly they are always doing, but I do know what I find interesting”. And fortunately, there is a lot of interesting things happening in the tapestry that is Expressions Dance Company’s triple act collaboration with Hong Kong’s City Contemporary Dance Company (CCDC), “4Seasons”’

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It starts from audience entry into the Playhouse Theatre space, which is bathed in the blare of ‘Summer’. Under a stark sun-like light, 13 performers in muted costumes, move against an increasingly menacing musical score as the ‘sun’ fades. After an early technical fault is fixed, we see order emerge from that chaos as subtle, but uniform transitions signpost to a motif of heads turned to the top in recognition of the sun’s subjugation.

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A feeling of oppression features throughout the piece, created by Kristina Chan by CCDC, in its foreboding for a global warming future, not just through the routines themselves, but also lighting and staging, which sees fabric dramatically canopied from the ceiling (the cause of opening night’s false start) not only increasingly rippling, but slowly unfurling as burden upon the dancers. This is a dystopian future and in its extreme atmospheric conditions, suffering bodies cluster together and connect through the swell of canon moves, including on the ground, as they move languidly, as if in slow motion.

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In contrast, the night’s second piece, Dominic Wong’s ‘Day After Day’, sees side-of-stage lighting replaced by panels, in transform of the aesthetic. Dancers erupt in a frenzy of acrobatic energy and strength, which sees, for example, see a dancer impressively walking over the top of others and then down another’s chest.

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With a fast-paced soundtrack and modern, translucent white costumes, the feel is a lot cooler, especially when Bruce Wong, breathes his way around the set in the slowest of motions, walking to eventually embrace a block of ice before the piece concludes with the sound of falling rain.

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Although, like the first work, it drags on a little too long to maintain absolute audience engagement, its repeated movements, intertwined asymmetrical clustering and then explosions punctuate its course with some memorable moments.

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Comparatively, Natalie Weir’s ‘4Seasons’ (danced to Max Richter’s recomposed version of Vivaldi’s best known composition) appears to begin traditionally, with dancers appearing hued together (thanks to beautiful, coloured costumes) on stage like something from the Barn Raising Scene of “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers”. What follows is a lot more sophisticated than the Pontipee brothers’ attempt to woo women with their newfound manners, but no less athletic in its physicality. Indeed, its blend of the classic and contemporary creates an exciting aesthetic, especially as movement waves across the ensemble with a progressive series of lifts, jumps and kicks in canon.

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Inspired by the seasons of life, it stunningly shows fours couples at different stages of their lives, love and relationships. It could be one couple or different pairings, but the distinction does not matter. What is significant is the humanity of the emotions of the experience being shared. It begins with the pure blush and intimacy of a new relationship between Alana Sargent and Ivan Chan. Things become more urgent then as they move from the eternal youth of spring to the energy and storm clouds of summer. Richard Causer and Bobo Lai convey a torn reluctance as he focuses intensely and possessively on her. With Elise May and Yve Yu, love becomes more consuming in the crimson shades of autumn as impressive lifts give way to domination. Finally, there is the mutual love of Jake McLarnon and Qiao Yang moving together in unison, but not losing their individuality.

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Amid these, there are bursts of performers running across the stage, grabbing others as they go and it is nice to see male duos and masculine energy being showcased during this, from a cast of men and women. Along with its crescendoed urgency in its conclusion, this display represents a real highlight, that leaves you lamenting that Act Two feels like it is over far too soon.

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As a celebration of the power and splendour of all things contemporary dance, “4Seasons” represents a wonderful experience for dance knowers and lay-audience members alike. And as if the beauty and grace on stage is not enough, Max Richter vibrant melodies liberate Vivaldi’s signature work from elevator musicality to a bold and virtuosic aural experience.

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Impressive attention to detail features across all pieces. Indeed, there is a connectedness both within and through all three works, which are also remarkably distinct. Sightline issues are always disappointing, but these are compensated by the fascinating fluidity of the contemporary dance on show, especially in its titular piece. With such a big aesthetic on display there is much to take from the show’s experience, which should be celebrated for its bring of the best of international dance to Brisbane.

Street beats

Untapped (Raw Company)

QPAC, Cremorne Theatre

April 19 – 29

Brisbane’s Raw Dance Company roared into QPAC last week with its “Untapped” adrenalin-filled show of family-friendly entertainment from five (male and female) dancers, a beatboxer and a percussionist. Co-choreographed by Jack Chambers (previous winner of Australia’s “So You Think You Can Dance), and the company’s founder Andrew Fee, the show is jammed packed with a variety of novel, charismatic routines. Indeed, from its early numbers, it is clear that this is a show with sass, unafraid of inventiveness; dancers begin a number with staggered stages of mobile phone conversation vocals to create an increasing, impressive rhythm, before they are placed ‘on-hold’ by the band’s jazz into a swinging ‘The Girl from Ipanema’. Before long, however, audience members are transported again as the show whips into a variety of tap numbers and even a flamenco-esque duet, such is its energetic approach and eclectic appeal.

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Dancers Kieran Heilbronn, Brianna Taylor, Martin Kay, Katie Struik and Owain Kennair are all skilled in their craft, (even when dancing in thongs and then later in flippers), delighting younger audience members, in particular, with classic stunts of the splits, handspring and headstand sort. However, it is the music that makes this show most memorable, particularly the genius of beatboxer Genesis Cerezo (“Australia’s Got Talent”). His ability to put multiple sound effects and unique voices in one performance is impressive to audience members of all ages and his ‘I Like to Move It’ medley is a real highlight of vocal acrobatics, as is his provision (from off-stage) some beats to allow drummer Brendan Ramnath to proceed sans drums , which makes for a nice comic moment.

Although it is conceptually lacking and has no narrative thread to join its numbers, “Untapped” is a slick show for adults and children alike. Its inventive routines, comic sensibility, and loud and live music, combine to make for a dynamic and absolutely engaging experience, albeit one that is over far too quickly (with under an hour running time). Apart from what felt like an abbreviated duration (especially after what felt like was going to be an encore), the only real issue is its venue; without tiered seating, the Cremorne Theatre offers compromised sight lines for many audience members in relation to the dancer’s feet, which diminishes full appreciation of its inventive choreography and its high-octane execution. Still, its raw energy and sassy celebration of all things tap, make for an undeniable, instantly-infectious mood.