Dance discoveries

Pearl River Delta Dance

Judith Wright Centre, Performance Space

February 23

 If I were to have one criticism of “Pearl River Delta Dance”, I’d have two – it is only 70 minutes long and is a one-night only show. The work, which has come direct from the Guangdong Festival features as part of Brisbane’s inaugural SUPERCELL: Festival of Contemporary Dance where it not only serves as a highlight among the packed program of local and international artists, performances, workshops and conversations, but invigorates audience experience with new discoveries within the genre.

It’s smorgasbord of diverse dance vignettes from China and Macau companies Guangdong Modern Dance Company (the first professional modern dance company founded in 1992 which has had a longstanding collaboration with Brisbane’s Expressions dance company), Max Dance Hall and Stella & Artists, the show platforms some the most progressive of Chinese talent emerging from the Pearl River Delta region, but leaves audiences with much to consider about both is political and everyday themes.

Things begin with the main piece, Guangdong Modern Dance Company’s performance of an iteration of the full-length work ‘Piece One’ by Li Pian Pian and Tan Yuan Bo. It’s traditional in type and almost classical ballet-like in the fluidity of the unison of interaction between its two performers Liu Qing-yu and He Min. There is a subtle but commanding synergy to the kaleidoscope of the duo’s movements in interaction with each other in motion, even down their every step of entrance and exit from the space.

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In contrast to this initial serenity, the program continues with some altogether different sensibilities in the smaller, almost sketch-like experimental segments from Macau companies Stella & Artists and Max Dance Hall. Rather than being introspective, ‘Four Legs is Good, Two Legs is Better’ focusses on the relationship between the individual and society, in particular the theme of class inequality, as implied by the Orwellian phraseology of its title. Despite its sparse staging, it is a visually arresting piece as performer (and choreographer) Albert Garcia appears costumed in contrasts; his upper body is adorned in ancient aristocratic dress while his lower body is in boxer shorts. Although he lip-syncs and moves to classical music, he does so without complete cultural heritage, in mockery of the vulgarity of society’s strata as symbolised by the different levelled tables with which he interacts. As things move from the operatic to the more organic, silence itself deliberates as rhythm and complement to his heightened, lithe physical expression.

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Stella & Artists’ ‘The Sun Rises As Usual’ also relies of silence as it builds layers of movement, patterned through repetition, as the audience watches on, also exposed as part of the performance due to the raised house lights. Pushing herself to fatigue, performer (and choreographer) Lou Hio-mei makes attempt to expose the layered and sometimes laboured nature of emotions. With deliberate repetition of training actions, a movement of handstand, flip and bridge is repeated with impressive stamina, strength and skill to become a sequenced action before, finally, to the pomp and circumstance of an imperial soundscape she transforms in joyous, smiling, excited discovery of the sun

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‘The Hands’, by Macau’s Max Dance Hall is something very special. The engrossing duet is a work to savour as its slick machine-like choreography interlocks its performers Kaman Ng and Lao Pui Lon in transition from a (as self-introduced) fake journalist news segment outline of milestones since 1967 to exchange of little stories, beautifully sad in their recount, using their bodies’ natural lines and energy to create new movements. Through sassy reaction and the bewilderment of playful bubbles, their roles change in nurture but their synergy, as evidenced by mirroring and counter of each other’s moves, draws them back to coordination. The soundscape for this piece in particular is a real highlight in its power, pulse and hum with music memorably including Bakermat’s ‘One Day (Vandaag)’, including integrated sample of Martin Luther King Jrn’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech.

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In terms of high-calibre performances, “Pearl River Delta Dance” is up there with best, most versatile and vigorous dance bills around and its inclusion in SUPERCELL should be applauded. Its presence shows how festivals such as this not only expand the communication spaces of companies, but allow more universal exposure to the cultural themes and commentary on offer and application of a global context lens of interpretation, which is so important in counter to the comfort of insular imaginations.

Dance diversity

Dance 16

Gardens Theatre

November 1 – 5

Attendance at a show such as “Dance 16” can be initially trepidatious for someone largely unfamiliar with the histories, traditions and contemporary imaginings of dance. However, you needn’t be acquainted with the intricacies of the discipline to marvel at the skill on show from QUT’s Bachelor of Fine Arts (Dance Performance) students at the cusp of their professional careers.

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The show features five numbers, curated to showcase various moods and styles of dance, beginning with ‘Before’, curated by Gareth Belling with the dancers. With 17 dancers taking advantage of the ample stage space, the work shows shades of Belling’s work in Collusion’s ‘Muscle Memory’, which wowed audiences at The Judith Wright Centre earlier this year, as dancers move together in lines and break out in small groups, always with show of strength and grace. A simple costume pallet allows the dance to speak at its loudest and Ben Hughes’ lighting design enhances atmosphere, especially in the second number, ‘Pint Size 2017’, which is filled with evocative shadows.

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Numbers are of various length with the final from Act One, ‘Danzas Argintinas No. 2 – Danza De La Moza Donosa – An Excerpt from SDC’s Grand’ (choreographed by Graeme Murphy AO), being both the shortest and also the most impressive and engrossing in its stunning visual representation of the fusion of dance and piano and show of the strength, flexibility and control of traditional ballet. Then there is the more narratively driven ‘A Tragic Love Story’ (choreographed by Joseph Simons), which opens Act Two with a rock eisteddford vibe. Still, it is difficult not to give over to its experience when its soundtrack starts with some Blue Brothers, ends with Beyoncé and features some fine swaggersome moves along to its JT sounds.

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This familiarity of soundtrack and choreography, is soon juxtaposed by the final number ‘We are Schadenfreude’ (choreographed by Richard Causer), which, in its exploration of the German word describing the emotion of ‘damage-joy’, goes from aggressive to sensual movement and then the strange synchronised slapping of faces into cake, dancers leashed around stage and spinning about on the floor.

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Certainly “Dance 16” presents audiences with a diverse program of performances. Its curation not only allows for celebration of the graduating students as they undertake the final stage of their transition into industry, but emphasises their versatility and skills though its wealth of choreographic ideas.

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 Photos c/o – Fiona Cullen

The finest of them all

Snow White (Ballet Preljocaj)

QPAC, Lyric Theatre

September 2 – 11

Ballet Preljocaj’s “Snow White” prologue is a childbirth scene as The Mother (Lea de Natale) crosses the stage through swirling smoke before clutching her pregnant belly, violently giving birth and dying, leaving the infant Snow White to be taken from her arms by The King (Simon Ripert). From the early scenes of courtly dance in celebration of Snow’s White’s (Emile Lalande) coming of age that follow, audiences could easily suspect a traditional ballet take on the Grimm Brothers’ dark 1812 fable. Instead, what ensues injects modern dance into the traditional ballet structure in an inventive, visually-impressive contemporary ballet experience.

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Design does a lot of the storytelling. The transitions between Snow White’s different selves, not only swift the story along though her childhood and adolescence, but offer early tease of the cleverness to come when the Evil Queen (Cecilia Torres Morillo) seeks to discover who in the land is the fairest of them all and looks into an imposing giant mirror to have Snow White’s whereabouts revealed.

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Thierry Leproust’s set design features full use of the Lyric Theatre stage’s space, with massive sets and spectacular scenery. When the Queen subsequently sends woodsmen to kill Snow White, it is into a dark forest of imposing foliage and Patrick Riou’s moody, mottled lighting that juxtaposes with earlier nymphish imagery of barely-clad bodies lying atop rocks in a Midsummer Night’s dream aesthetic. The creativity continues to the show’s amazing costumes by legendary Haute Couture designer Jean Paul Gaultier, which convey a visual dichotomy of colours and shapes between the imposing Queen, in black dominatrix dress and the vulnerable Snow White, whose costume flows in dance of its own around her body with each movement.

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Angelin Preljocaj’s choreography is similarly both severe and sensual in its suitability for the narrative ballet. From their finitial flirtatious meeting and tumbling duet towards first kiss, Snow White and The Prince (Redi Shtylla) take audiences on an engaging journey plentiful with highlights, such as when they move intertwined with each other at once without and then again with music. Similarly memorable is when the Prince tries to awake the ‘dead’ Snow White, ‘dancing’ with her passively limp body. There are some light-hearted moments too through the stepmother’s cats who prance and prowl about the place. Especially superb, however, are the seven dwarves, whose entrance, abseiling down a mountain in an outstanding aerial ballet, is so magnificent as to evoke audible audience reactions.

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The troupe of 25 dancers are all striking in their movements, whether they be playful, sensual or strong, demonstrating energy, emotion and space. As Snow White, Lalande moves with focus and precision. And when in partnership with Shtylla, their trysts contain smooth lines, repeated with swelling energy. Gustav Mahler’s symphonies, performed by the Queensland Symphony Orchestra, provide a vibrant score of both gentleness and assault with woodwind sounds, in particular, bringing a sublimity to the tranquil forest scenes.

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“Snow White” is without real precedent in ballet, meaning that when developing the work, Preljocaj could essentially make it their own finest version of itself. And this sumptuous production’s inventive stagecraft surely does this. It has been said that it is never just about the dance with ballet, and this is certainly true of this work, for it is the rich aesthetic created by the choreography, costumes and sets that makes the work so stunningly beautiful. For Brisbane to play host to its Australian debut as the next instalment of the QPAC International Series, is indeed an honour that should be celebrated by all fans of all things artistic, for its appeal lines beyond just its ballet genre.

Photos c/o – Darren Thomas

Shadows of the right

Shadowland (Pilobolus)

QPAC, The Playhouse

August 23 – 28

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“Shadowland” is an incredibly clever combination of acrobatics, dance and shadow theatre that sees a cast of nine transform into a group of many mythical beings and monsters as its Pilobolus dancers stack and reshape their bodies to create innovative shadow shapes. And the result is simply magical, sure to see audience members with mouths agape and smiles aspread in equal measure.

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Its story is a surreal one, telling of a nameless female adolescent who, longing to escape her reality is beckoned into her dreams and beyond her bedroom wall into discovery of the shadowland. As she is transformed into a dog, strange creatures appear, sometimes as threat. This takes audiences through both uncomfortable and comic segments. There are quieter moments of simplicity too, such as when, having been poured into her nightclothes, the protagonist is transported through scenes and dreams afloat across and in lift from the male dancers.

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Technically, it’s impressive, particularly in its plays with perspective and employment of a range of shadow shapes using just the ensemble’s bodies behind its series of various sized screens. With hints of Brechtian stagecraft in juxtaposition to the illusions being created on the screens, racks of props and costumes are placed around the stage. Although this suspends belief as to how some shapes are created, it ultimately enhances the show’s appeal through enabling audiences to fully appreciate the wonder of what they are experiencing.

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This is a spectacular example of ensemble work in creation of the fantastical (but not always fantastic) story. While parts of the narrative do not seem entirely appropriate for its aimed family audience and its story’s circus interlude appears more random than eclectic (despite some impressive acrobatics), ultimately “Shadowland” is all about its amazing human construction, layered by a spot-on soundtrack. This is no better illustrated than in the show’s exciting encore, which sees revisit of the work’s most impressive shadow creations, appropriately set to ‘Joy’ (Part 1) by David Poe, followed by representation of iconic New York and Australian images, including localised choices, in this case referencing Lone Pine and Surfers Paradise.

“Shadowland” is a slick show that delivers what it promises and so much more to the child within the adult.  At 80 minutes duration, it provides perfect duration of it visual delights and charm, best just enjoyed without overthought around its potentially passé and problematic narrative.

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Creative Collusion

Muscle Memory (Collusion)

Judith Wright Centre, Performance Space

August 17 – 20

Collusion‘s “Muscle Memory” is an exquisite experience of creative collaboration; the shared artistic adventure features the versatile music quartet and exciting young pre-professional dancers from the Queensland Ballet presenting a collection of five heartfelt and virtuosic works. And the result of the heightened synchronicity of dance and live music is simply superb… an experience sure to stay with audiences regardless of their level of dance acquaintance.

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From the opening number ‘Urban Myths, a look at the image of the ‘perfect marriage’ and what might lie beneath its sepia photographs, it is clear that all of the dancers are first rate in both execution of former Queensland Ballet’s Gareth Belling’s choreography and conveyance of that something magical that defines ballet. At once graceful and strong, they demonstrate precision, subtlety and strength, whether through Pointe technique or Fouetté, across the range of numbers, from the lyrical liquidity of duets like ‘Mourning Song’, about a woman remembering a lover who has died and their one last dance together, to the machine-like collective synchronisation ‘Transition Sequence.

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Collusion, as always, exude excellence, none more so than Benjamin Greaves. His powerful violin performance alongside Cellist Danielle Bentley from front of stage steals the show during ‘Mourning Song’, such is his dynamism of his thoroughly engaging skill. The World Premiere of Philip Eames’ commissioned piano quintet ‘Annealed Cyan Malt’ is also a highlight, adding another layer to the already-unique ‘Refraction’, during which dancers are all signed a colour, and can only interact with the colours directly next to them in the spectrum.

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Supporting the works’ thematic diversity is Ben Hughes’ luscious lighting design, taking audiences from the contrasting passion and tranquillity of ‘Urban Myths’ to the kaleidoscopic colour and energy of ‘Refraction’. Noelene Hill’s careful costumes, too, create some stunning imagery, such as that of Hannah Clark swathed in an upturned tutu in playful competition with Daniel Kempson in ‘Transference’.

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“Muscle Memory” is Australian choreographed, composed, produced and performed art at its beautiful best. Its too-short season at The Judith Wright Centre of Contemporary Arts offers an intimate and comparatively inexpensive opportunity to see the ballet stars of tomorrow that is simply tutu good to miss.

Photos c/o – FenLan Photography

Realising the Mens Rea

Mens Rea: The Shifter’s Intent (Raghav Handa)

Judith Wright Centre, Performance Space

July 8 – 9

In the dark, sparse space that is the opening moments of “Mens Rea: The Shifter’s Intent” it is easy to suspect an interpretive dance show of contemplative stillness. It is soon clear, however, that this is far from the case, as its soundscape booms, assaulting almost in its dominance and adding much to the work in its battle with the dancer and creator Raghav Handa, as if another character almost.

Handa’s contemporary dance skill is hypnotic, which makes for a moving performance as he dances with the soundscape, rather than on top or behind it, in exploration of the concept of shape-shifting, set against the background of the Hindu epic Ramayana. Shifting between three of its principal characters Jatayu (a demi-god vulture), Sita (the wife of the god Rama) and Ravana (a shape-shifting demon), Handa explores how their changing intentions trigger physical and emotional transformations.

The obvious Indian narrative impact, is clear, as is the show’s inspiration from Indigenous Australian shape-shifting stories. And the musical mix of influences works well, especially when the combination morphs into a more modern sensibility.

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A latter section exploration of shape-shifting on a modern technological level sees audiences needing to don 3D glasses to experience the virtual characters created by Melbourne’s Deakin Motion Lab. The result in quite mesmerising as Handa engages in stylised battle with a 3D bird, to the point that well after the section has finished, many audience members are still so absorbed as to not realised that they are still wearing their glasses.

“Mens Rea: The Shifter’s Intent” is well-paced and, at 50 minutes duration, perfectly timed to maintain audience interest without lull. Its fusion of diverse traditional movement and stories and contemporary dance is as interesting as it is innovative in realisation of its aim to investigate both the physical form and human duality of desire to both nurture and destroy.