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.

Feel the vibe-ration

Hughman

South Bank Piazza

September 17 – 18

In many ways the late-night cabaret slot can be a difficult festival gig, given the spirited energy needed to maintain the engagement of an often already ‘celebratory’ crowd. “Hughman”, however, is the perfect show to fulfil this brief at the Brisbane Festival. With music that never stops, it all is about the upbeat vibe from the outset of its spectacular Queensland premiere under the giant disco ball of the South Bank Piazza. As we bounce into each new number, there is increasingly “I love this song” exclamations about its setlist. Indeed, with co-creator (along with director Dylan Mahoney) Hugh Sheridan initially spinning beats from a mixing desk high at the back of the stage, the curation of disco-esque classics takes the audience to an Ibiza-like dance party celebration of everything, complete with a shirtless Sheridan.

From Wham and Prince to Sia, The Jacksons and a dance-along ‘Xanadu’, the feel-good music is all incredibly infectious in a boogie-wonderland way that has you wanting it to continue all night long. There is not a lot of substance per se, but as performers integrate into the audience and sections of the crowd are soon on their feet dancing, nobody seems to mind. It’s all about the vibe really and in that regard, “Hughman” is a perfect celebration of life, love and music, saxophone number and all.

Hopefully audience members know what was in store from the show’s promise of seeing Sheridan in a new light, otherwise there may me some disappointment as to his role in things. And it certainly would have been nice to have a couple more signature smooth vocal numbers from the performer, as when he does take to the microphone for ‘My Way’, his vocals are as polished as ever. And California Crooners fans are in for a treat as he shares one of the group’s original boppy numbers, ‘I Need You’.  

Adding to the program’s diversity is a dynamic array of talented performers, Chase Vollenweider, Demi Jenkins, Winston Morrison, Nathaniel Hancock, Emma Pavich and Dion Bellow, who get the crowd buzzing thanks to their exhalating dance moves. From a high-voltage tap routine to Diana Ross to roller skate and hula hoop numbers, and even some fire twirling, it is all quite the spectacle of fun. And as performers frolic about in bohemian kaftans and alike by Camilla and rainbow flags, it’s difficult to no become caught up in the ecstasy of freedom that exists at the core of the show’s sentiment and celebration of what it means to be part of a big resiliently human family.

“Hughman” is a spirited, invigorating festival experience, guaranteed to make you feel good vibrations about the world. The kaleidoscopic mash-up of music, costume, colour and dance not only represents the very essence of festival culture, but takes on a new resonance as we celebrate being one of the few cities in the country in which the arts can currently continue. The dance party format guarantees a good time, making it the perfect way to finish off your night out, or maybe just get it started.

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.

Bow wow wow!

Let’s Be Friend Furever (The Good Room)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Powerhouse Theatre

September 16 – 25

For the uninitiated, The Good Room’s productions can be difficult to define. The celebrated independent company founded by Daniel Evans and Amy Ingram creates unique theatre experiences, often from community crowd-sourced content. Continuing on from its previous Brisbane Festival successes, “Let’s be Friends Furever” follows a familiar format to craft together a celebration and commemoration of all breeds of dogs, meaning that if you ever have or ever plan on owning a dog, this is the show for you.

The work, which has been developed in partnership with fellow Queensland independent theatre makers, The Little Red Company, features faces from social media and even video appearance from Australian writer and presenter Marieke Hardy. There are also everyday stores of everyday people and their extraordinary pets, as every pet dog is extraordinary to somebody… and it is celebration of this that is at the core of the show.

From the very first in the world premiere production’s parade of pooches, you will be hooked as it’s real recollections and stories are recounted on stage. After introduction to retired special ops attack dog Guge, retired Special Forces commando Steve shares story of how he built a bond worthy of gaining Guge’s respect. And as he tells us of this most important relationship of his life with his warrior brother, it is quite moving eliciting more than one audience ‘awwww’. As Afghan show dog Ava takes the stage with owner Jan who tells us all about the unique breed, and amazingly-still-a-puppy, Great Dane Rollo rocks in with his owners Siobhan and Pete, it is quite a transformational experience taking me from pre-show statement of not really being an animal person to mid-way declaration that “I love them all!”

The heartfelt homage to our four-legged friends is about transformation too as owners discuss how their lives have changed for the better through their dog ownership, even sometimes in retrospect, as later scenes respectfully take us into the raw emotion of having to farewell a furever friend after discussion from vet Matt about the multi-faceted nature of his job.

The show’s live sections are often innocently joyous, such as when 11-year-old Henry makes his theatrical debut to deliver a song about his ‘not that bright’ (and apparently eager-to-escape) best friend Cocker Spaniel Roscoe and when we meet the tenacious tongue-out fussy Austin Terrier social media sensation Mr Peanut and his owner Sam. And then there is the high-flying Frisbee hijinks of Blitz and Zoe. As light-hearted and fun as things initially are, however, it’s certainly not all PG-13 as naughty rescue dogs ‘f**king Brett’ and his brother Steven are the first to send things a little awry on opening night.

Punctuating the live guest segments are videos (video production by Optikal Bloc) about dogs and from the company’s hundreds of hours of interviews across Australia.) The segments of love, loyalty and laughter are from dog walkers, obedience trainers and alike, as well as dog owners in discussion of things like their dog parenting styles, the origins of their pets’ names and the fortunes they have spent on spoiling their greatest loves, as well as recall of their funniest experiences. And under the direction of Daniel Evans, everything is seamlessly curated together to maintain momentum and audience engagement. Mike Willmett’s dynamic sound design beds things and the mostly omnipresent ringmaster of sorts Hugh Parker keeps segments moving, with his comic commentary and questioning interaction with and response to what is happening on stage allowing for emphasis of some common themes of resilience in discussion of what people’s dogs have taught them about themselves and their purposes in life.

The Good Room’s “Let’s Be Friends Furever” is a real treat. Its ambitious examination of people’s relationships with their faithful companions and best friends is both fascinating and affirming, and it represents the perfect work with which to introduce someone to the world of what theatre can now be. They might even also end up squealing with wowed delight at the appearance of six-week-old old puppies in its conclusion.

Photos c/o –  Atmosphere Photography

Blockbuster boy

Boy Swallows Universe (Queensland Theatre)

August 30 – October 9

QPAC, The Playhouse

With an absent alcoholic dad and a mum in jail, Eli Bell’s (Joe Klocek) 1980s adolescent life in Brisbane’s outer suburbs is all about timing. It’s a idea established from the opening scene of the Brisbane Festival blockbuster “Boy Swallows Universe” in the clock tower of Brisbane’s Town Hall as we are flashed forward seven years to where the story will end. And it is a motif that is especially appropriate given how sustained the ‘time does not exist’ audience engagement is between these two points of the production, which is written by Tim McGarry as an adaptation of the bestselling Australian novel inspired by Brisbane author Trent Dalton’s own childhood.

The first rule of storytelling is to show rather than tell, and this is what lies at the heart of the show’s success as it moves the audience quickly through the many early fast-moving scenes of its gritty coming of age story. Swift scene changes go virtually unnoticed within Renee Mulder’s dynamic design. It is all incredibly clever as a revolving stage is used and door frames appear to drop us into the intimacy of rooms that aren’t physically there. Ben Hughes’ lighting design creates atmosphere, especially to darken us into the suffering that comes in head to interval and Craig Wilkinson’s video design widens us to be, for example, under a starry sky as moving images bleed across the blank canvas of a stage to create suburban balconies and alike to give things a 3D effect. This similarly allows for the story’s blackness to seep in as it ebbs and flows from optimism to setback such as when Eli and his brother’s hopes of a life with the newly-returned-to-them mother are dashed by her continuing to live in a domestic abuse situation, showing that there is no shying away from the local novel’s confronting themes.

Brisbane mentions are enhanced by video design reminders of the visuals of place. And just as its costumes cover the spectrum of 80s fashion, Steven Francis’ pumping sound design allows songs of the era to bring back memories alongside of-the-time pop cultural mentions from “Family Ties” to famous Olympians. In the interest of creating light and shade, however, the musical vitality is largely gone in Act Two when things get more serious as seen through Eli’s maturing eyes.  

Humour and words of wisdom are used in equal measure to engage the audience, often from the most surprising of places, such as Eli’s friend and babysitter, Slim Halliday (Anthony Phelan), convicted killer and infamous Houdini of Boggo Road Gaol. In Act One, a lot of laughs come courtesy of Hoa Xuande’s portrayal of Eli’s criminal school fiend Darren Dang. In Act Two, they are from Anthony Gooley as hard-line but quippy Courier Mail Editor Brian Roberttson, who clearly does not suffer fools easily.

All characters are created with complexity, in reflection of Slim’s reminder to Eli that there are different types of good and bad. Mathew Cooper gives Eli’s father Robert an essential empathy and Michala Banas’ portrayal of Eli’s mother Frankie’s complexity is almost uncomfortably honest. It is Klocek, however, who carries the show with his portrayal of the boy with an adult soul, barely off stage for its duration. Over its course we see him both capture the mannerisms of a 12-year-old boy and also age through to a more confident and broad-shouldered 19-year-old standing surer in himself as he begins life as a journalist.

Some of Klocek’s best moments come when in banter with Tom Yaxley as Eli’s brother August, such as when the duo listen in on a school guidance councillor’s conversation of concern with their father about the traumatic event of the past that has fractured the family and caused August to stop speaking, instead silently swirling cryptic messages in the air with his finger. And while Yaxley says few words, his communication is in-depth, especially in attempt to come to his sibling’s rescue in the violence of Act One’s climax.

A great story isn’t automatically a great play. And while transformation of Trent Dalton’s hugely successful novel has been a massive undertaking (more than two years in the planning) it has absolutely paid off in what is probably the best show Queensland Theatre has ever produced, because of its approach to the story’s words. The show’s design ensures that while only essential words are needed, they still remain at the heart of things, with protagonist Eli’s letters to incarcerated Rebels motorcycle club Sergeant-at-Arms Alex Bermudez (Joss McWillian) appearing as projections across the space.

“Boy Swallows Universe” is a story of massive scale, clocking in at slightly under three hours duration (including interval), yet under Sam Strong’s tight and pacy direction, it feels like so much shorter with audience members engaged in its details to the point of even spontaneous applause in response to events on stage and reactions so seemingly genuine as to leave you wondering if they occur in the same moments of each performance. More than just recreating Trent Dalton’s story, the production honours the original text and refashions it as a work of its own, grounded beyond any just aesthetic veneer.

The confronting language, themes and violence that are integral to the narrative are littered throughout. Fight scenes (Fight and Intimacy Director Nigel Poulton) are realistic, and there is simulated violence in keeping with its mature themes. While there is certainly a lot of confrontation, however, this is part of the ultimate journey to optimism that serves as a key component of novel’s resonance. Queensland Theatre retains this core celebration of the spirit of resilience and the power of love to overcome dysfunction in what is a story of characters, but also real people and a family (motley as they may be), meaning that with its lots of laughs, time-to-time tears and essential heart, the landmark “Boy Swallows Universe” is something truly special and likely the best theatre you will have seen in a long time.

Photos c/o -David Kelly

Let the James begin

Skyfall (The Little Red Company)

South Bank Piazza

September 14 – 18

As soon as its recognisable bah-dup bah-daaaah belts out to signpost the start of The Little Red Company’s blink and you may miss it Brisbane Festival season of “Skyfall”, the audience is ready to let the James begin. Its tag line promise of it being a license to thrill soon rings true too as, taking the concept of cabaret entrances to new heights, Luke Kennedy kicks thing off in full suave spy mode.

Anyone who has experienced a Little Red show knows of the company’s characteristic attention to detail. In this instance, the delivery of that trademark give to audiences of that little bit extra is realised also in Naomi Price’s entrance, which is totally in keeping with the seductive allure at the centre of the Bond film franchise. Indeed, Queensland’s leading couple of song both exude style as they swagger about the stage (and amongst the cabaret seating section of the audience), martinis in hand. And fabulous as Price’s ‘200 metres’ of tulle costume may be, her re-emergence in a golden tux is all sorts of fabulous as she sings of the man with the Midas touch.

Although the couple have only one duet together, their playful, punny banter about Bond Girl names and alike, and interactions with audience members keep things light. For all the opportunities that the South Bank Piazza space provides, however, it also comes with its limitations and its cold and cavernous space is not particularly conducive to the cosy intimacy that cabaret experiences typically provide. Things are shaken up by appearance of guest stars joining for some numbers. Drag act The Slaying Mantis appropriately allows us to feel her presence in the crowd during ‘Goldfinger’ and Lai Utovou oozes silky vocals in his smooth ‘The World is Not Enough’.

Iconic brassy orchestral stabs from an eight-piece horn section give numbers their signature sounds, in work with the company’s usual band quartet of Mik Easterman on drums, Scott French on Bass, Michael Manikus on keys and Jason McGregor on guitars. Kicking off with the spy’s swinging instrumental main signature theme, the band is always on-point, and are appropriately given individual moments to shine, such as Shannon Marshall’s triumphant trumpeting in Kennedy’s ‘Thunderball’ and Jeffrey Reid’s alto saxophone work in Price’s ‘Nobody Does It Better’ power ballad.

The musical highlight happens, however, in a bombastic ‘Live and Let Die’ thanks to Easterman’s dynamic drums, which make it easy to appreciate the song’s honour of, in 1973, being the first Bond song to receive an Oscar nomination for Best Original Song. Indeed, as we experience the epic masterpiece’s build to a fiery explosion of instrumentation, its pulse its infectious.

High energy numbers are tempered with some tender tunes like Sam Smith’s ‘Writing’s on the Wall’, which Kennedy delivers with haunting beauty. The sleek, boldly bare performance conveys a real pathos, especially in his impressive falsetto, that makes it one of the night’s best vocal performances. Price is given many moments to shine, none more so to when we are taken into the conclusion of the 70 minutes show courtesy of its titular tune, which provides a swirling lush and moody reminder of her previous “Rumour Has It” Adele tribute show.

“Skyfall”, which has been created by Adam Brunes and Naomi Price adds to the company’s catalogue of unique music-driven theatrical experiences. It is an energetic celebration of the spy film franchise’s massive music that leaves audience members thoroughly entertained. And its mashup encore tribute leaves us not only wanting more, but also wondering when the company’s ‘Sex Bomb’ show is happening.