Dance at the Sydney Festival – Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Damien Jalet’s ‘Babel’, Martin del Amo’s ‘Anatomy of an Afternoon’ and Gideon Obarzanek’s ‘Assembly’

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Chunky Move, the Victorian Opera and the Sydney Phiharmonia Choirs "hawling like brooligans" in Gideon Obarzanek's Assembly. Photo by Jeff Busby.

Chunky Move, the Victorian Opera and the Sydney Phiharmonia Choirs "hawling like brooligans" in Gideon Obarzanek's Assembly. Photo by Jeff Busby.

Babel (words)
Sydney Theater: 10 January 2012

Choreography – Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, Damien Jalet
Visual Concept & design – Antony Gormley
Lighting – Adam Carrée
Costumes – Alexandra Gilbert
Music Adviser – Fahrettin Yarkin
Dramaturgy – Lou Cope
Assistant Choreographer – Nienke Reehorst

Dancers and Actors (Eastman) – Navala Chaudari, Francis Ducharme, Jon Filip Fahlstroem, Damien Fournier, Ben Fury, Kazutomi Kozuki, Christine LeBoute, Moya Michael, James O’Hara, Helder Seabra, Ulrika Kinn Svensson, Darryl E. Woods

Music – Patrizia Bovi, Mahabub Khan, Sattar Khan, Gabriele Miracle, Shogo Yoshii

 

Anatomy of an Afternoon
Playhouse, Sydney Opera House: 11 January 2012

Concept and Direction – Martin del Amo
Choreography – Martin del Amo and Paul White
Dancer – Paul White
Composer – Mark Bradshaw
Lighting designer – Matthew Marshall
Musicians – Jacob Abela (celeste), Andrew Smith (saxophone), Marcus Whale (saxophone and laptop)
Production manager – Mike Smith
Costume consultant – Rani Patience
Producer – Viv Rosman (Performing Lines)

 

Assembly
City Recital Hall, Angel Place Sydney: 12 January 2012

Director & Choreographer – Gideon Obarzanek
Music Director – Richard Gill
Lighting Designer – Nick Schlieper
Costume Designer – Harriet Oxley
Set Designers – Gideon Obarzanek & Chris Mercer
Assistant Choreographer – Stephanie Lake
Assistant Music Director – Daniel Carter

Dancers (Chunky Move) – Sara Black, Nathan Dubber, Benjamin Hancock, Alisdair Macindoe, Lily Paskas, Harriet Ritchie, James Shannon, Frankie Snowdon

Principal singers (The Victorian Opera) – Casselle Bonollo, Olivia Cranwell, Frederica Cunningham, Tobias Glaser, Jeremy Kleeman, Matthew Thomas, Daniel Todd

Guest Singer – Queenie van de Zandt

Sydney Philharmonia Choirs

Music-
Io Tacero – Gesualdo
Amicus Meus – Victoria
O Vos Omnes – Victoria
Hear My Prayer – Henry Purcell
Ave Verum – Plainchant
Video Caelos Apertos – Plainchant
Christus Surrexit – Plainchant
My World Is Empty Without You – Holland B/Dozier L/Holland E

 

At the Sydney Festival: see also The Sydney Festival: ‘Buried City’ By Raimondo Cortese at the Belvoir St Theatre 

Parody as a technique of satire ought to suit theatrical dance well. Irish poets, known as some of the greatest masters of this form, in imitating and reversing the meter of their victim’s poems in order to devastate them are said to have used the same technique as Russian witches: “they walk quietly behind their victim, exactly mimicking his gait; then when in perfect sympathy with him suddenly stumble and fall, taking care to fall soft while he falls hard.” [1] Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Damien Jalet’s piece Babel (words) takes on the modern world, in a deliberate mixture of satire, serious avant-garde dance, science fiction, declamatory monologues and something bordering on a three-ring circus.

The monologues guide the audience through the piece and often feel like a deliberate leading of the audience, as if Cherkaoui and Jalet don’t want to take many risks over the audience’s misunderstanding or misinterpreting their work. The pure dance sections are at times inventive — the dancers, wearing normal street clothes with some cultural variation, form lines or groups and take on collective movements implying some attachment to or common ground with one another, tracing letter-like shapes on the ground. At times a sole dancer is at the fore usually in acrobatic, street dancing style as the others scatter around the stage remaining more subdued. Very often there is more contention in the movements and here the choreography borrows more from the martial arts — sweeping kicks, punching gestures, flips and turns, which often come across as comic bookish. A few times all the dancers take part in a mêlée of simulated stage fighting, at one point in comic slow motion with exaggerated expressions, eventually shedding their clothes. This last fight gave way to a paired dance — a man and a woman, she slides and balances around him as he lifts her in an incredibly intricate partnering, suddenly bringing an emotional depth and seriousness to the piece.

There is also Antony Gormley’s sculpture — a set of five large cubes or rather rectangular prisms in different dimensions, made as aluminum frames which the dancers can push and pull and lift. They are used in a very clever and playful way, smoothly assembled and disassembled to make segues into the next section of the piece, often in a mesmerizing way, joining into abstract forms, sometimes more architectural (this one a loud-mouthed American even tries to sell us), sometimes recognizable as a colorful clothesline, a boxing ring or an airport gangway in the context of the scene, often imprisoning one of the dancers within. The shuffle of these cubes builds up to an extraordinary frenetic scene where some swing the cubes around as fast as they can as other dancers run circles at full pelt around the stage, stepping through the frames as they swing around, others walk around on the edge of the frame as it rotates. In a climactic scene we get our Tower of Babel: they assemble it before our eyes, sliding one piece at a time into another, using the lower ones to lever up the higher ones, very gradually, like a sort of rectilinear maypole dance, all the while a man dances amongst the assembling pieces.

Antony Gormley's movable sculpture in Babel (words). Photo by Koen Broos.

Antony Gormley's movable sculpture in Babel (words). Photo by Koen Broos.

Breaking up the danced scenes are skits which are clearly meant to be funny. In one a pair conversing in Japanese comes across a broken robot, in the form of a slim, tall, blond woman in vinyl pants and thigh-high boots who plays a sort of deadpan observing role throughout the piece. The only words to pop out for non-Japanese speakers are the international English words: “Youtube”, “www. … .com”, etc. Their slapstick repair effort is a bit predictable but timed well enough. Another skit targets 21st century airport security and is very obvious with the loud mouthed American in charge doing some racial profiling and the robot woman checking fingerprints and shouting abuse in the passenger’s native languages, eventually ending up with a slapstick intrusive frisking of the last woman in the queue. Linguistic bigotry is a worthy target as it seems to be taking over from the racial variety more and more, but art often runs into this problem of becoming predictable and shallow when it gets too obviously political. Cherkaoui and Jalet’s targets are easy ones, the broadside of the proverbial barn: men behaving like stereotyped cavemen, American hegemony, English (language) hegemony (poor abused English!), cant, jargon, mumbo-jumbo popular science, and they hit close enough but it all remains shallow and a little bourgeois. Often it degenerates into easy self-referential humor.

There is a large amount of repetition which makes the piece seem very long, in some of the danced scenes, but moreover in the skits where jokes are extended and repeated after the punchline is had, and they become clunky. It would maybe be better with just the danced scenes or just the skits: it would be a fascinating to see a play like this, in so many languages without any effort to translate if the play on prejudices were more subtle. It is also a fascinating idea to dance the Babel myth, thought to describe the migration of the Indo-European language into Europe, it is especially relevant for today’s mass migrations, and the invention of language and writing; Hermes invented the alphabet after seeing migrating cranes fly over, so the subject should be well-suited to dance. But the dancing, though at times very emotional, just seemed to clash with the more cartoonish scenes and the spoken scenes, neither doing the other any favors.

The biggest problem by far with the piece, though, was that it was too loud. The music was mostly percussion, loud drums electronically amplified to the point of being painful to hear in the small theater. Though the rhythm of this drumming was often monotonous, there was also sung middle eastern music which should have been beautiful and effective, but again it was amplified to the point of painful ugliness, preventing one from getting absorbed in the dancing. The dancer-players also sang medieval plainchant, Italian madrigal style songs and one played a very delicate and beautiful Japanese wooden flute to end the piece, which were all very effective and sung very well, but again these were partly ruined from being played through the loudspeakers.

Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Damien Jalet's Babel (words). Photo by Koen Broos.

Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Damien Jalet's Babel (words). Photo by Koen Broos.

The dancers were all extremely skilled and it is a neat idea to assemble a company so diverse and which can sing, dance, act, recite, play instruments in many different styles, and speak many languages (musicians, actors and dancers all took part in the action). They seem capable of something deeper than this, as they proved in the several more successful scenes, but as for satire I couldn’t really see the target falling down, at least not hard.

In a very different style of dance theater, though with no less potential bearing on the human condition is a Sydney creation: Martin del Amo and Paul White’s Anatomy of an Afternoon. It is inspired by Waslaw Nijinsky’s only extant choreography, L’après-midi d’un faune, in turn inspired by Debussy’s music, which was in turn inspired by the Mallarmé poem of the same name. It was Nijinsky who, with this work and Le sacre du printemps, helped usher in the “contemporary” dance movement 100 years ago.

Paul White in Anatomy of an Afternoon. Photo by Prudence Upton.

Paul White in Anatomy of an Afternoon. Photo by Prudence Upton.

In the intimate Playhouse theater under the Sydney Opera House, with a trio of musicians on stage, the one man act tends to draw in the audience very close indeed. When the audience comes in to find their seats, White is already on the curtainless stage, standing still, facing outward obliquely with the musicians already set up on one side of the stage, one of whom plays a sort of electronic glass harmonica with an eery wailing sound. From this quiescent start without an obvious beginning, the piece very, very gradually builds in a steady crescendo. The choreography overall is inventive and memorable, there are brief, fleeting quotations from Nijinsky’s Faune and Paul White creates a character more animal than Nijinsky’s mythological creature which was somewhat more human. White moves through poses, at first ever so gradually altering the angular gestures of his arms, hands, shoulders, neck and head, the lower body gradual coming in later as he begins to use more of the stage. The poses strongly recall Greek black figure pottery painting, which was another of Nijinsky’s inspirations.

Mark Bradshaw’s music uses saxophones, celeste and laptop, electronically altering the instruments and playing them through loudspeakers. The computer processing tends to purify the timbre of the instruments though they are still recognizably saxophonic and bell-like respectively, though more ethereal, also echoing and feeding back the notes in a controlled way. The music is on the minimal side, spare but exactly sufficient to its purpose and is very moody, sometimes with a clear tonality, though often ambiguous, and with no strong rhythmic pattern, just a spill of bells from the celeste or the slowing echoes of the saxophone’s note. This lack of an obvious repeating rhythm leaves much freedom to White’s movements and indeed it is often not clear whether he leads the music or it leads him, but he did seem to have a strong and almost trance-like sense of the music. They all were certainly on the same wavelength.

The lighting uses very effective chiaroscuro to leave mysterious shadows which deepen the stage space and highlight small tremblings in White’s clothes and the breathing diaphragm in his body. The choreography’s poses are not always beautiful — sometimes he looks almost humpbacked. It tends to divorce the joints so that arm, shoulder, neck and torso are independent and White shows enormous strength and control in the movements which are smooth and plastically shaped in themselves but abrupt and unpredictable in sequence. He plays a very convincing animal, an odd, somewhat unearthly one, somewhat androgynous too, moving deliberately but unpredictably and using far more range than simply crouching, prowling and crawling. There are in fact some very unusual movements, especially the jumps, with an elevation contemporary dance doesn’t seem to exploit often. They are strange, stiff, quick little fish-like jumps. Sometimes he moves quite frenetically sometimes there is only a tense stillness.

A sense of his environment comes across, a rather spooky but not threatening sort of crepuscular jungle; sometimes he reacts to features in the music as if they are an external sound. At times a poignant loneliness comes across very strongly, but except for these moments, he wears the animal imitation like a mask over his humanity, sometimes to the point of pedantry, making the piece drag slightly at these times. Sometimes a bit of his ego shows through too, and it would take quite a large one to be able to do what he does onstage alone for around an hour.

Paul White in Anatomy of an Afternoon. Photo by Prudence Upton.

Paul White in Anatomy of an Afternoon. Photo by Prudence Upton.

His unpredictability plays on the audience’s expectations, mostly in a subtle, unconscious way, except for one point in the middle when he strips off his clothes, down to his underpants. Seeing a man grappling with his pant legs pulls one out of the scene and upsets the hitherto intensely concentrated train of thought of the piece — though to be fair he was fairly smooth in getting them off, all things considered. But he then goes on to an obviously deliberate cheap attempt to shock the audience with a vulgar, obscene, scatological gesture, which works to garner a few titters at the price of spoiling the artistry of the whole piece, since it is the cheap shock one remembers and uses to identify the piece and which dominates one’s memory after. The piece eventually more or less gets its train back, but by then it is difficult to trust the artists not to degenerate back into cheap manipulation, and it becomes more of a flesh-feast, so the effect is partly lost. It is a shame because otherwise it would have been a truly excellent piece of art and a highly unusual one.

From a one man ballet with 21st century music to another about crowds with 16th century music: Assembly I felt was the strongest both as a whole and in detail and so the most successful of these three dance works. Ostensibly the concept is to explore crowds and it certainly uses crowd dynamics in its movement vocabulary on one level, imitating common encounters, but at another level it questions the boundaries between noise and music and speech, and chaotic motion and dance, or exploring the opposing collective, social and individual forces. If a person “contains multitudes” do not they carry a crowd with them always, one which they are all the more sensitive to when alone? The Melbourne dance company Chunky Moves partners with soloists from the Victorian Opera and the Sydney Philharmonia choirs, and the flavor is very much Melbournian, interestingly enough there is no cheap shock here to show off to the festival audience.

Chunky Move in Gideon Obarzanek's Assembly. Photo by Jeff Busby.

Chunky Move in Gideon Obarzanek's Assembly. Photo by Jeff Busby.

They have built the stage at the Angel Place Recital Hall up into a steep flight of steps, recalling those of classical architecture: the grand steps of a Senate, a library or forum, historically the main social focal points of a city, where one goes to meet a friend, or talk politics, or chew the fat. The chorus, solo singers and dancers all climb up these to begin with, mixed up together so it only gradually becomes clear who are dancers and who are singers for the singers participate in the collective movements and gestures as well (though the dancers do not sing!). All are dressed in normal day clothes one might wear in private or out in public but the general color scheme is controlled to give a sense of pleasing bright, clear colors, running across the spectrum from magenta-red, through orange, yellow, green, blue, purple.

The music is all vocal coming from times between the early renaissance and the late renaissance or early baroque. The quality of singing is very fine with a gorgeous clear, balanced texture, and they take time to relish the harmonies which are very rare in later music, especially in the Purcell Hear My Prayer. The words are clear which is very important for much of this style of music and the articulation and stress of the words which the melody is often careful to follow offers a certain sharpness of rhythm for the dancers’ steps. Angel Place has a slightly bright acoustic which is excellent for ancient music, perhaps a bit brighter and sitting up a bit more than usual with the modifications to the stage. There are long sections without music, filled sometimes with silence and gentle movement, or with the beating of feet on the steps or spoken words or sounds, from the cacophony of everyone speaking at once over one another at the beginning — not music of course, but not exactly noise either — to the howling and screaming of football spectators later, brawling like hooligans, the yellows and greens against the reds and purples, where the fracas and churning of the crowd comes to an exhilarating climax, complete with a Maori war dance and more than a little sledging, though the actual words are not discernible. Then there are whispered words, a single man sits and seems to talk to himself while the others march and stomp about him rhythmically. At times the chorus sings from behind the reverse slope of the steps, the sounds taking a more indirect, mixed, integrated Bayreuth-orchestra-pit style of sound, but at other times they cover the steps or line up around the sides and top of them leaving room for the dancers in the center. Fortunately, Gideon Obarzanek has been careful to leave time for the singers to catch their breath after using them in the choreography.

The novel stage has an interesting effect on the choreography as well as the acoustics — gravity seems almost a 61st member of the company. There are several scenes where a dancer writhes on the steps as the others look on, sometimes pouring herself down sometimes working her way up, making shapes with the arms and legs as the body appears to move from within. Inevitably there is falling and pushing too. This violence is abstracted rather than realistic, so it is not as shocking as it could be, but still it is horrifying — it seems to tweak a fundamental human nerve to see someone falling down stairs and the falling does not look fake. But then some of the dancing is very beautiful. In the solo dancing, one might rise into an arabesque-like pose then smoothly roll and slide to the floor. The crowded scenes show hyper-realistic crowded churning and glomming, mindless milling about, but also they come together into a more organized, smarter kind of crowd creating mandela patterns with their bodies.

The dancers of Chunky Moves clearly take their art very seriously and come to show poignancy and even pathos in this piece. They have a strong intuitive feel for the music and the different types of movement they use seem to flow into each other naturally, from scene to scene to form a seamless whole which finishes with a certain feeling of purgation. At the end, one male dancer drops out of the circling crowd, left in the center in despair, silently wailing and dropping his head into his hands while the rest flow around him. Two women come to him and put their hands on his shoulders ceremoniously to comfort him and form a new pattern in the center. The individual and the group gestures are quite powerful and touching, meeting the level of the music. The piece uncovers more questions than it answers, which is a very good sign in itself and has humanity to it, showing some of the inhumanity of the crowd by contrast to project its empathetic humanity in a paired down, quite spare way, also very much in its own style. It would be nice to see many more collaborations between these three groups, I’m sure both sides of their art could only benefit.

[1] Robert Graves The White Goddess.

About the author

Andrew Miller

Andrew Miller lives in Sydney and writes mostly about music and theatre, especially ballet and opera.

He holds a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Sydney, and once studied the piano and trombone.

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