Dance Better at Parties

Sydney Theatre Company, April 9

DAVE would appear to have come to the wrong place. The ugly suburban dance school with its poo-brown floor and unforgiving fluoros offers private lessons in the rumba, tango, paso doble and other glittering ballroom arts. You buy a block of 10, sign here for direct debit, initial the injury waiver please, and at the end of the course you might be eligible for your bronze and be invited to move up to the next level. (Not much chance of anyone failing, you would think.)

Elizabeth Nabben and Steve Rodgers in Dance Better at Parties. Photo: Brett Boardman

Elizabeth Nabben and Steve Rodgers in Dance Better at Parties. Photo: Brett Boardman

But Dave’s ambitions aren’t as lofty as that. He just wants to be less awkward when he goes out, or so he says. What can stumbling through the paso doble do for a bloke who is, quite frankly, a pretty ordinary example of physique and co-ordination?

As it turns out, quite a lot.

Gideon Obarzanek’s deceptively simple, deeply compassionate two-hander Dance Better at Parties is his first production as an associate at Sydney Theatre Company but it’s been brewing for a decade. In 2004 Obarzanek had an idea for a documentary about men and movement that turned into a dance work for his company Chunky Move, I Want to Dance Better at Parties. For some reason Obarzanek leaves that step out of his director’s note for Dance Better at Parties, moving straight on from research for the documentary to his current play.

The dance piece was important, however, in that it was clear which story – there were five – audiences responded to most. One man’s reason for seeking out dance lessons gave Obarzanek his title. “I want to dance better at parties,” the man told the choreographer, but Obarzanek realised  this was code for something much more fundamental: the need for contact, the need to be touched. That one story is the inspiration for Dance Better at Parties.

If you want to say the unsayable, then dance is the way to do it. Dance Better at Parties shows how perilous it can be – where a hand goes, how bodies fit together and how closely – but how potentially exhilarating and liberating. So when Dave (Steve Rodgers) turns up for his lessons with lithe, lovely Rachel (Elizabeth Nabben) there’s a minefield of emotional tumult and sexual tension roiling under the surface conversation about what foot goes where and how to achieve a satisfactorily rolling infinity figure with the hips.

“Take off the shirt, take off the shirt,” Rachel cries enthusiastically, as a way of describing a sweeping arm movement across the chest. Yes, you can see how there might be an undercurrent or two.

Rodgers, who is arguably the country’s most simpatico actor, is funny, heart-breaking and dignified as Dave persists against the odds. Rodgers isn’t a natural mover, bless him, which is as it should be. But when Dave cuts loose and surrenders to the music, he is magnificent. Relative newcomer Nabben delicately handles the difficult nuances of Rachel’s relationship with her clients and delivers Jessica Prince’s choreography as if born to it. (She seems not to have been; her biography doesn’t list any dance training.)

Obarzanek steers the story with immense restraint and knows when to let the dance do the talking. He lets a great deal hang in the air, leaving much up to intuition. For that reason some in the audience on opening night found Dance Better at Parties a little thin and unresolved. I loved its refusal to spell everything out.

There are one or two clunky moments (Dave’s personal revelations don’t fit entirely neatly into Obarzanek’s structure), but never a false or exploitative one. I was quite teary at the end. I blame Steve Rodgers.

***

STC is billing Dance Better at Parties as Obarzanek’s ‘’first foray into text-based theatre”, but it’s a bit more complicated than that. Best known as the founder and artistic director of Melbourne-based Chunky Move – a post he left last year – Obarzanek has often used text in his work. Often his work could be put as easily in the box marked Theatre as the one marked Dance.

Take his 2010 solo Faker, the one that brought Obarzanek back to performing after a long absence from the stage. He had a lot to say, literally, in that one. Or Two-Faced Bastard (2008), made with Lucy Guerin, also a choreographer who uses text liberally. Or I Want to Dance Better at Parties.

Contemporary choreographers have for decades used text as one of their tools. Theatre has been a little slower in getting what dance and heightened movement can add to the mix and it can be something of an acquired taste for audiences whose experience is mostly confined to theatre.

Guerin’s Human Interest Story, for instance, was a co-commission from Melbourne’s Malthouse theatre and Perth International Arts Festival (2010) and was then part of the 2011 Belvoir season in Sydney.

An aussietheatre website review of a Belvoir performance noted this:

Obviously contemporary dance isn’t for everyone, I asked a fellow theatregoer on the way out what she thought and she briskly replied, “Well, it’s an early night.”

The night I attended Human Interest Story the audience by and large seemed interested in and intrigued by it. There was a sense of close attention being paid; the atmosphere felt keener than usual. I attributed this to the audience’s unfamiliarity with dance.

Human Interest Story is closer to the dance end of the spectrum than the theatre end; the opposite is true in the work of UK company Frantic Assembly, whose hyper-active boxing-world drama Beautiful Burnout (Frantic Assembly with National Theatre of Scotland) was part of the Sydney and Perth festivals in the early months of 2012.

In the falling-somewhere-in-the-middle category is a work such as Trust, seen in 2011 at the Perth International Arts Festival. It was co-created for Berlin’s Schaubuhne by German playwright Falk Richter and Dutch choreographer Anouk van Dijk – now artistic director of Chunky Move following Obarzanek’s desire to move on after 16 years.

The same names do keep coming up.

In the past couple of years Australian theatre has been opening up to dance than – or perhaps it might be more exact to say that the work of Obarzanek, Guerin and Kate Champion, previously put into the Dance basket, is now being seen in a broader light.

This is partly due to new leadership at some important companies. At Belvoir, for instance, when designer Ralph Myers took over as the company’s artistic director at the beginning of 2011 he came with a CV that included the design of Obarzanek and Guerin’s Two-Faced Bastard. In 2012 he programmed works that had a strong movement element – Roslyn Oades’s exceptional verbatim theatre piece about boxing, I’m Your Man; Food, a lovely play written by Steve Rodgers and directed by Rodgers with Champion (and now up for a NSW Premier’s Literary Award) – and Guerin’s Conversation Piece.

As the title suggests, Conversation Piece is strong on talk, and it wasn’t simply programmed by Belvoir; it was co-produced with Belvoir and later seen at Melbourne’s Dance Massive festival. Human Interest Story was a co-commission from Melbourne’s Malthouse theatre and Perth International Arts Festival (2010) and was then part of the 2011 Belvoir season. STC commissioned Never Did Me any Harm from Champion’s Force Majeure company and it was part of the Sydney, Adelaide and Melbourne festivals of 2012.

You can see from this list, then, that there’s a rather small pool of talent swirling about. But at least it is moving.

Dance Better at Parties continues until May 11. Sydney Theatre Company’s website advises there is a limited number of tickets remaining. Some are released on the day of performance.

Food can be seen at La Boite, Brisbane, April 17-27.

This is an expanded version of a review that appeared in The Australian on April 11.

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