School of Arts Theatre, Townsville, July 24.

I WAS much taken by the concept for Abandon. The word can mean to cut loose in a negative sense, to rid oneself of something or someone; or it can mean a surrender to ecstatic states. Dancenorth’s website promised heightened emotions – euphoria, jealousy, fury, madness and so on – but something more too, a particularly tantalising three-way artistic collaboration. The idea of Dancenorth’s artistic director Raewyn Hill, Opera Queensland’s artistic director Lindy Hume and boundary-stretching classical accordion virtuoso James Crabb getting together on a project was enticing. The icing on the cake was the music: Crabb would arrange Handel arias for himself and cellist Teije Hylkema. More than enough to get one on the plane to Townsville, in northern Queensland. (And I was far from the only person to have put in a lot of kilometres to get there.)

The challenge for complex collaborations – five dancers, four singers, three designers, two musicians, one composer – is getting the mix just right. Not too much of this, add a little of that, check the temperature, the texture, the balance, the structural soundness. In Abandon too many things are off, not necessarily by much, but by enough to compromise the success of the whole.

Alice Hinde and Monique Latemore in Abandon
Alice Hinde and Monique Latemore in Abandon

Abandon is set within a three-sided space of pale hue made from blocks that rise high above the performers and are malleable and responsive enough to be almost an additional performer. Throughout the 70 minutes of the piece entrances and exits, sheltering spaces and windows to the outside are created to great effect in Bruce McKinven’s set, glowingly lit by Bosco Shaw. Dancers, singers and musicians are dressed in covetable garments from a collection by Alistair Trung, mostly in black with some accents, but all different and all both flattering and appropriate for the ways in which the performers need to move.

So far so very good. The physical look is strikingly individual and Crabb’s interpretation of the music dramatic and assertive.

But then the trouble starts. An important part of the design is an increasingly disarrayed “floor” of plastic bags – visually interesting, fair enough conceptually and aurally irritating. There’s a hell of a racket as the urban detritus is scuffed around the space and it makes an acoustically tricky space even more so for the four young singers, sopranos Annie Lower and Monique Latemore, alto Elizabeth Lewis and bass Christopher Richardson.

Hill’s choreography requires the singers to be almost as active as the dancers and they do it gamely and effectively, but it’s very hard to ask them to assert young voices over the merry crackle of refuse. It didn’t surprise me that wayward pitch was occasionally an issue and that it was frequently difficult to discern exactly what was being sung. I couldn’t say Hume has discovered an exceptional Handelian in this group: while there were many lovely moments, the singers struggled to realise fully the different moods and qualities of the chosen arias, choruses and a duet, selected from Tolomeo, Orlando, Alcina, Hercules and Aci, Galatea e Polifemo. Nevertheless, there is never a time at which Ah, mio cor! from Alcina is unwelcome, nor the glorious Stille amare from Tolomeo.

Elizabeth Lewis (foreground) in Abandon
Elizabeth Lewis (foreground) in Abandon

Truth to tell, taken out of context one Handel aria can sound fairly much like another, particularly when there are no surtitles to give a reference point, or at least they do in Abandon. Generalised angst rather than sexier abandon reigns and Hill’s choreography, often in unison, is mostly too repetitive to be of assistance. It’s a relief when veteran Bradley Chatfield, formerly of Sydney Dance Company and now Dancenorth’s dance director, performs a lively section based on boxing moves to accompany Affanno tiranno from Aci, Galatea e Polifemo.

Hill’s arrangement of performers is most affecting and suits the music when she turns them into formal tableaux vivants. At times they lie beside one another, cram themselves into a small space in the wall, stand in lines, put a head on a shoulder or offer a gesture of consolation. When the dancers stagger, posture, and play with their hair the deliberate awkwardness conveys little other than awkwardness.

Right at the end there is a lovely moment of clarity as dancer Andrew Searle has an introspective solo to Stille amare. It’s an aria for a dying hero and Searle seems, appropriately, to be seeking release from the group. Alas, right at this point the group is moving boxes about. But there, with Hylkema’s cello making the spine shiver, despite the distracting busyness I felt a real emotional connection that trumped the exasperation that, for me, had so far predominated.

Abandon ends in Townsville on August 1. It is possible there will be performances in Brisbane next year.

This is an expanded version of a review that appeared in The Australian, July 26.

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