Colossus, Stephanie Lake Company

Carriageworks, Sydney Festival, January 16

The short Sydney Festival season of Stephanie Lake’s Colossus has ended but the show is by no means over. Next month it will be seen at the Perth Festival and very likely beyond. Lake has said there are possible international engagements to come. Colossus premiered at the Melbourne Fringe in 2018 and last year featured in the Melbourne International Arts Festival program. This, obviously, is what gets known as a festival piece; something ambitious that needs the resources of a large organisation behind it. Colossus was choreographed for more than 40 dancers. No further explanation is needed. Well perhaps a little explanation. Colossus is usually described as having 50 dancers but it’s a handful fewer according to the cast sheet. 

Colossus. Credit Mark Gambino (1)

The Melbourne cast in Stephanie Lake’s Colossus. Photo by Mark Gambino

Whatever the number, it’s a lot. It’s rare to see an independent choreographer have the luxury of such forces at her disposal, although Lake has previously shown she can handle them. Her terrific piece for Queensland Ballet’s 2017 Bespoke program,  Chameleon, proved that. Not that she’s any slouch with small forces either, as Double Blind showed in 2016.

Colossus starts in stillness. As the audience enters the dancers are already present, lying motionless on their backs, arranged in a circle. There is a thunderous clap and scores of arms and heads are raised in unison. Energy transfers from Robin Fox’s heartbeat-like score to the bodies and from one body to the next. Everyone is part of the pack, a separate being and at the same time a collective entity, like a flock of birds in flight or a herd of zebra on the move, the one member of the group always knowing where the others are in relation to themselves and acting in concert.

Their black attire looks self-effacing against the bright white surrounds and even though each costume (designed by Harriet Oxley) is different – a dress here, shorts there, meshes, cutouts, straps and so on – the overwhelming sense is of anonymity. Yes, some figures are taller, shorter or more muscular than others but one will never really know these people, even when Lake pulls a single person or a couple from the mass. They emerge and are then subsumed. 

Colossus. Credit Mark Gambino (7)

The Melbourne cast of Colossus. Photo by Mark Gambino

Several times Lake’s formal organisation of dancers into circles and lines explodes into a kind of chaos one could perhaps designate as freedom, but it looks as chilling as Colossus’s highly structured mass movements of people obeying disembodied instructions, ferocious marching, a mob chasing one person. 

Lake does allow a few flashes of independence. In one brief section in the middle of this 50-minute work the dancers suddenly break ranks to mingle and chatter amongst themselves, as if taking a short breather. It’s a reminder that they are indeed human, doing what comes naturally, delightfully relaxed and cheerful. And as the piece nears its end, with the simplest of means Lake changes the atmosphere to one of understanding and acceptance within the group and, finally, individuality. 

Colossus. Credit Mark Gambino (4)

The Melbourne cast of Colossus. Photo by Mark Gambino

Integral to this optimistic conclusion are Fox’s sound design and Bosco Shaw’s eloquent lighting. Fox’s electronic scores are often uncompromisingly tough and spiky. Here there’s a more human quality, particularly in the incorporation of the dancers’ breathing and the percussive possibilities of their bodies. From Shaw there is a design that from time to time softens the harsh glare of black versus blinding white with illuminations that throw ghostly shadows. It’s a beautiful effect, but more than that. It speaks of the spirit within, no matter how oppressive, regimented or controlled life may seem.

Perth Festival, February 19-23

Abandon

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.