Three companies, one great show

Sydney Festival Parramatta Program, January 23

PUNCTURE starts with “Hello” and ends with “I love you”. Has there been anything more life-affirming than this at the 2015 Sydney Festival? I doubt it.

As I write, the 2pm show has recently finished at the Riverside Theatre at Parramatta and there will be just two more: tonight at 8pm and tomorrow at 2pm. With Wednesday’s preview there will have been seven performances in all. Is there a chance of more? One can only hope so.

Puncture puts both performers and audience on the stage of the biggest theatre at Parramatta’s Riverside Theatres, screened from the auditorium by the fire curtain. The audience is very close to the performers and despite the ample size of the space there is an atmosphere of urgent intimacy. As the young dancers enact age-old rituals of meeting, attraction, flirtation, confusion and passion one can hear the breath, see the sweat, feel the impact as they hit the floor and share in the adrenalin rush as they arc through the air on ropes.

A dancer flies in Puncture. Photo: Prudence Upton

A dancer flies in Puncture. Photo: Prudence Upton

That would be sensory ravishment enough, but there’s more. In one of the loveliest ideas I have encountered in dance for many years Stefan Gregory’s score for Puncture is sung live by VOX, a 30-member vocal ensemble drawn from members of Sydney Philharmonia Choirs, who move in and out of the dance and allow us to see them as smiling, engaged individuals – participants in the fullest sense.

Puncture is concerned with the human need for connection, as that sung “Hello” makes radiantly clear. One could call that the statement of intent. After that comes the physical manifestation as six couples collide, grapple, touch, fight, fly, support, change partners, argue and love. Choreographer Kathryn Puie evokes the formalities of Elizabethan court dance, the uniformity of line dancing, the romance of the waltz, the zing of the tango, the group spirit of folk and much more, but ultimately the dance is about body against body, skin against skin; sometimes restrained, sometimes tender, sometimes wild.

Gregory’s music is similarly eclectic and always strikingly beautiful. He arranges Madonna’s Steingberg/Kelly song Like a Virgin to great effect and it supports one of Puncture’s most cherishable moments. It’s possible someone reading this today might feel impelled to head to Parramatta tomorrow (tonight, even!) to see the piece – that would be wonderful; I wish I could see it again myself – so I won’t reveal what happens here. I’ll just say that VOX soprano Charlotte Campbell is a real surprise package.

Mic Gruchy’s video design sends evocative flickering figures along the walls of the space and Mel Page designed the show, which includes some divinely pretty skirts and dresses for the female dancers. The names keep on coming – this project really has gathered the best of the best. Damien Cooper did the lighting, and Bree Van Reyk (percussion) and Luke Byrne (piano) support the singers, whose music director is Elizabeth Scott.

And – this is the crowning touch – heading the beautiful ensemble of dancers are Kristina Chan and Joshua Thomson, two of the country’s finest contemporary dance artists.

Patrick Nolan, whose concept it is, directs this greatly complex piece in such a way that it feels quite simple and natural and incredibly satisfying. The flow of human history continues.

Happy as Larry

Shaun Parker & Company, Seymour Centre, Sydney, September 11

I FIRST saw Happy as Larry at the Sydney Festival in 2010 and reviewed it for The Australian. I liked it very much then, with a slight caveat, and liked it very much again yesterday. It’s been tweaked a little to advantage, if I recall correctly, although the music of co-composers Nick Wales and Bree van Reyk is played at an ear-piercing level, not to advantage. Perhaps it was an anomaly because this was a matinee and the theatre was full of school students, who seem to have an extremely high tolerance level for noise. As I failed to damage my hearing during my long ago youth, I did find this aspect a bit testing.

Shaun Parker & Company's Happy as Larry

Shaun Parker & Company’s Happy as Larry

The piece itself and the performance of it are terrifically engaging. Choreographer and director Shaun Parker set out to explore the nature of happiness through different personality types and via a highly eclectic range of movement. There are acrobatics, ballet, basketball twirling, roller-skating, breakdance and general fooling around. The mix is enchanting. Whether it’s possible to exactly pinpoint the nine difference personality types proposed is another matter, but the use of them obviously gave Parker and the dancers a fruitful jumping off point.

Adam Gardnir’s design plays a hugely active part in Happy as Larry. It ends with a canopy of balloons – sweetness and melancholy mixed – that hover over the action of this fast-moving 75-minute piece. As the audience comes into the theatre a man – Timothy Ohl – is drawing with chalk on a huge rectangular block that, as I wrote in 2010, “will spin, be clambered over, danced around, hung on to, jumped from and written on”. The explosion of delight from the teenagers as Ohl drew a light switch, then appeared to control the lights by pressing it, was a delight to me. The magic of the theatre, done so simply. So there’s a container-load of happiness right there.

Yesterday, as in 2010, I felt Happy as Larry didn’t really lead to any conclusions, other than perhaps to suggest it is so elusive as to be impossible.  I also felt it was, again, “full of the unexpected and virtuosic”. These performers are very, very special.

Happy as Larry continues at the Seymour Centre until September 14.