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.

Symphony, It’s Dark Outside, Sydney Festival

Symphony, Legs on the Wall, CarriageWorks, January 13

It’s Dark Outside, Perth Theatre Company, CarriageWorks, January 13

WHAT do 30 large cardboard boxes have to do with Beethoven’s sublime 7th symphony? Unfortunately, as it turns out, very little. The intriguing starting point for Symphony is Stefan Gregory’s arrangement of Beethoven for one electric guitar. From that, Legs on the Wall director Patrick Nolan posits a theme of the group versus the individual, the many against the one. Not only is the idea sadly well trawled; its articulation brings no new insights.

Symphony, Legs on the Wall

Symphony, Legs on the Wall

Those 30 boxes are put into one formation, then knocked over. They are placed into a different pattern and then fall over. Then the performers move the boxes around once more. Andrew Wholley’s attractive video design finds a home on them, but there’s more tedious box work than during the late-night shift at Woollies.

The performers dash about, recount several dull stories and look at each other meaningfully. They work extremely hard but the movement language lies somewhere between dance and gymnastics and has the clarity of purpose of neither. Gregory creates a huge wall of sound that sometimes focuses tightly on Beethoven’s themes and at others makes them more diffuse, but is always of musical interest.

IT’S Dark Outside takes a difficult, bewildering subject and handles it with delicacy, tact and grace. An old man with dementia takes off into the night and is visited by his dreams, fears and memories as he tries to make sense of a retreating world. His mind is clouded – It’s Dark Outside makes that idea a beautiful and touching motif – but he gallantly tries to go on.

Tim Watts – he of the widely travelled, much acclaimed The Adventures of Alvin Sputnik – and collaborators Arielle Gray and Chris Isaacs tread gently in an emotional minefield. Their theatre of puppetry and animation takes the edge off a very brutal business while Rachael Dease’s mellifluous score offers the audience a soft, protective cushion.

I suspect, however, that anyone who has seen dementia up close will see It’s Dark Outside through tear-filled eyes. I know I did.

Both works are part of the Sydney Festival’s invaluable About an Hour series, which has seen several incarnations since its inception by former director Fergus Linehan in 2006. Whichever way it goes, it’s a winner.

This review first appeared in The Australian on January 15