Dance at the Sydney Festival

Am I, Shaun Parker & Company, January 9; Dido & Aeneas, Sasha Waltz & Guests, January 16; Gudirr Gudirr, Marrugeku, January 17; Forklift, KAGE, January 18

THE Sydney Festival’s dance program was relatively low-key but had an interesting range, from the large-scale centrepiece Dido & Aeneas from Sasha Waltz & Guests to the intimacy and refreshing directness of Gudirr Guddir, Dalisa Pigram’s one-woman performance. There were four premieres – Gudirr Gudirr, Shaun Parker & Company’s  Am I, KAGE’s Forklift and the collaboration between Lingalayam and Taikoz, Chi Udaka. I wasn’t able to see Chi Udaka, but the others formed a program of great diversity.

DIDO & Aeneas is a self-regarding production – a dated-looking one too – that rides rough-shod over Henry Purcell’s delicate opera. The water tank that featured in all the publicity shots says it all. It’s huge, heavy and ugly – just the thing to symbolise the pulverising of Purcell.

The smart term for what choreographer Sasha Waltz does is deconstruction, but that would imply the creation of parts worth examining closely for fresh insights. Purcell’s surviving hour of music (some was lost) became 100 exceedingly dull minutes as a prologue was added and new action inserted. Virtually none of the text, spoken or sung, was intelligible on opening night despite most of it being in English. There were barriers in terms of accents and vocal projection and there were no surtitles. If you were unaware of the arc of Purcell’s opera you would be entirely at sea.

Dido & Aeneas. Photo: Sebastian Bolesch

Dido & Aeneas. Photo: Sebastian Bolesch

Speaking of which, the opening presumably referenced the journey of Aeneas from Troy to the shores of Carthage and presages his departure. The tank was half filled with water in which dancers frolicked and did little point-and-flex steps. While it looked lovely for a few moments it was an extremely large effect for no real dramatic gain.

The dancers then mingled with singers, often confusingly. In the melee it was hard to discern any real connection between our hero, Aeneas, and the Queen of Carthage, who fall in love but are separated when fate and a touch of evil intervene. Aeneas abandons Dido, whose dying lament, When I am laid in earth, is one of opera’s most exquisite arias. Here it signalled only that the end of the production was in sight.

It’s understandable a choreographer would be attracted to Purcell’s score, which inserts dances at regular intervals. Mark Morris made a wonderful version in 1989, seen at the 1994 Adelaide Festival, in which singers stood in the pit with the orchestral musicians and the roles of Dido and the Sorceress were doubled to absorbing effect.

Waltz doesn’t make dances to go in the spaces indicated in the libretto or make a piece that works in tandem with the opera like two bodies pressed together. She imposed a messy set of impulses over the top of it. Clothes were flung in the air, dancers were attached to cords to fly around, there was a break for a little dancing lesson, a silent solo and much more. A great deal of the movement wasn’t interesting enough to hold the attention long.

If Purcell’s opera were illuminated, or if ideas worked in strenuous opposition to its depiction of a woman’s disintegration in the face of betrayal, or if the stage action conveyed something moving and surprising on the subject of overpowering passion, it would have been wonderful. Alas, Waltz’s imagery was largely uninspiring. Aurore Ugolin sang Dido’s lament through a long veil of hair, which she managed to carry off with some dignity and beauty of tone.

The ravishing Akademie fur Alte Musik Berlin in the pit under the direction of Christopher Moulds and the members of Vocal Consort Berlin came out of the evening best. The latter, gamely joining forces with the dancers, managed to create a strongly unified sound. Unfortunately the solo singing was often disappointing pallid. The Lyric Theatre was too big for these voices, chosen to suit a piece that privileged inexpressive and often incoherent movement over Purcell’s imperishable music.

SHAUN Parker’s Am I is a strong addition to this meticulous choreographer’s body of work – it looked and sounded stunning. Nick Wales, who has worked many times with Parker, contributed a new score full of fascinating colours, rhythms and sonorities, played and sung by a group of seven musicians, including Wales, who could sometimes be spotted emerging from the shadows as they inhabited a platform behind and above the dance area.

It was undoubtedly a sensible decision to keep them in semi-darkness as the potential for them to draw focus was very high indeed. Gorgeous Asian and central European influences were strong but by no means the whole musical story. Wales has an impressive ability to create a beautiful and coherent whole from a wide range of sources and make it work well for dance.

Shaun Parker & Company's Am I. Photograph: Prudence Upton

Shaun Parker & Company’s Am I. Photograph: Prudence Upton

There was also a big wow factor with Damien Cooper’s wall of ever-changing lights, which featured in an early coup de theatre and from there on acted as a kind of illustration of events. Very smart indeed.

Meticulous, elegant and sophisticated, Am I ambitiously takes ideas from physics, astronomy, neurology, anthropology and other branches of science to chart the path of human development.  We are the only creatures who can apprehend ourselves as conscious beings with a limited span. Having evolved to that point, our drive is to survive and replicate, to make love and war, and to think about things too much.

This doesn’t come as news, of course, but Am I covers the ground with immense grace and delicacy. To borrow the title of an earlier Parker piece, this show is about people, and we rarely fail to be delighted by seeing ourselves and our psyches onstage.

Parker chose to express a significant amount – too much really – via text, delivered with often amused poise by Shantala Shivalingappa. More fascinating, though, was the way movement so eloquently described processes, emotions and beliefs. Energy radiated out through fluttering fingers, hands enclosed space to shape it and feel its volume and bodies joined to suggest elements merging and changing. Metal rods, glinting in the light, were seen as weapons, enclosures and used to form patterns and symbols. A snapping fan suggested culture but aggression too.

Dancers Josh Mu, Sophia Ndaba, Jessie Oshodi, Marnie Palomares, Melanie Palomares and Julian Wong – dressed simply but effectively in black by Anna Tregloan, were credited as collaborators in the piece and did it proud. Repetition and small incremental changes are built into Am I, giving it a hypnotic feel. Parker isn’t much of a one for overtly virtuosic leaps and turns but the choreography is extremely intricate, exacting and while being abstract also conveys a strong sense of relationships and emotional states. I particularly liked the dance for five very near the end in which a very modern sense of relentless activity and anxiety started to enter the picture.

Shaun Parker & Company's Am I. Photograph: Prudence Upton

Shaun Parker & Company’s Am I. Photograph: Prudence Upton

Coming as it did, however, after what felt like an ending but wasn’t, it lost something of its power. Am I explains itself just a little too much.

ABOUT an Hour is one of the glories of the Sydney Festival. It was the inspiration of former director Fergus Linehan (2006-2009) and while there have been a few tweaks along the way it survives in good shape. Nearly all the events take place over three or four days, making for a concentrated program. As the name suggests all the works are short, although there were many other events in the main Sydney Festival program that fell around the hour-long mark too, so in some ways the distinction is a little arbitrary.

The brief schedule means it’s hard to get the word out – in print at least – about shows of great merit, although it’s likely patrons just turn up and buy on spec as tickets are all $35 or less. I was able to see half the events, including dance works Gudirr Gudirr, from Western Australia’s Marrugeku company and KAGE’s Forklift, a new piece for women and heavy equipment.

Dalisa Pigram is an enchanting dancer and a passionate advocate for life in Australia’s north-west. Gudirr Gudirr is a memorable solo woven from themes relating to the area’s indigenous history, polyglot population, environmental beauties and present-day challenges. There are plenty of the latter.

The sound of a coastal bird from Pigram’s home country, the Kimberley, gave her work its name. At the start of the piece Pigram luxuriated in memories of gathering fish – but not too many! – and learning from her family. Simple pleasures gave way to a passionate recitation of former wrongs and current woes. There may be no more Aboriginal men with cruelly heavy chains around their necks or girls chosen for domestic work on the basis of skin tone, but new issues such as mining, violence and suicide take their toll. Gains have been made, Pigram said, but danger lies in being seduced by them.

Simutaneously wiry and elastic, Pigram seamlessly incorporated shapes from indigenous dance, martial arts, animal imagery, gymnastics, the nightclub and the circus for a wholly individual effect. When she spoke in her traditional language, Yawuru, it became a liquid element in Sam Serruys’s score, which also included songs from Stephen Pigram. When she railed against contemporary ills, the repeated use of the most common four-letter word turned into a kind of bird sound.

There was the occasional bumpy moment when Pigram rushed a text or a filmed element was difficult to identify, but Gudirr Gudirr rarely lost its grip. Particularly effective was how subtly Pigram altered her movement to morph from serene confidence to uncertainty and anguish. She also took to the air via a long ribbon of net that let her swing free or entangled her. The net was both tradition and snare.

Pigram, who is co-artistic director of Marrugeku, worked on Guddir Gudirr with Koen Augustijnen, formerly with celebrated Belgian company Les Ballets C de la B. He is credited as director and co-choreographer and together he and Pigram have made a 55-minute work overflowing with rich images and ideas.

KAGE’s Forklift would be a nifty concept for a 10-minute circus act. As an hour-long theatre work the conceit was stretched too far in several ways. Forklift puts women into an unusual industrial context as a kind of fantasy of female strength and empowerment, which is fine. Or would be, if it didn’t look somewhat like a male fantasy about hot women in the workplace.

In the first half there was an unfortunate suggestion of exotic dancers in a gentlemen’s club as three women performed extreme elongations and contortions in skin-tight, skin-coloured attire and did so with an unvaryingly languorous air to monotonous music. The early stacking of limp bodies into a container didn’t help the cause either.

Performers Henna Kaikula, Amy Macpherson and Nicci Wilks, each showing great skill and courage, shimmied into vivid costumes for the second half and standard industrial boxes were reversed to reveal crayon-bright colours, but what that may mean was elusive.

Using a moving forklift as a tiny performance arena is original and dangerous, no doubt about it. It just couldn’t bear a weightier goal than uncomplicated entertainment.

Am I will be staged at the Adelaide Festival from February 27-March 1.