Friday, October 21, 2011



Last night I had the pleasure of sitting a few seats along from one of the strangest audience members I've ever encountered. She couldn't shut up for five minutes. Throughout the entirety of this world premiere she kept involuntarily babbling appreciation: “I love it.” “Thank you for that.” “That was lovely.” Her comments weren't directed at anyone (and her much older, serious-looking companion was livid). They weren't an attempt at grabbing attention, and were delivered in a calm, quiet monotone suggestive of Valium or narcolepsy or a dissociative state. She looked gently apologetic when reprimanded, then proceeded to film some of the show with her phone.

I've always had a personal fascination with people who break the social contract we make when entering a theatre. I can understand why these incidents usually annoy most everyone nearby, but in the case of Balletlab, at least, it's hard to complain: why shouldn't one of the most eccentric, perverse, off-kilter companies around attract the occasional peculiar fan?

Phillips Adams' work has always been defined by the twin polarities of obsession and chaos. They're like the homes of hoarders – seemingly stuffed to bursting point with meaningless debris, but also hinting at an insanely particular logic of order that can only be understood by its inhabitant. Each of Adams' shows reveal another object of fanatical pursuit: taxidermy, origami, woodchopping, bullfighting, Morris dancing, cryptozoology, cults. Balletlab makes choreography of the fetish, and here it's birdwatching, beards and the dandy that are put on the pedestal.

Aviary is composed of three parts: the first is the most straightforward and, to me, the least interesting. The dancers are dressed in elaborate, delicate black and white costumes reminiscent of plumage, and perform in a pretty literal bird-like manner, including squawks and trills and chirps. The score to Messiaen's Catalogue d'oiseaux is scattered around the floor, and the performers respond to it both physically and orally, as if “playing” the music with their bodies.

The second sequence is a dramatic shift: Adams himself strides out in militaristic dress with a flamboyant white feathered cape. Now the bird cage is an 80s nightclub, complete with Simple Minds soundtrack and throbbing dancefloor lighting. A squad of dancers join Adams, who takes on the charismatic air of religious leader, army commander and fashion guru. It's ecstatic and ironic, linking the liberation of trangression through style with the fascist tendencies that often accompany such movements. One recurring image here is the fetishisation of facial hair – at points the entire playing space is covered in tiled images of beards and moustaches – as a reaction against the waxed and tanned bodies that once dominated gay culture's ideal of sexy, but whether this hairy fetish is can be its own kind of confining dictate is left open here.

The final third of the work is the most provocative. The dancers are once again birds, engaging in courtship rituals, preening, constructing their nests from a gigantic mound of branches heaped to one side of the stage. They're garbed in outrageously feathered headdresses and grass-skirts, and its here that things get difficult. The explicit object of reference is the bower-bird, but there's also a sense that the dancers are playing the exoticism of the tribe, making us both birdwatcher and amateur anthropologist at the same time. Adams hammers mindlessly at a piano to one side while the performers respond to the noise – if he is playing the anthropologist here, it's one whose dumb observances themselves create their subject, and it's an appropriately damning view of the cultural colonisation of 'primitive' tribes by those who have recorded them. Adams is wearing a hat styled with two horns, as well. Eventually he joins the group as well, at first entranced by his own reflection in the mirrored stage curtain (some birds have been known to attempt to court their own mirrored image) but it's also apparent that the observer here has fallen in love with the vision of himself in the environment he has been studying. Soon enough he's rolling around on the floor with his subjects, sanctifying their unions, once again placing himself in a position of monstrous leadership. But it this critique part of the work, or my own projection? I can't be sure. There's always the danger that Adams is simply reproducing these exotic fetishes, and that danger is what lends this final section such power.

It's maddening, as most of Adams' work is. He regularly goes through an intensive process of creation, exploring his subjects from all angles and building up a wealth of tightly defined material. Then he guts it, throws the heart out the window, leaving a glittering shell whose insides the audience must infer themselves. I've seen him in the rehearsal process and spoken to him during the development of new works, and what ends up on stage is often precisely the opposite of what I'd expected. It's massively brave dance-making, almost as demanding of its audience as it is of its performers. And certainly worthy of comment, even if it is from a strange duck a few seats down from me.

Arts House, North Melbourne Town Hall until Sunday.


There's something bird-like about Gideon Obarzanek's final work for Chunky Move, too. In one striking sequence, a flock of performers (around 64 I think, composed of both dancers and Victorian Opera singers) swarm around the stage in a shifting mass, the group moving as one, guided by decisions made spontaneously but not communicated in an obvious way. A random member switches direction, those nearby follow, and the change ripples outward. Sometimes two or three will shift at the same time, and the mass experiences an equally conflicted pattern change. It reminded me most of the amazing mating rituals of flamingos.

Assembly isn't about birds but patterns themselves, and the way the crowd is more than just a bunch of individuals. Crowd behaviour plays out throughout the work – the performers become spectators at a sporting match, or warring gangs, or aimlessly wandering commuters. They're dressed casually, which makes it all the more astonishing when they abruptly congregate into groups coded by colour. When the space is occupied by only one or a few people, it seems the lesser for it. While the dances performed by individuals are accomplished here – Harriet Ritchie, especially, is the show's star – the choreography is really most impressive when it's dispersed across bodies, not confined to them. My only real complaint about the work was the unexpected appearance of Paul Capsis near it's end, popping up to belt out a tune for some reason. We've gotten to know this motley bunch so well by this stage; why introduce a new member who brings his own aura of uniqueness that seems at odds with the shifting dynamics explored thus far?

If Aviary draws on ornithology and anthropology, Assembly is closer in intent to sociology. There's nothing academic to it, though. Obarzanek doesn't seem to have any particular point to make – he's not examining the dangers of the crowd's de-individuating force, or the way a mass can accomplish things beyond the individual. But there's a subtle, persuasive effect to the work that comes simply from watching an experience shared by such a large mob. In a way there's a note of sadness or alienation to it, as well: while the group onstage at times fleetingly join to form a united, intricately assembled whole, in the audience we're left as isolated voyeurs occupying a space and time but not aware of ourselves as any kind of community. How could we be? You need wings for a bird's eye view.

Season ended.


More birds! This time it's herons, which are introduced as a pretty laboured pun on Brett Whiteley's heroin addiction. It's not the only pun on offer here, and it's not the only one that doesn't add much to proceedings. Barry Dickins' script is less a biography than an improvised jazz riff inspired by the iconic painter, appropriately accompanied here by a jazz trio noodling away throughout. Neil Pigot plays the man himself, but despite his valiant efforts the whole feels more haunted by its subject's absence than anything else.

If you didn't know much about Whiteley, you'd likely come away from this thinking of him as a thoroughly unlikeable egotist whose fame is frankly baffling. His art doesn't actually feature much, and while I'm aware of his reputation as an utterly charming cad, that charm is never on display here. I don't know if this is deliberate – it's not as if Whiteley can object – but this painter comes across less as a rakish genius than a misanthropic dickhead. Like many of history's most revered artists, I guess.

In between the herons and the jazz there are what you could call story elements, but they're presented in a way that could charitably be described as free-flowing and loose or uncharitably as obtuse and undisciplined. Some of the wackier sequences feel like spackle to paste over the cracks in the very structure of the work; it certainly doesn't approach the surreal, coming across more as beat poet word association. Dickins' writing is impressionistic, so it's unfortunate that this wasn't a work that much of an impression one way or another.

Fortyfivedownstairs until Sunday.


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