Tuesday, March 24, 2015

A Night at the 'Ballet' - Review of iTMOi

This review was written for Metro magazine however for reasons I'm unable to ascertain they've elected not to publish it. So I'll put it here instead.


                                                               Akram Khan - iTmoi

19th March 2015
Auckland Arts Festival

Originally commissioned in 2013 for the centennial of composer Igor Stravinsky’s seminal Rite of Spring, Akram Khan’s iTmoi (In the Mind of Igor) reaches New Zealand’s theatrical shores a little inauspiciously in 2015. iTmoi is a collaborative work featuring devised materials contributed by the dancers and a sound score composed by Nitin Sawhney, Jocelyn Pook, and Ben Frost. Here Khan explores themes such as the birthing of an artistic work, dreams, sexuality, and madness.

Khan’s work arguably occupies the art-as-entertainment end of the performance spectrum but despite being a contemporary dance piece, iTmoi really does resemble a good old fashioned story ballet - period costumes, characters with funny hats and skirts, cavorting duets framed by onlookers, clownish loons, and a sociopathic royal in heavy make up.

Staged in often-diffuse lighting states with a music score offering beautifully timed sonic bombardments, the action was by turns blustering with sustained sequences of ragged military grade group unison, coy with the aforementioned cavorting duets, or maddeningly contained such as in a solo by Catherine Schaub Abkarian. The dancers movement palette in general looked like it was drawn from an eclectic range of influences including Indian Kathak, Slavic folkdance, floor work of a style resembling a Brussels cadre of contemporary dance moves, and butoh imagery.

Opening strongly with a memorable solo, a microphoned dancer making guttural rasping utterances and using rapid hand movements which peppered the dance like gestural emoticons, iTmoi quickly became lumpy in its timing. A duet featuring the black-skirted man seemed to hover its way into meaninglessness as it went on and ultimately lost its way. The dancers pushed at the athleticism with a combination of effortless physicality and dramatic intensity. Sometimes this in and of itself was fulfilling to watch. At other times Khan seemed to have deployed that dynamic so blithely that it became absurd. Such as in the sustained vision of hell scene where a man is tortured by dancers doing cross-fit with ropes under red lighting.

At times superficial elements actually got in the way of flow of the work. A large square frame suspended over the choreography for most of the show was suddenly lowered into an odd sequence of angles, clumsily transforming from itself a relatively utilitarian piece of scenography to a morose unfinished puppet of doubt.

Beautiful and absurd iTmoi became harder for me to appreciate as it went on. Yes there were strong ideas although those ideas were hung together oddly. When it worked it worked well. But iTmois somehow wasn’t as good as I wanted it to be. Ultimately the cast of dancers revealed a duality of status. In one respect they were gods, masters of movement and ceremony. In another vein they were also just incredibly hardworking underdogs performing feats of skilled labour. It’s hard to know what the audience is enthusiastically applauding when seen that way.

Nonetheless, my lasting impression is that Khan’s work revealed itself as an oddly shaped beast that was very much carried by the alacrity, hard work and physical proficiency of the dancers.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

2 One Another review in Metro

A Review of Rafael Bonachela's '2 One Another' by Sydney Dance Company

Metro Magazine

Sunday, September 01, 2013

Review of The New Zealand Dance Company's 'Rotunda'

I got a call from Metro magazine asking me to review Shona McCullagh's new full length work. 

Read it here 

And The band Played On. And On.
Rotunda is choreographer Shona McCullagh’s first evening length work on the New Zealand Dance Company. The work focuses on the historic impact of New Zealand’s participation in World War 1 and is bracketed by both the imagery and music of a brass band, and the structure that a brass band sometimes performs in: a rotunda.

Structured and styled similarly to 20th century narrative ballets, Rotunda successfully appealed to the 55+ demographic that made up the majority of Q Theatre’s audience on opening night.  ANZAC and war imagery, a charmingly unpretentious brass band, beautiful young dancers performing repetitive feats of athleticism and mimetic acting, the presence of name brand artists on the leaderboard such as composers Don McGlashan and Gareth  Farr, prerecorded film soundtrack style music blended with live music and a song sung beautifully in Maori. But despite a well stocked palette of materials the relationships between many of Rotunda’s elements ultimately fail to communicate successfully with each other. As a result the overall work falls far short of its ambitions.  

Taken individually many of the shows elements including the hyper committed performances of the dancers and musicians and the set design all had an appreciable and logical presence in the show. Well perhaps with the exception of the women’s costumes which had the appearance of renovated cast offs from the set of TV series Xena. That said however Rotunda’s choreography ultimately suffers from a crisis of imagery. Simply put the work seemed full of vanilla symbolism.

As far as movement vocabulary goes all things become nails when the only tool you have is a hammer. The dancers run in circles incessantly and jump. A lot. They jump when other characters die, they jump when they flirt, they jump when they’re sad, they jump when they’re grieving, are talking, are confused etc. Endurance athleticism has become more a cliché than a trope in New Zealand’s contemporary dance landscape.  

The directing of the performers seemed at times questionable. From the miscasting of Death (that part should have gone to Hannah Tasker Poland, a performer who could’ve easily brought a macabre gravitas to that role) to the overtly rendered sentimentality in Tupua Tigafua’s duet with Justin Haiu, to the overlong durations of many sections devoted to portraying grief and suffering. Don’t get me wrong, I love hard work and I can watch it for hours…usually.

With the lowering of what looked more like a giant crown that a band rotunda roof a falsetto and astoundingly inappropriate ‘triumphant’ note at the end of the show left me baffled to the point of outrage. Did McCullagh actually contemplate how that image might be read? A giant crown hovering over a group of young men and women many of whom have brown skin left an ominous and confusing impression.

Overall Rotunda comes off as disingenuous, even frivolous given its budget. But mainly it doesn’t seem commensurate with contemporary life as a New Zealander and the important issues at hand for us as a nation. I say this because Rotunda’s conceit is that it’s trying to address us as a country from a nationalistic vantage point, all the while pressing the ‘right’ buttons to appear relevant and entertaining. But at this cultural moment venture capitalism is what’s tearing the country apart, not grief over World War 1.