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 (dead link, see copy below)

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.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Shameless Crowd Pleaser - Flotilla


Performed at the Silo's downtown Auckland. This time the crew were: Kristian Larsen, John Radford, Drew McMillan, Georgie Goater, John Bell, and Joshua by Lisa Greenfield & Paul Buckton

Saturday, December 08, 2012

Gaga: the unmentionable. Written and directed Louise Tu’u. Review by Kristian Larsen.
‘Gaga: the unmentionable’ was presented at The Old Folks Association Hall in Gundry Street Auckland as a second iteration of a previous performance at Galatos last year. This version, conceivably a development of last years event and/or a stand alone work with its own poetics, laws, and purpose was performed by Lafitaga Matua, Nisha Madhan, Ilasa Galuvao, Leki Bourke Jackson, and Louise Tu’u. Gaga rendered an intriguing schema that gave me plenty of scope to survey and form my own semiotic interpretations that, for better or for worse exist in a strata of personal bias and naïveté.

Gaga presented a series of themed vignettes underscored by a sincere sentimentality toward family and culture. Most of the ideas appeared to be affiliated with each other , and the word ‘language’ could be used as a kind of echo - locator to read context, meaning, and make connections between the islands of material. I did find the ideas relationships to each other at times elusive, occasionally bridgeless. Within Gaga’s composition Tu’u’s distinct materials behaved collectively more like a floating bricolage than an iteration. For me ‘iteration’ suggests a succession of approximations that build on the one preceding to achieve a degree of accuracy. For me Gaga didn’t direct itself toward accuracy, rather it opened up a large field of connotation to play in.

Gaga seemed preoccupied with playfully teasing and destabilizing status by toying with theatre protocols and deploying a subtly irreverent tone towards various cultural mores. It achieved this through the overall compositional design of the piece, the set, light, sound, and the performer’s delivery of the material. The audience were seated in a transverse configuration facing each other. Performers sat amongst the audience, entering and exiting, whispering to each other for cues. This combined at the beginning with two men offering each audience member and each member of the cast a hot towel both charmed the situation, and set up what was to be a continual hot swapping of performer / audience status throughout the evening.

Madhan lay on the floor making a snow angel on a thin mattress of white flour. A gradual whitening of Madhan’s dark skin seemed to inadvertently nod towards a denaturising of cultures, the ‘whitening’ of language and custom. This was emphasised and layered via many subtle and overt signs; an almost pre-adolescent delivery of Hip Hop beat boxing and Sesame St. gesticulation, a brief monologue about a lo-fi white extension cord of great import, white factory overalls acting as both signifier and subsumer of identity within a local industrial job market, Barfoot and Thompson real estate signs facing away instead becoming white blank placards denying the fiscal value of community, powerful dance music played on laptop speakers filtered into tinny parody, and a noticeably conventional lighting design that seemed altogether deliberate and oddly lacking in irony.

Tu’u’s monologue in Finnish initially threw me, as I was expecting Samoan or English. Her childlike attempts at handstands (chorused by the rest of the cast) were reminiscent of Brazilian capoeira where the inverted body is sometimes considered analogous to constant polarising change in the world. The attempts at inversions foregrounded an aesthetic of childlike physicality repeated in all of the scenes. This quality of the child was at its most vibrant in Lafitaga Matua’s dancing. However the constant prevalence of the childlike physicality in the performers’ demeanours undercut any potential gravitas. Comic tones constantly soaped and rounded off any potentially injurious sharp edges in the material.

The imagination of the child was celebrated in a scene where a piece of cloth was played with and transformed in a game of absurd pretend between Ilasa Galuvao and Madhan, the presence of adulthood refusing to be itself continued to sit in the work like a layer of deliberately ignored dust. Leki Bourke Jackson’s scene in which he wrote a letter as an old man to the contemporary Santa of capitalism, Oprah, asking for a third car also sat in this territory. On reflection I feel that I’ve missed something here. What was the nature of the childlike tone, and what was it doing there in the piece? Did it have aesthetic function or was it more reflective of Tu’u’s general demeanour in the studio workshop process in turn flavouring the casts’ delivery?

An even rhythm and lack of urgency in Gaga threw up a connotation of ‘island time’ and occasionally the pervasive tone of playfulness came slightly undone. In one scene Tu’u overtly made the theatricality of Gaga transparent with the line “We need to get this desperate,” whilst Galuvao self consciously implored the audience to perform a Mexican wave. In that moment I had a sense of the performers trying to disperse a not yet built tension.

Despite Gaga having the appearance of a play, it gradually revealed itself as a real situation involving actors playing themselves as actors, engaging in a series of scenes and improvisations within an interstitial realm of performance where the audience knew them as real people. Occasionally the performers revealed that they hadn’t actually explored the territory of an idea much beyond looking at a map of it. Madhan seemed to be the most equipped to work within these conditions, and it was this as well as Matua’s ability to steal scenes (all the while maintaining a sense of being Tu’u’s mother) firmly anchored some of the interactions.

Gaga: the unmentionable sits congruently within a spectrum of performance currently establishing itself as a kind of ‘new’ orthodoxy of performance making in Auckland at the moment. The piece doesn’t concern itself with delivering meaning hand over fist. It seems as concerned with its own internal processes as it does with dialoguing with its audience in equal measures. The piece reveals Tu’u’s instincts and intelligences as a maker and I find it easy to trust her work. As a consumer of her art I have one sentiment in particular that emerges as a personal desire. What I want from Tu’u’s work is exemplified by the line “We need to get this desperate.” Even if I misheard the line and made it up in my own head, its one thing amongst a generous armload a takeaways that I got from this mindful piece of performance. Thank you.