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NZ Fringe Festival 2013
Feet of Clay
Choreographer: Livia MacPhedran
Spatial design and stage elements: Amy Miller and Ian Hammond
Costume design: Harrison Gyde

at BATS Theatre (Out Of Site), Cnr Cuba & Dixon, Wellington
From 28 Feb 2013 to 3 Mar 2013
[45 mins]

Reviewed by Sam Trubridge, 1 Mar 2013

Feet of Clay is a dance work choreographed by Livia MacPhedran with dancers from a range of Wellington based companies: Java Dance, Footnote, Spinning Sun, and Wellington Freelance Dancers. Livia herself makes appearances, and there is musical accompaniment from Asher Norris on the piano accordion.

The work is described as an exploration of “moving and building, the voyage of coming to a new land, or creating a new life”. As the performance starts, a lone figure (MacPhedran) stands with her back to the audience. Her dark chocolate-brown satin dress spreads out where it touches the floor to cover the whole front edge of the new Bats stage. It is a powerful image, juxtaposed beautifully with a wall of white-washed doors that she faces, that we all face: a kind of domestic interior as façade. Slowly she begins to move towards this surface, dragging the dress with her, so that it slowly envelops the stage with each step: a big batlike sweep behind her preceding figure.

It is a bold and powerful moment to start the performance with, evoking some kind of arrival home or an earthy reclamation of space, with the dress like a tide of silky, soily mud. This mud is a common motif in examinations of NZ settlement and belonging, seen in films like Jane Campion's The Piano (1993), or used to great effect in productions like Taki Rua's Whaea Kairau (1995)  and Michael Parmenter's Insolent River: A Romance (1985).

And yet here, soil itself is not used, only suggested, so that the brown dress can move through other signifiers. This allows the dance to remain light, clean and sun-drenched in many scenes, while at other times it is stately, delicate, almost balletic in the long sweep of a limb, the turns and unified motion. Emma Copperfield's opening solo is certainly of this style – with light aerial movements and darts across the space. At times I can recognize familiar dance and contact-improv tropes in this and other sequences: such as the arm leading an action or direction that the body follows, or the encircling of face with arm and hand. These moments indicate that there is still space for choreographic development. However, there are moments of great strength and judicious ambiguity: such as the trio of Copperfield, Elise Chan, and Danielle Lindsay in unison with a plucking, sowing, planting, uprooting sequence.

There are other repeated motifs, such as a twisting of hands around the midriff: hunger? – period pains? – or is something growing or being born there? Whatever it is, there is a reminder of the earthy connections in our bodies, of their desires, needs, and inherent natures. Feet also probe the air in various scenes, looking for root, or looking for movement.

Questions arise around the choice of music at times, in particular the Spanish or Italian folk-songs, which evoke a kind of nostalgic Mediterranean-ness: the world of Captain Corelli's Mandolin, supported by the sun-drenched lighting and pale skin tones of the dancers' dresses. This for me was the most confusing part, since it felt incongruous next to some very strong evocations of the New Zealand landscape and its settlement, rather than the old worlds of mainland Europe. Moments when the accordion seemed to play a Celtic or sea-faring jig began to make more sense of this.

In one of the most arresting moments of the performance Copperfield, Chan and Lindsay emerge onto the stage each connected to the same large brown dress. Their bodies rise out of this garment turned landscape that binds them like pinnacles or tree stumps in a deforested landscape. Their dance interweaves polite curtseys and bows amid larger more vigorous movements. With the accordionist now standing upstage to accompany them, there is something self-conscious and presented about this sequence, as if it were a stately court dance. But unified by the dress from the waist down they twist, half stuck, half emerging from the earth. There is a sophisticated, elegant power to such scenes, and as their energy escalates the dress begins to billow and boil beneath them in a beautiful crescendo of dramatic action, meaning, and geographic references.

The dancers are all strong, and complement one another's physicality beautifully. Chan's movements are always in beautiful control, with terse accuracy and broad expressive power. Anna Flaherty's dance really shows its power in the last sequence with some strong lifts and the emergence of an emotional rawness in her movements. Dancing in boots for the whole show, her presence is naturally more threatening, and in the final moments this fractious character resolves itself in a slow walk across the hair and fingers of the others.

Feet of Clay shows great control of its chosen motifs and a beautiful understanding of how choreography can make use of material, visual and spatial languages to weave together various thoughts on place, settlement, landscape, soil, and society. Recognition is also due to a fantastic design team that has developed the set, costuming, props and video for the work: including Amy Miller, Ian Hammond and Rowan Pierce. An animated sequence of a black jelly house being slowly spooned away communicates wonderfully with larger images in the set design and other miniature elements. Altogether this produces a wonderfully intelligent production with great potential for further development and clarification. 

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