Footnote NZ Dance provides an indispensable platform for emerging choreographers to present new original works in a traditional dance company environment, and while the choreographic tendency is towards fairly conventional vocabularies and sensibilities, Footnote have proved numerous times that they are open to other radical, experimental, and unfamiliar ways of presenting new works, particularly in their longer programmes.
The challenge for relatively inexperienced choreographers is to adapt to the challenging rehearsal conditions provided for the NOW season and stump up with something that meets the standard of delivery to match the status of the company. While interesting work results, two weeks is at the lower end of what is actually needed for an emerging choreographer to develop strong work, and the choreographers who participate in the NOW seasons generally struggle in some way to complete their works within the time constraints.
The company’s Artistic Associate, Anita Hunziker, a world-class dancer herself, is responsible for rehearsal direction once the works are completed, and the company is a mean machine, however the dancers execute the moves with a sort of calm impassionate precision which raises questions about how fully they can deliver the intended nuances within the format of the process.
NOW 2016 presents work by four early to mid-career female choreographers. C’est tres bon! Each work is introduced by a pre-recorded voiceover which would be fine if it was loud enough to be heard and slow enough to be understood. I didn’t really get much information from any of these introductions.
With lofty intentions but utterly overwhelmed by costume, music, and relentless action, Lucy Marinkovich’s Centerfolds fails to actually address its own premise. Marinkovich states in the programme notes that she is exploring women-dominant collectives and gender stereotyping. While the images may well be derived from this concept, the work does not appear to examine these ideas in any way.
Beginning with the full company dressed in crocheted balaclavas and frou-frou dresses performing Petrouchka-like doll movement (so far so good), the work moves through an unmanageable array of vignettes, formations, sections, and references that produce very little cohesion. The choreographic language, while energetic and generous, seems arbitrary and abstracted beyond any discernable semiotic origin.
Centerfolds contains some elements which without a clear context to support them might be considered ethically dubious. I wonder about the various ethnic and foreign language music, the mask with national colours of Mexico, the pussy riot imagery, the balaclavas, the visual gag of seeing a boy dressed as a girl. The ideals which motivated the work are lost amongst costumes. Intending to address gender stereotypes, the opposite effect is achieved, with all genders either neutralised or stereotypes reinforced.
Jared Hemopo’s structural mass offers a visual point of difference from the rest of the cast which with a more sensitive touch might have been pivotal rather than incidental. There is something off, something pleasingly juxtapositional about the muscles and trunk and legs straining against the fabric of the dress he wears The image calls to mind an absurd bank robber costume, a wolf in grandma’s clothing (“Why grandma, what bulging pectorals you have”), or perhaps the disturbing possibility of convicted murderer Mark Lundy fleeing the scene of his wife and daughter’s double homicide dressed as a female jogger.
Marinkovich shows a deft mind for design but seems less certain choreographically. As Centrefolds meanders into ever more obscure sections, ending with the dancers stripped to underwear and moving tentatively through space, I keep having to ask my colleague seated next to me if this is still the same piece of work, and I find myself exhausted from the sheer effort to understand why anything is happening as it does. Where are the guidance and curation here? The first section needs some serious performative direction for the dancers if it is to make a case for itself as light, fun costume-centric romp. The last two sections seem superfluous.
Second up, Jessie McCall’s Your Own Personal Exister is characteristically clean, clever, witty and restrained, working with gestural movement, relationality and timing in a way that might be considered her trademark. The performance personas adopted by the dancers fall somewhere between a child’s birthday party, Invasion of the Bodysnatchers, and Patrick Bateman from American Psycho. They seem confident, competent and charming, and everything is crisp and perfectly timed as it is refined and cohesive. But have the dancers been pushed and challenged ? Have they allowed themselves to be ? It all looks so polished and easy and just a little smug, making this work easily accessible and quite safe, as if it was aimed at children.
Cleverly assembled covers of popular music (remember Coverlover ?) are used throughout, either danced to, spoken by the dancers or played out in scenes. The best vignettes offer multiple layers of meaning that play between light and dark, familiar and strange. The downside is that throughout the centre section contemporary dance concerns as such seem sublimated to the music. Again, as in Centerfolds, costume and design play an important role, and again it is hard not to think that the tail is wagging the dog.
The beginning of the work, and such sections as the Party Hat lizard tongue and Crown guillotine, hint at what might have been had there been another two weeks to work on it, some refinement of material, a bit of a rough up, an edit, and some more buy-in from the dancers.
Hello, Elephant Skin old friend. How I have missed the heavy slapping sound of your wet wobbling meat, your bouncing pink balls, the sweet sharp release of a tensely anticipated bang, the latter agonisingly provided by Jared Hemopo slowly blowing up a balloon to the inevitable point of destruction/completion.
Having been involved in two development periods of Julia Harvie’s ongoing research for this work in an earlier incarnation, I am interested to see the development of it, and relish the rare opportunity to experience both sides of the conversation. I’m pleased that the visceral experience of performing the work is as rewarding as the visceral response I have watching it.
Elephant Skin toys with the squickiness of dealing with flesh-like material, the extension of the body, prosthesis, breath, and gets up to all sorts of cunning stunts that play on our infinite capacity to sexualise otherwise neutral and inanimate objects.
Helium filled balloons weighted on various lengths of string are propelled into space like giant kamikaze sperm, only to settle and form a sparse forest of bouncing polyps.
The unmistakable fart/scream of a balloon released under restriction could be the sound of ecstasy or agony.
The cleverness of Elephant Skin is the multi-layered possibilities implied by the objects and the temptation to project onto or interpret them. The mise en scene seems to have a life of its own, the kinetic possibilities being unpredictable at best and prone to failure, necessitating a practical presence and focus from the dancers which the other works cannot approach. The objects enter such territory as biological rhythms, anthropomorphism, fetish and kinetic sculpture. This work also relies on the reactions of the audience, the tension of anticipation, the awkwardness, embarrassment and naughtiness of bodily functions addressed in public.
Jared Hemopo enters with his back towards the audience, followed closely by Jeremy Beck. They are both masturbating furiously, the familiar contraction of the abdominal muscles, body shaking slightly from an obscured but obviously centralised back and forward motion and an audible and unmistakable slapslapslapslapslapslapping sound of fragile flesh being worked over. Of course, that isn’t really what is happening, as totally real as that would be. They are shaking two medium sized balloons filled with water, the kinetic energy rippling into the dancers bodies and back into the water.
Let’s just talk about risk a bit, because this work flirts with risk constantly. Water balloons can pop, unleashing a mini tsunami. Balloons being bounced can pop, leaving the dancer to execute the movement as a sort of amputee. This is part of the charm, where failure is actually a success.
There are some great developments. The balloon butt-bouncing trio is refined and performed with a precision that belies the difficulty. A slow promenade by Emma Dellabarca, balloons blowing romantically around her ankles, is juxtaposed nicely against the noisy destruction of the set by the other three dancers, resulting in a stage scattered in the corpses of dead balloons.
The boys tend to overplay the gag, which undermines the point somewhat. There’s no need. The props are self-explanatory. They look like testicles. Play it cool and focus on the task.
The sound by Nell Thomas sometimes echoes the wail of released air, sometimes reminds me of early Dunedin Band Cloudboy and is effective and appropriate throughout. The reference to the water inside the balloons is a little oblique. It sounds more like a bubbling brook than a slurping belly full of beer.
The costumes are not ideal but the priorities of the work are in the correct order. There are several things that Elephant Skin does better than the rest of the programme. It takes time and leaves space. It shows rather than tells. It engages the dancers without needing them to act or perform virtually any contrived contemporary dance vocabulary, and it gets under the audience’s skin …literally.
The final piece in the programme, Disarming Dissent by Auckland University lecturer and former-Footnote dancer Sarah Knox, is a paean to the spirit of human resistance which finds strength in unity. I find myself thinking about choreographic structure and how I would approach a short phase of development. Her choices are simple, clear and effective. As the lost and directionless dancers muster into the centre of the stage, the light comes up on the audience, perhaps to expose us, to shake us out of our comfort zone, perhaps it is a lighthouse or a signal to unify.
The work is based around a chorus performing a rhythmically stylised, constantly shifting ready-for-action boxer’s stance, with solos and duets emerging from the group. This is some of the most engaged dancing in the programme. The solos have real oomph and I find myself thinking, much like I did in Elephant Skin with the objects, that the act of achieving hard partnering brings the dancers’ focus into the space in a way that I associate with a charismatic presence.
Maybe it’s a little too adherent to the musicality, as the pace and the energy of the chorus become a little ponderous, and the premise of being always ready for fight becomes rather unconvincing. This work seems like a base structure that with more time and honing could be taken further, and flourish.
The strength of the NOW programme is also its weakness. Time constraints work against the kind of experimentation and radical approaches that the season seeks to explore. The dancers and often the choreographers are young, earnest and highly professional but have only so much professional experience to draw on. Making new work after new work with an ever-changing array of choreographers certainly provides some professional development for the dancers, but it also reinforces habits, tendencies and ways of being that make it difficult for them to embrace the wide array of modes of practice and performance that such a diversity of work would seem to require.
For the choreographers, the time constraints would seem to be a disincentive for choreographic risk and radical ideas, and there is need for theoretical, practical and technical support and guidance so they can immerse in the process of making art.
Perhaps Footnote NZ Dance could take things back a notch. If these works are to be seen in the developmental/experimental context intended, then present them as such — outside the theatre, without high production values, and invite audiences to discuss the works with the choreographers and dancers. Or if theatrical presentation is the goal, then afford the choreographers more time to refine their craft, ask more of them and of the dancers in realising the work’s intentions.
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