Hannah Playhouse, Cnr Courtenay Place & Cambridge Terrace, Wellington

22/04/2015 - 24/04/2015

Q Theatre, Rangatira, Auckland

13/10/2015 - 14/10/2015

Municipal Theatre, Napier

12/10/2016 - 12/10/2016

Theatre Royal, 78 Rutherford Street, Nelson

14/10/2016 - 14/10/2016

Isaac Theatre Royal, Christchurch

18/10/2016 - 18/10/2016

TEMPO Dance Festival 2015

Nelson Arts Festival 2016

Hawkes Bay Arts Festival 2016

Production Details

Presented by Muscle Mouth

a little bit of obsession….a little bit of grandness….

A work that collides sculpture with gutsy performance to create an original and visceral new style of dance theatre, is heading to Nelson, Napier, Tauranga and Christchurch during October 2016. Combining dance, visual art, clowning, design, and theatre craft, Ross McCormack directs an exemplary piece of contemporary performance.

Triumphs and Other Alternatives explores the obsessiveness and traps of the creative process, demonstrating a delusional joy that the act of creating can bring forth. The show follows a vulnerable, delightful, obsessive and narcissistic character, played by Ross McCormack, relentless in his need to create and his desire to leave his mark on the world.

“A low rumble in the background builds to the musical score. McCormack emerges as the “Maker” character – a sculptor, a mad scientist, a perfectionist who manipulates his “Creations” – performers Emily Adams and James Vu Anh Pham this really is a perfect example of dance theatre. It is a work of art.” – Theatreview, April 2015

Triumphs and Other Alternatives will also be performed at the Hawkes Bay Arts Festival 12 October at the Napier Municipal Theatre and the Nelson Arts Festival 14 October at the Theatre Royal.

Tauranga Arts Festival 2016

8pm at Baycourt – Tickets $29-$49


Hawkes Bay Arts Festival 2016

Wed 12 Oct 2016, 7:30pm–8:35pm  Napier Municipal Theatre 

Nelson Arts Festival 2016
Friday 14 October at Theatre Royal, 8pm  – FREE

Tuesday 18 October at Isaac Theatre Royal

Direction and Design: Ross McCormack
Performance: Ross McCormack, Emily Adams, James Vu Anh Pham
Sound Design: Jason Wright
Light Design: Natasha James
Dramaturgy: Melanie Hamilton
Produced by Muscle Mouth

Performance installation , Dance-theatre , Contemporary dance , Dance ,

Wonder, comedy, yearning, surprising

Review by Erin Harrington 19th Oct 2016

Choreographer and dancer Ross McCormack’s remarkable piece of dance-theatre Triumphs and Other Alternatives takes well-worn archetypal creation narratives – from the ubiquitous stories of a deity-figure creating man and woman from clay, to Dr Frankenstein’s Promethean creation of life – and leverages them in deft and surprising ways.

McCormack, as an obsessive, witty and slightly manic ‘maker’, experiments with ideas and materials in his workshop – a liminal, dusty and dim space that is bounded by torn walls, large swathes of semi-opaque plastic sheeting and a faded armchair that’s seen better days. His work shifts from the theoretical to the applied when inspiration strikes and the raw materials that he has been playing with on the central workshop table take the form of two initially interconnected clay-streaked beings (Emily Adams and Xin Ji) – as much conjoined twins as they are an expression of an idea that hasn’t quite been formed yet.

There is ample space for interpretation in the relationship between the maker and his creations, which can be read, perhaps, as the connectivities, dynamics, and flurries of madness inherent in the creative process, and especially in the relationship between choreographer and dancers, director and performers, or even parents and children. Here, the maker attempts to sculpt bodies and movement out of living clay, to communicate with them, to shape them, and to understand, if at all possible, their limits, capacities, and ways of being the world. The creations’ couplings range from the mechanical and angular to the erotic and abject, exploring various embodied recombinations that the maker can poke and prod into shape, but never fully control.

The creations, too, exhibit their own agency, not rebelling against their creator per se – perhaps the default mode for stories of this type – but experiencing the world and their bodies in ways that he can observe but not necessarily comprehend, and ultimately working to shape and change him, too. Together, though, they come to create a coherent assemblage. The piece’s climax shifts from bold, muscular, sharp movement in unison – our first ‘dance’ together – to a gentle, organic and vulnerable finale. There is a great deal of wonder and comedy here, but also at times a sense of yearning or sadness.

Character work is strong and sustained throughout. McCormack is a compelling and charismatic performer, slipping ably between precise, dextrous clowning and mime, and easy athleticism. Similarly, the work of Xin Ji and Emily Adams as the often blank-faced but always engaging creations is charged and assured, juxtaposing softness, power and strength. Together they form a tight ‘family’, and their focus and control ensures that the show’s hour-plus running time never lags.

The fourth, most obvious presence in the theatre comes in the form of sonic artist’s Jason Wright’s deliciously unsettling soundscape, which makes excellent use of the theatre’s high-powered surround sound system. Sound, here, is as malleable as the bodies of the performers, and as capable of interconnectivity: the soundscape manipulates and shapes the performance environment, responding to and amplifying the movements and the sounds of the dancers, and merging electronic and percussive sounds with more organic clicks, grunts, rumbles and almost-comprehensible mutters.

In conjunction with the creation of mood and space facilitated by Natasha James’s elegant and deft lighting design, alongside McCormack’s evocative set design, the overall effect is very impressive, and it marks a beautiful form of interdisciplinary story-telling. Given that the piece feels like an installation, my only point of very minor disappointment is that the Isaac Theatre Royal’s large (and nearly full) seating area means that I am not as close to the work as I would like to be, but that’s a pretty minor quibble.


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Powerfully unique in its presentation and performance

Review by Janet Whittington 15th Oct 2016

Ross McCormack leads a double stage-life. His former life as a builder’s labourer provides the visual overlay to his chosen life – that of creating and choreographing dance performances. The two fuse on stage like clay in a potter’s hands. The result is dance theatre.

There are 6 performers on stage, only three of which are human.

The set. Immediately recognisable as a building site, walled off areas of plywood, torn plastic blocking more dust and access, everything covered in dust, everything the colour of grey mud, including the costumes and the performers. It dominates the mood.

The soundtrack. Electronic syncopated sounds similar to that of a building site. We hear all the unrelated small sounds of no determinant origin. These occasionally build and overwhelm the theatre with screeches that sear through the mind, or heavy machine rumbles that vibrate the soul. A crucial, constant element without beat, tone, or harmony.

The lighting. Conversely, the quiet element that supports the other 5, directing the eye of the audience.

Ross McCormack. The only human relating to the audience, performing with eye contact, gesture, acting and action. The lead and star of the show, he fleshes out a fully rounded whole being, creating a tentative, humorous, and sensitive, man exploring his own emotional state. We laugh, sigh and feel with McCormack as he chooses.  He is THE actor and performer around whom pivots the story.

Emily Adams and Xin Ji. Arriving as a grey dirty amorphous blob at McCormack’s feet, they flow and lurch through a marvellous array of chosen and accidental poses, the last of which at curtain call shall stay with me for quite some time. They maintain a machine-like aloof, inanimate, lack of eye contact with either each other or the audience. 

The development of these conjoined twins to fully functioning separate building site machines is a forceful exploration of mind control over body movement. This culminates in the only synchronised ‘dance’ of the evening. The three move in small, tense, strong, tight, jarring movements together. Still machine-like, now glaring directly at the audience, they are more evocative of a pneumatic drill fighting in unison with its operator than people.  Visually impactful for the strength of the movements and the relief that the three are finally moving in harmony.

This work is not for diehard fans of traditional ballet. There is very little to relate to in the performance of Adams and Li, in terms of our own movement or personality. It is powerfully unique in its presentation and performance. McCormack is to be applauded for this step out into the future of dance theatre. 


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The obsession and solitary madness of the creative process

Review by Kim Buckley 13th Oct 2016

I am privileged to have previously seen this work at the Hannah Playhouse in Wellington 2015. Tonight I am sitting in the Napier Municipal Theatre and I contemplate preference of the Hannah seating for this work. Looking down on the movement was a very fulfilling experience with the smaller stage space encapsulating the set and performers like they belonged there. Here, although the Municipal is a wonderful space, the stage is too big for this work.

As I am wondering whether I will have a different experience from same show  different theatre, I become aware of the low rumbling sound reverberating throughout my body. I think I remember this sound from last time. Another sound, an unsharp rattling, like cogs, constantly and unendingly in movement, joins the rumble. The dirty, rumpled, well used large plastic backdrop rises exquisitely slowly and the rumbling and rattling intensifies in volume, until my senses almost peak in chaos and my body almost leaps out of my seat. I wonder if other audience members are having the same visceral response that I am feeling. For me, this experience is definitely different from last time.

What is revealed, I read as the obsession and solitary madness of the creative process. McCormack is alone but surrounded by his artistic evolution. He is in the midst of a creation story. I’m witnessing his ideas come to life as he makes the most of one movement, whether a head tilt, a hand gesture, a reach, a stance, or a lean, I feel every single moment and movement have earned their place in this work. Cleverly, his working table is mic’d so we also ‘hear’ every single movement as well. Because of this microphone, as he works, we hear his mutterings and whisperings. I realise I am listening to his innermost thoughts, invited into the incredible unfurling of an artist’s mind as the expansion of creative thought is revealed. I love this invitation of intimacy.

McCormack’s solo choreography literally gets him inside the work. I am so happy to be here, watching and listening, and feeling excited, expectant, in suspense of what’s going to happen next. I am hungry and satisfied all at the same time.

The strange beast that is Emily Adams and Xin Ji, wriggles and manipulates their entangled bodies into the performance space. My fascination and understanding of this is as tangled as their legs. What follows is a meditation on life and becoming conscious. All things at once, the story is gentle, macabre, loving, and horrific. I find myself being emotionally challenged as McCormack has a ‘Nigel’ moment and his sculptures bear witness to their creator’s vulnerability and delusions. It is agonising to watch and yet hilarious.

McCormack’s fellow performers, Emily Adams and Xin Ji are outstanding as they embody the signature movements with strength, fluidity, passion and commitment. They make their work seamless.

We have definitely been entertained by Ross McCormack’s choreographic voice. I feel the consistency and depth this work has with its logical chaos of character and movement, its coherent and flawless transitions.  His distinctive style is a fresh and unique shout to the world of physical theatre and dance, indeed to anywhere the body tells a story. I leave with the final image in my mind, pulsating and naked. Come back Muscle Mouth, Hawkes Bay needs you.


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A brilliant analogy of the artistic creative process

Review by Jenny Stevenson 14th Oct 2015

Ross McCormack, choreographer and director of Muscle Mout,h constructs a brilliant analogy of the artistic creative process in his new work Triumphs and Other Alternatives.  It is a defining work in that the conceptual premise dictates the movement vocabulary, and the resulting tentative, halting and ever-shifting moves and directional changes clearly mirror the searching, experimentation and frustrations of the artist at work.   

The work begins as a plastic drop cloth slowly lifts, symbolically exposing the inner life of the artist, while in the gloom a figure, McCormack as the “Maker”, is bent over a table, myopic in his detailing of a structure.  Forays by the figure away from the safety of the table are fleeting, but it is only when the structure is removed, clearing the table, and a pile of books topple over, that the way is opened up for the creative process to begin.

The birth of the creation is truly extraordinary, as dancers Emily Adams and James Vu Anh Pham, conjoined at their legs, slither around McCormack who is sitting in a chair. They move as one unit, focussed and determined in their endeavours.  The Maker encourages them onto the empty table where he can begin his moulding of them into his own creation.  However the portent is already there that they are their own construct and that although they are malleable, they will retain their own integrity.

The creation is then separated and although the male/female differentiation becomes apparent, androgyny remains dominant in their movement vocabulary.  Adams dances an astonishing solo, blazing and almost demented in her determination to gain a form.  Pham follows, his pliant body never quite still as he softly bends, spirals and collapses, his body unable or unwilling to support the weight of his own head. 

Garbled communication ensues while the roles begin to reverse and the Maker is manipulated by his own creation.  Perhaps this is the “triumph” of the title, as most artists would recognise the reality of being held in thrall to their creations.  Teasing tussles for dominance continue with the three entities sometimes merging into one.  This is followed by the Maker’s solo, still obsessive and still searching for the tenuous form.

At this point the masterful sound design of James Wright moves into prominence, driving the dancers towards the stunning climax of the work.  It is no doubt intentionally duplicitous as the Maker regains control, but at a cost: by exposing the vulnerability of his creation.

McCormack is working in a medium that appears very fresh and remains unsullied by comparison with other choreographers.  A self–deprecating humour underpins much of the work and there are strong elements of mime, albeit without the element of illusion.  McCormack achieves a vivid and unwavering characterisation in his own role as the Maker remaining central to all that is played out around him.  Although there are also meandering passages throughout the work, they would appear to be warranted in the context of depicting the creative process and the elusiveness of inspiration.



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A superb parable

Review by Chris Jannides 24th Apr 2015

The choreographer ‘Maker/God’ slumps over his workbench as a protective cover of plastic sheeting, doubling as an amniotic curtain, rises to unveil to the world of an audience the creation of a new born theatre-dance. The use of plastic promises us transparency and insight into the processes of the artistic craft. The Maker (as he is called in the programme) in this instance is the choreographer himself, Ross McCormack. Through the deaf and dumb language of contemporary dance, he exposes the struggle of putting life into bodies and performance via the setting of a ramshackle artist’s studio inhabited by a dithering sculptor and his ‘clay’, expertly danced by the frequently entwined and malleable figures of his Adam/Eve innocents, James Vu Ahn Pham and Emily Adams.

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Epically charged and infinitely intriguing

Review by Anna Bate 23rd Apr 2015

The work-table provides a heavy weighted centre to a set of splattered paint, scruffy plastic sheets, dust, books, and a chair. The Maker, the boss of the materials, (Ross McCormack) embodies a (human) body obsessively at work. The scene is familiar and theatrical. It is the opening for Muscle Mouth’s (Ross McCormack’s) new physical theatre show, Triumph and Other Alternatives at Wellingtons Hannah playhouse.   

His material is a co-joined monstrous body (James Vu Ahn Pham & Emily Adams). I call them ‘two-body’. They exist in a sphere with different physical laws to our own. Their air has a density unlike ours, their bodies are composed of different material, and they pass through layers and textures that we, the audience, cannot see or feel. They are otherworldly. They are consistently, captivating.

The boss physically sculpts ‘two-body’. They are the product of his work.  It is a classic hierarchical relationship. It makes my jaw tense. (Other people are laughing).  So I question: What happens if I view this ‘two-body’ as ‘inanimate material’? As though it is fabric or paper or rice. How does this change my reading of the work? But I struggle to resist the pull of their eyes, as they scan for empathy. “I’m with you ‘two-body’, I’ve got your back, or leg, or whatever you need me to get”.

And I wonder: what might this work do, beyond reinforcing this dominant construct? This narrative we know oh-so-well. ‘Two-body’ revolts, roles change, invert, subvert, and convert. There is a crossing between planes and layers of intensity producing some spectacular, highly charged acts of transformation. Some alternatives to the model play out. Ultimately, for me, the dominant narrative of the ‘maker’ and the ‘made’ triumphs, and is for the most part reinforced.

The sound (Jason Wright) is seriously impactful. It messes with concepts of time in ways that give depth to the work, allowing us to submerge and remerge elsewhere, and double up way over there.   

It is UNDENIABLE that the performers are highly articulate, intelligent movers and thinkers. They produce acts that communicate familiar un-name-able states of bodily condition with exceptional clarity. They are precisely concentrated, multi-lingual, epically charged, and infinitely intriguing. It is immensely satisfying to witness movement material that has been shaped with such textural specificity.

It is rare to see physical theatre work of this kind, of this generation, in NZ.  And I welcome the change of scene. 


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A perfect example of dance-theatre

Review by Jillian Davey 23rd Apr 2015

Ross McCormack stays true to his word.  He’s still here in Wellington creating new works under his Muscle Mouth company.  Bless the man, as this can’t be an easy task.

“Triumphs and Other Alternatives” is his second full length work made right here in Aotearoa.  (First was “Age” as part of the 2014 New Zealand Festival.) If Age was anything to go by, audiences could expect to be impressed by this latest show.

And impressed they were.  In the intrinsically appropriate Hannah Playhouse- all post-industrial concrete and heavy, dusted lighting- they’re enveloped into a set of plastic sheeting and plaster dust.  A low rumble in the background builds to the musical score. McCormack emerges as the “Maker” character- a sculptor, a mad scientist, a perfectionist who manipulates his “Creations”- performers Emily Adams and James Vu Ahn Pham.  I use the term ‘performers’ instead of ‘dancers’ as this really is a perfect example of dance theatre.  There are very few recognisable dance traits, yet we identify it as dance movement and the three performers as talented dancers.  The carefully chosen elements of lighting (courtesy of Natasha James), sound (Jason Wright), and dramaturgy (Melanie Hamilton) make it theatrical.  Hence, dance-theatre.

This Maker character reflects some easily recognisable traits and is at various times passionate, wry, obliviously funny, sad, and obsessive.  He moulds his creations into myriad options and seems to ask himself what looks best?  Does this look like I’ve tried too hard?  Will anyone understand what I’m trying to say?… all recognisable questions if you’ve ever created anything.  He even seems to ask the opinion of the creations themselves.  His facial expressions can convey whole sentences and thoughts to them; usually “Well this happened; now what?”.  Expect to giggle at (and sometimes feel sorry for) this bemused character.

Conversely, his creations maintain the most blank, expressionless faces.  This isn’t a criticism in the slightest, but completely appropriate to the characters. The life of the characters is portrayed solely through movement, whether that movement is passive and manipulated or takes on a weird and wonderful life of its own. Adams and Vu Ahn Pham are to be commended on their portrayals.  They (and McCormack) deserved their opening night standing ovation.

Don’t go if you’re expecting a contemporary dance show.  Do go if you’re wanting to see a fine example of dance theatre with clever character portrayals mixed with great sound, lighting, and set design. It is a work of art.


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