Wednesday, May 23, 2012

120 Birds

Liz Lea and Co
The Street Theatre
19 & 20 May

Reviewed by Samara Purnell

What a mammoth effort this is from Liz Lea and what a shame there were only two performances.
Inspired by the travels of Anna Pavlova’s company through Australia and India with her collection of 120 birds, Canberra based performer Lea has put together a fictional touring dance troupe, Company Elle. Here she recounts their travels, loves and lives, stories and adventures, spanning almost a century and including reference to historical events and characters.

This is a jigsaw puzzle that chops and changes from the present to a flashback, to flashforwards where the troupe is represented in a really lovely touch, when older versions of themselves dance with their characters. One of the ladies, Madeleine Bullock, has been directly influenced by Ruth St. Denis’ dance practices, (St. Denis is one of the figures referenced in the show). Another dancer, Glenys Harris, trained under Pavlova’s niece. Charmaine Hallam and Toni Allen were trained in the Cecchetti style of ballet.

Company Elle consists of Lea, Ash Bee, Melanie Palomares and Miranda Wheen. Wheen is perfect as Lola, embodying the brash and seductive trailblazer. Her dancing was a convincing mix of the masculine sexuality demanded by the role and great technique. Her duets with Palomares were lovely.

Lea has collated and edited footage from the National Sound and Film Archive of the Ballet Russes, old-fashioned beach parades, swimming drills, modelling and dance-clips to name a few. She presents this amusing footage, edited to be even more so, with hilarious explanations. Those nearer the back of the theatre may have struggled to hear her in parts, this being the challenge of regulating sound between live theatre and archival footage. Unfortunately the appearance of the ANU homepage over the footage that made a couple of brief appearances may have provided unintended laughs but broke the vibe.

The dancing was intermittent and on leaving the theatre I overheard a couple of comments that there wasn’t “enough” dancing. But the dancing on display from Company Elle was reassured and dynamic.  It would have been fitting to see a classical piece danced by one of the girls after the death of Pavlova was spoken about. This was a lovely part of the show.

The guest burlesque dancers needed to tighten up their timing and stretch themselves on their technique and balance more than they did in Saturday’s performance.

The last segment of the show, whilst charming, could have been more tightly edited. The performance was somewhat eclectic in that it becomes interactive with the audience, and hereby allows any slight hiccups to be poked fun of. Lea seems quite capable of adlibbing and the humour in the show is bold,off-beat and funny indeed. None of these minor gripes really detracted from the kaleidoscope of gorgeous dresses, vintage underwear, poignant sentiments, and well executed dance sequences. The burlesque numbers, with some very interesting headwear, explained as a tribute to the headgear worn by Canberra cyclists were very entertaining. This was a thoroughly lovable and engrossing show and a credit to Lea. This slice of fictional history, with its footage and originality in concept and staging is well worth seeing. Hopefully this extraordinary work will get more stage-time in the near future.