Monday, May 23, 2016

Counter Move - Sydney Dance Company

Review by John Lombard

Boxes are playful things. To a child, a box can be a fortress or a spaceship, a vessel or a home. The Sydney Dance Company captures that innocent spirit of box play in Cacti (the first half of the Counter Move double bill), an enriching and wry satire of modern dance.

The performers in this piece are boxed in, perched on white plates that confine them to a cramped cubicle's worth of space. But within that space they find a lot of freedom, exploring playful movements like children finding their arms and legs for the first time. As the dance develops these white squares become toys in further escapades, whether propped against each other to build an impromptu fort or as a hiding place for full body peek-a-boo.

The action is complemented with a pretentious voiceover, the preening and tortured prose of a slightly deranged auteur explaining the show as it unfolds. At a key moment, the dancers bring out cacti, and the unseen art snob rhapsodises on how the inanimate and superfluous cacti are where the action really is. More important than the dancers really.

The joke, of course, is that there is no meaning: modern dance is abstract and no one response or interpretation is "right". By trying to make sense of something purely abstract we only make ourselves ridiculous.

But this is belied by the clarity of the piece's physical language: rather than nameless contortions, the movements of the dancers are gestures anyone can recognise, even if we cannot perform them with such athletic precision. Movement is a universal language, and this piece sheds the difficult jargon of modern dance for the lucid communication of body language and gesture.

Cacti, then, is a daylight piece, clear and classical, with an energising self-awareness and humour. It is paired with Lux Tenebris, a difficult and obscure nightmare piece, Finnegan's Wake reimagined as ballet.

Lux Tenebris plays with the idea of light and dark, with lightning bolt flashes giving us snapshots of a routine that is often shrouded and obscured. The dancers are jerked around by their limbs like frenzied zombies. Eventually the infection spends itself and the dancers start to slow down as the fever breaks, but in its last moments the thrashing reignites, stripping the piece of any sense of hope.

This piece also plays with the idea of boxing in, with clever lighting creating tombs to confine the desperate dancers. Where in Cacti restriction freed the imagination, here the prison is in the mind.

Day and night is a natural thematic pairing, and the stylistic shift between acts can be very effective, for example in the ballet Giselle. Here the marriage is less easy, because Cacti roasts the humourless conceit and obscurantism of modern dance exactly as it is practiced in Lux Tenebris.

This is not to say that Lux Tenebris is a bad work: on the contrary, it is bold and expertly crafted and performed. But it suffers in the company of the gleeful Cacti. We watch a parody of modern dance and then... modern dance. After Cacti has primed us to laugh at how pretentious modern dance can be it is difficult to take Lux Tenebris seriously, stripping the work of its potential power.

At the risk of sounding like Cacti's deluded commentator, I see Counter Move as a meditation on dance as a universal language. In Cacti the physical words are crisp and clean, but in Lux Tenebris every second word is redacted. Cacti, by being more self-aware, achieves more: it embraces the mischief in seeing where a physical impulse can lead the body, that universal urge to dance.