• A scene from 'Invisible Cities'. Photo: Justin Nicholas
    A scene from 'Invisible Cities'. Photo: Justin Nicholas
  • The visually breathtaking 'Rite of Spring'. Photo: Justin Nicholas
    The visually breathtaking 'Rite of Spring'. Photo: Justin Nicholas

Invisible Cities: September 26
Rite of Spring: September 27

As well as Dancenorth’s Communal Table, two other significant works featuring dance were part of the Brisbane Festival – both brilliantly theatrical and visually spectacular.

Invisible Cities is a co-production between Brisbane Festival and Manchester International Festival, where it premiered in July. It is based on Italo Calvino’s book of the same name, which has an overarching premise that cities are born not of design, but of how people behave in them, and the work is the result of a labyrinth of collaborations across nations and disciplines. These include Director Leo Warner, Co-Director and Choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, 59 Productions (Concept and Design), famous internationally for its architectural video projections, and Rambert Dance Theatre.

Staged in a massive industrial warehouse, the enormous cross-shaped performance space has the audience in four sections of tiered seating between its arms and angled towards its centre. Clever lighting means you are unaware of the other sections of audience facing you.

Defining each scene, right-angled gauze cloths close, separating each section of the audience from the stage, while also acting as a surface for some extraordinary visual projections.

The book, essentially about ideas and philosophies, has been translated into a work of theatre by the addition of a dialogue-driven narrative featuring the characters of Chinese ruler Kublai Khan (Danny Sapani), who is grieving for his Empress Chabi, and the explorer Marco Polo (Matthew Leonhart), desperate for permission from the Emperor to return to Venice. Their battle of wits provides much of the drama.

The work is constructed around one-word themes like language, health, and despair, each with its own scene. The dialogue, although delivered expressively, is at times a little ponderous, but visually this work enthralls with its vast panoramic landscapes, created in an otherwise bare space by video projections and a few pieces of scaffolding. In one section a water-filled canal, evoking Venice, cuts through the centre of the space.

The atmospheric soundscape by Dustin O’Halloran and Adam Bryanbaum Wiltzie (of A Winged Victory for the Sullen Composers) draws you in to this extraordinary world. The dancers are pivotal. All 20 are from Rambert, and very accomplished, filling the subordinate, non-speaking roles that visually flesh out this massive response to Calvino’s book.

Two moments stand out, both showing Cherkaoui’s choreographic command of large spaces. In one, the dancers, bare-chested and moving in four separate groups, merge to become an all consuming, writhing mass of bodies. Also mesmerising is the final section of fluid, silken movement onto and away from the floor, performed in both unison and canon by the dancers.

Choreographer Yang Liping brings another work of breathtaking imagery to the Festival with Rite of Spring. Her epic work Under Siege mesmerised audiences at the 2017 Festival, but this is a subtler, though no less beautiful work.

Yang turns Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring on its head with her interpretation made from the perspective of Eastern aesthetics and philosophy. Here the Chosen One is not specially picked to be sacrificed, but rather offers herself as a sacrifice - for the common good and because of her Buddhist belief in the cycles of life and death and inevitable rebirth.

A section of Stravinsky’s original score fits seamlessly in the centre of the work, bookended by Xuntian He’s evocative Eastern interpretation of the Rite of Spring theme.

The work comprises three parts – Incantation, Sacrifice and Renewal – and is already in progress as the audience enters. Eleven dancers (from Peacock Contemporary Dance Company) in rich oriental dress are seated in the lotus position across the stage, meditating. Eyelids are painted with Buddha-eyes (God’s eye of wisdom) to project an all-seeing gaze when the dancers eyes are closed. The stillness on stage is transfixing.

Yang repeats the image of continuous labour used in Under Siege with an omnipresent Tibetan monk building an alter of sacrifice from hundreds of cut out Chinese characters – six word mantras – each symbolising a type of suffering and its solution. This unrelenting effort continues through to curtain calls – a symbol of the inevitability both of spring and the struggle between enlightenment and obsession.

The work is therefore ripe with profound visual symbols, not always fathomable. However, there are many moments that stand alone as visually breathtaking, apart from the extraordinary detail of movement throughout of the dancers hands, eyes and heads.

Seated or standing tightly one behind the other, the dancers evoke the thousand hand and eye goddess, Bodhisattva, as with iridescent green fingernails, they firstly mimic the birds then the sea creatures they protect. Standing sideways, legs anchored to the floor, the dancers then become the all-seeing goddess, with an astonishing display of suppleness, as they bend and arch their bodies forward and backwards towards the floor.

The sole male dancer, the Priest, emerges from a giant, lion puppet figure, constructed of rope with rotating mirrored eyes - a symbol of courage. Lithe and athletic, his more extreme physicality represents the yang versus the yin of the female Chosen One. She, after making the ultimate sacrifice, reaches Nirvana, symbolised by a continuous ribbon of golden glitter raining down on the dancer’s head. Quite breathtaking!


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