• Dada Masilo as Giselle. Photo: Stella Olivier.
    Dada Masilo as Giselle. Photo: Stella Olivier.

Michael Keegan-Dolan and Teac Damsa: Swan Lake, 17 February
The British Paraorchestra: The Nature of Why, 21 February
Dada Masilo: Giselle, 28 February
State Theatre Centre of WA

Three vastly different works made up the international dance component of Wendy Martin’s final program as director of Perth Festival. Martin’s championing of inclusivity and her experience in locating current dance gems has been a gift to Perth audiences. A visceral, relevant and powerful program, each work saw much post-show conversation in its challenging of paradigms.

The Nature of Why, presented by The British Paraorchestra is a generous and open-ended work that led the Perth audience literally onto the main stage of the State Theatre Centre to experience close hand the interplay between dancers and musicians, a dialogue determined by varying levels of audience interaction. Invitational from the outset, the co-directors urged us to enjoy an individual experience and to expect to miss things along the way, “Stay with us” they prompted as we mingled with performers in an immediate breaking down of barriers.

The work features a quartet of dancers weaving through the space in a simple choreography of attract and repel, push and pull motions, reflecting the “why” asked by physicist Richard Feynman re magnetic force. YouTube sound grabs of Feynman musing on relativity punctuate an expansive score by Will Gregory (one half of the electro outfit Goldfrapp) where traditional orchestral elements overlap with percussive drivers, clapped rhythms and operatic soloists by the world’s only large scale orchestra of professional disabled musicians.

Despite the aim to decentralise the performance space, the dancers worked mainly in the centre and in a playful but repetitive structure of tag and human statue building. The device of Feynman’s recorded and projected interjections functioned as prompt to disperse the audience and change perspective. With the orchestra at the front of stage, opening out to the seats (where the dancers briefly appeared) and percussion at the rear of stage, all performers at times wandered through the crowd allowing one-on-one encounters that gave permission to look and to notice difference in ways.

The gentle nudging of audience participation appealed variously to different audience members, equal parts eager and hesitant on opening night and the work depends greatly on this flux. The joy of co-directors Caroline Bowditch (choreographer) and Charles Hazlewood (conductor) made them mesmerising as leaders and performers. I found myself watching Hazlewood for extended periods of time as his gaze swept over the space and his hands kept the sound in movement. His generosity, exuberance, rigour and attention as a performer was an unexpected highlight. Tender exchanges and performances by variously abled bodies were the success of this beautiful work, a refreshing, empowering and celebratory experience.

The Nature of Why. Photo: Toni Wilkinson
'The Nature of Why'. Photo: Toni Wilkinson

In contrast, the success of Irish choreographer Michael Keegan-Doolan’s one act Swan Lake lies in its brutal truths, exceptional performances and dark irreverence. Rebuilt rather than reimagined, the work masterfully and shockingly reveals an underbelly of human relations deeply relevant in today’s political landscape and pitiful hierarchies of power. In this watershed revisioning of the classic ballet, the swan feathers serve variously as ladder-scaling wings, hopeful detachment, acid rain and decay, cocoon and renewal. As I watched the quartet of swan sisters in white, led by dancer of exceptional artistry Rachel Poirier, hints of original cygnets shadowed my imagining in eerie presence.

Just as Poirier's character, Finola, replaces Odette/Odile, here Siegfried is Jimmy “stones in these walls are like his bones” (played by Alex Leonhartsberger), invisible and suicidal in a grey housing estate in the Irish Midlands – and in his performance we see the Ireland cliché brought back to flesh and blood, and exposed in one of the most generous and sensitive performances I have witnessed. This production was fuelled by a gritty realism and everyday magic, from the bleating “holy” man played by Mikel Murfi (lamb to slaughter?) to the magical presence of Elizabeth Cameron Dalman as Jimmy’s (mostly) wheelchair bound mother who infused the role with equal parts resignation and indomitable zest.

Complex characters, layered stories and unapologetic collisions of despair were exposed in incisive direction and deeply embodied performances. The lightness of touch in the skill and subtly of the dancers, the irreverent presence of the musicians (a live string trio) and the playfully low tech elements of design all contributed to an exacting, loaded, ironic and darkly comedic theatrical score. This is theatre that puts the feeling back into your own body.

An ensemble piece to the end, a quiet coda sees the performers come into themselves in a cathartic recovery – for both them and us – feathers flung in a fragile, tragic, poetic and playful finale startling for its sheer qualitative and kinetic presence. For me Swan Lake was the stand out of the Festival, unforgettable, equally disturbing and eloquent in its unfolding; a full house and deserved standing ovation.

Swan Lake. Photo: Toni Wilkinson.
Rachel Poirier and Alex Leonhartsberger in 'Swan Lake'. Photo: Toni Wilkinson.

Dada Masilo’s Giselle equally presents us with a bold redefining of dance narrative and classical convention, this time in a feminist upending of old tropes. An African scene of irreverently boisterous villagers and the royal family who preside over them immediately relocates the story. The cast all use their voices as an integrated part of dancing amid a soundscore of traditional African instrumentation, gospel laments and digitally remixed orchestral work. The kinetic rhythm and unrelenting pace of Masilo’s choreography gives a musical depth to the work and creates powerful solos that appear in sudden silence.

Masilo herself is a dancer of incredible specificity, attention, strength and sensual vulnerability, a personification of the sound of dancing. Deeply compelling in the lead role of Giselle, her choreographic daring is similarly imbued. She maintains recognisable structures while destabilising form with syncopated rhythms that deconstruct and reimagine the classical idiom in a quirky and joyous petit battement for the upper body. Masilo’s striking use of speed and complex unison best comes together in her robust corps de ballet who transform from rowdy villagers to revengeful Wilis to sinewy procession of lamentation.

Here Giselle is a tale of anger, revenge and grief in which the prince (Xola Willie) learns that he does not own Giselle and that he is not above ancestral law dealt out by shamanistic wilies in red overseen by a stately and unforgiving queen (played by Llewellyn Mnguni). After Giselle kills the betraying Prince herself with a circular whip, darkening clouds drawn by artist William Kentridge descend and puffs of white powder fly in small clouds above the heads of dancers. The last cloud fades over Giselle as she steps over her dead prince into freedom. This is an unashamedly powerful re-telling of a tale for our times, significant, relevant and needed.

Thank you Wendy Martin for bringing these works and for weaving the work of these particular artists into our own stories.

– Jo Pollitt 

Pictured top: Dada Masilio as Giselle. Photo: Stella Olivier.



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