Review: FRAME (Part 1)

Comments Comments

March 1-5, 2023
Various venues

From the ashes of Dance Massive – previously Australia’s largest contemporary dance festival – rises FRAME. Like its predecessor, the new biennial festival is presented by a consortium of Melbourne-based arts partners, now expanded to include big names like The Australian Ballet plus dance-adjacent organisations like the Centre for Projection Art. The program has been curated in conjunction with a panel of independent artists and promises to deliver an “evolving and transformative congregation for audiences, makers and presenters”. Certainly, the opening week of the month-long festival offered a heady mix of energy and ideas. 

A scene from 'Two'. Photo by Joseph Mayers.
A scene from 'Two'. Photo by Joseph Mayers.

In TWO, presented at Arts House, the Kathak tradition of Indian classical dance serves as both the language of discussion and the topic of debate. A maestro tabla musician with little appetite for novelty (Maharshi Raval) shares the space with a younger contemporary-trained dancer who is keen to push the boundaries of the classical form (Raghav Handa). At first, the strict rhythmic rules are academically applied; the dancer put through his paces with a series of tortuously metered phrases. But soon, a game of call-and-response followed by some cheeky prodding of the tradition (“Why can’t I land on count twelve instead of count one?” laments a frustrated Handa) sparks a tête-à-tête between the old and new; between reverence and subversion. 

This is a charming work, the strength of which rests on the technical prowess of its performers (Raval’s solos are particularly dazzling) and the friendly tensions that wax and wane between them. Through blistering rhythms, sweaty twirls and campy humour, each man explores what the other has to offer, driven by a curiosity of what might happen if the strictures of convention are slackened. There is certainly scope for each character to be realised more fully but, for what it does offer, TWO is a highly enjoyable take on the endurance of traditional dance.

Raina Peterson in her solo, 'Mohini'. Photo by Anne Moffat.
Raina Peterson in their solo, 'Mohini'. Photo by Anne Moffat.

Similar concerns drive the visually compelling experimental solo, Mohini, from dancer-choreographer Raina Peterson, also at Arts House. Here, the classical Indian dance form Mohiniattam is disassembled and repurposed in an unvoiced storytelling of trans identity in Hindu mythology. Steady hypnotic loops of pantomime and hyper-gesticulation accumulate in a curious mix of specificity and abstraction.

There’s not a lot of structure here, and Marco Cher-Gibard’s high-reverb score pours a layer of gloss over the choreography that dulls some of Peterson’s otherwise more interesting movement. But this tonal murkiness is arguably the work’s strength, seducing us into an ethereal world where caricatures and actions no sooner materialise than slip back into the smoky shadows. The climax, carried by Alex Nguyen’s gorgeous lighting design, is unavoidably affecting, cleverly leveraging the magic of light and sound to achieve, or at least come close to, a kind of theatrical transcendence.

A Bestiary of Unimaginable Animals from Nana Biluš Abaffy at Temperance Hall is an experimental choreo-visual work for three performers (Abaffy, Geoffrey Watson and Rachael Wisby), loosely inspired by the compendiums of beasts and minerals which were popular during the Middle Ages. Like the texts, the work concerns itself with finding order and categorisation in an inherently chaotic world. Audience members are assigned an animal identity upon entry (donning a corresponding mask through which to view the show), while an incessant metronome reminds us of the unceasing desire for regulation.

The movement is at once subtle and wild; impotent and alluring. Motifs of flapping wings and guttural groans situate us deep within an imaginary zoo, where the fleshy bodies both embody and beckon bestial spirits. Abaffy’s works often look like choreographed chaos, which doesn’t always hit the mark. But here, with the obvious undercurrent of animalistic energy, her style impresses.

A scene from 'A Bestiary of Unimaginable Animals', choreographed by Nana Biluš Abaffy.
A scene from 'A Bestiary of Unimaginable Animals', choreographed by Nana Biluš Abaffy.

First appearing in last year’s Keir Choreographic Award, Rebecca Jensen returns with a full-length version of Slip at Northcote Town Hall. Dressed in a medieval gown with thigh-high leather boots, Jensen opens with a curious scene of everyday actions – pouring water into a glass or unzipping a bag – while an on-stage foley artist (Aviva Endean) recreates heightened versions of the audio with uncanny likeness. Before long, the trick is inverted, as the distance between image and sound becomes stretched and warped. 

Jensen flirts with the massive and the molecular, distorting the hierarchy of how we receive and process information. The crinkle of a chip packet is made to sound like the Earth splitting open, while a simple movement phrase is radically transformed when repeated in different costuming. Slip is a deeply satisfying work, cleverly constructing synthetic worlds in which Jensen, with great urgency and skill, attempts to refocus our attention.

Progress Report also played in the opening week of FRAME. You can read Dance Australia’s review of its Adelaide premiere in August 2021 here.


FRAME plays until 2 April, 2023, at various venues around Melbourne.

comments powered by Disqus