REVIEW: Adelaide Festival (part 1)

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Restless Dance Theatre
Kingpin Norwood, reviewed February 26.

SIX YEARS LATER Natalia Ospiova and Jason Kittelberger & BLKDOG Far From the Norm
Her Majesty’s Theatre, reviewed March 6.

The Covid-19 pandemic has shaped this year’s Adelaide Festival program by severely restricting the participation of international companies and artists, resulting in a greater than usual number of Australian works. However, not wanting to exclude international productions entirely, artistic directors Neil Armfield and Rachel Healy struck deals to have several works performed in their country of origin, but live-streamed into Her Majesty’s Theatre in Adelaide.

Restless Dance Theatre in a promotional image from 'Guttered'. Photo: Shane Reid.
Restless Dance Theatre in a promotional image from 'Guttered'. Photo: Shane Reid.

 Of the local productions, Guttered, Michelle Ryan’s new work for Restless Dance Theatre, was co-commissioned by the Major Festivals Initiative. It is another of Ryan’s site-specific works. The title is a play on words, referencing both the dreaded gutters of the bowling alley ­- the place no one wants their balls to go - and the feeling of being “gutted” when you lose.

 Ryan makes full use of the possibilities of the space, including inviting audience participation in novel ways. A concierge-type figure in front of the bowling lanes inspects the audience’s palms to see if we are suited to bowling or cheering, and allocates us seats in sofas at the front or stools at the back accordingly. Score cards are given out, as dancers circulate holding illuminated backpacks that emit recorded voices. We are invited to lean close to catch what is said, but I must confess that I couldn’t hear the words distinctly.

 The front counter then becomes a podium, on which two female dancers play with each other’s hands before manipulating each other’s heads in ways that shift from friendly to something more ambiguous. This motif is developed further when one dancer hugs and caresses another, tenderly at first but eventually morphing into a drama of control as love becomes suffocating, and the enclosed dancer tries to escape. Later the theme of control versus independence plays out in a group of boys that tries to control a single female dancer, being ultimately knocked aside by another woman, and a tussle over a ramp that a “helper” tries to give a bowler with a disability, who most emphatically does not want help.

 Other episodes make greater use of the bowling lanes, with a solos and duets traversing up and down the lanes giving way to ensemble work across the entire alley. In a beautiful interlude, a magically illuminated bowling ball moves seemingly independently, following a dancer; another sees a male dancer gradually sink to the floor, overwhelmed by the sensory overload of the bowling alley, with its relentless noise and flashing lights. Geoff Cobham’s wonderful lighting heightens this sensory experience, as does Jason Sweeney’s soundscape and Meg Ryan’s design. This is another terrific work by Ryan and the company, well deserving of inclusion in an international festival anywhere that has a bowling alley!

 British choreographer Botis Seva’s BLKDOG is one of five productions live-streamed from Europe, in this case from London’s Sadlers Wells, and it proved a deeply impressive debut. On the night it was preceded by the late inclusion of Roy Assaf’s Six Years Later, a short duet for Russian ballerina Natalia Osipova and her real-life partner Jason Kittelberger, which was commissioned for Natalia Osipova’s Pure Dance program, seen in 2019 at the Sydney Opera House. This work has already been reviewed (here), so suffice to say that Osipova and Kittelberger give a moving account of the tensions in a relationship that has come to grief, without the work itself being particularly choreographically inventive.

 In contrast, watching Botis Seva’s work, I felt like a new dance language was being forged in front of my eyes. Inspired by Sally Brampton’s account of mental illness, Shoot the Damn Dog, as well as Seva’s own struggles, the title references the phrase “black dog” commonly used to refer to depression. Five dancers, clothed in bulky sweat tops and pants and padded hoods, sit with their backs to the audience in dimly-lit gloom as a voice asks, “Maybe we should start with how you’re feeling?” Children’s voices immediately establish a link between “how you are feeling” and childhood memories and traumas, as the dancers repeatedly throw themselves hard onto their sides.

A scene from Botis Seva's 'Blkdog'. Photo: Camilla Greenwell.
A scene from Botis Seva's 'Blkdog'. Photo: Camilla Greenwell.

 The work makes much use of such percussive movements, with dancers nodding heads, falling, banging their chest and heads, shaking and pointing, alternating with long loping runs and fast walks on the haunches reminiscent of primates at full stretch. References to racism and racial violence emerge through a black male dancer miming himself being shot, hung and garrotted. At one point the voice states, “Give the people what they want”, and the dancers strip off their tops and hoods and dance a parody of a highly sexualized pop video that disintegrates into despair. This is just one example of how the soundscape, by Torben Lars Sylvest, combines text with hard beats to create a sense of immersion within a psyche grappling with trauma. Tom Visser’s lighting design also contributes immeasurably to the tension, making much use of down spots picking out single dancers in the gloom.

 The influence of Hofesh Shechter, who has mentored Seva, is apparent in his use of darkness to create a mysterious ominous atmosphere. Seva has also been mentored by Garry Stewart at Australian Dance Theatre here in Adelaide, but his style, which draws on hip hop and other forms of street dance as much as contemporary dance, is all his own. His dancers, three men and two women, are all superb, despite technical issues at the Sadlers Wells end cutting off the feed midway through, which meant that the entire gruelling work had to be restarted from the beginning. It’s easy to see why BLKDOG won an Olivier on its London debut, and after seeing this deeply compelling, powerful work, I’m certain we’ll be hearing more about Botis Seva.








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