Birds and Kangaroos

Festival Fare From Down Under and Across the Pond

Sketches of dancers from Carlo Blasis's 1829 Code of Terpsichore gaze down on the Joyce stage and Garry Stewart's Birdbrain. As members of Australian Dance Theatre hurtle, dive, roll, and spin through this rude pomo take on Swan Lake, do I only imagine the expressions of puzzled distaste from the population of Gaelle Mellis's backdrop?

The "overture" prepares us for ruckus. A dancer sticks an LP of Tchaikovsky's score on a portable phonograph and drops the tone-arm; four seconds of any musical passage is about all she can take, and she carelessly drags the needle across the endangered classic as she moves on. Although Stewart professes reverence for Swan Lake, he too scrapes at the surface of the ballet without penetrating very deeply. However, he gets us playing a good game. As the barefoot dancers plunge around to the techno score by Luke Smiles and Jud McAdams, we start reading their T-shirts: "corps," "hero," "lake." "Royal disdain" copes with "peasant joy." "Despair" and "longing" mope about. There are numerous Odettes and Odiles. (Each dancer must have a stack of shirts backstage.) The only consistent figure is the villain, a contortionist Von Rothbart who ties himself in knots behind the little scrim that sometimes holds video.

Stewart alludes obliquely to the ballet's plot. A "Siegfried" and an "Odette" do dance together. The famous 32 fouettés appear, counted out in print on the backdrop. The prince parades princely behavior by shooting arrows very deftly into a target (after each, a page dabs nonexistent sweat from his face). But mostly the intrepid performers hurl themselves through choreography that makes use of acrobatics, hip-hop stunts, and resiliently athletic dancing. They fly into falls, roll, and rise to fly and fall again. They're upside-down a lot. In this deconstructed world, the choreographer relies on labels to signify plot and character, but of course they can't make us feel much beyond the choreographer's cleverness and the dancers' stamina and virtuosity. Quite a while before the piece ends, I'm sated.

From Australia to Newark to BAM: Bangarra’s Elma Kris and Frances Rings in Corroboree
photo: Michael Rayner
From Australia to Newark to BAM: Bangarra’s Elma Kris and Frances Rings in Corroboree

The Adelaide-based company was one of several Australian attractions playing New York this month, mostly in BAM's Next Wave Down Under festival. Gideon Obarzanek's Melbourne group, Chunky Move, displayed another kind of physicality in Crumpled and Corrupted 2. Obarzanek's vocabulary is also brutally arduous, but in keeping with the titles of the pieces shown at the BAM Harvey, his dancers seem damaged, unhinged, and trapped in technological disaster zones. In Crumpled, the curtain descends intermittently, temporarily cutting a performer or two off from the dire environment and forcing them to take embarrassed stock of us. In Corrupted 2 Alan Robertson's immense kitelike structure looms over the action, rotating on a diagonal axis and occasionally bearing jumbled video projections.

Michelle Heaven wobbles through the first piece wearing a stiff, crumpled skirt by David Anderson that reinforces her image as a marionette with tangled strings. In a blue-mat arena, Fiona Cameron and Sarah-Jayne Howard engage in punishing dancing; when either tries to leave, Obarzanek and Luke Smiles shove her back. Hugh Covill and Frank Tetaz's sound design is alarmingly augmented by the gifted Smiles's dance in a wired metallic suit that transmits fierce cracklings and his heaving breath. When these people (and Kirstie McCracken) touch, they're likely to tangle, and mindless hostility and clumsy affection look almost the same.

In Corrupted 2, lighting designer Damien Cooper traps Cameron (a remarkable performer) in a rain of light that leaves a square of jiggling patterns on the floor. Help! A computer virus is scrambling this woman's neurons! The performers (now including Byron Perry) grimace and mouth words, never in sync with the voices that occasionally pierce the annihilating score by dancer-composer Smiles. As they grapple and thrash and collapse in the grim world beneath the kite, Obarzanek allows them quieter moments where we see them plain. And admire and pity their (our?) damaged lives.

Bangarra Dance Theatre's Corroboree played the New Jersey Performing Arts Center before arriving at BAM this week. If the audience across the Hudson responded so enthusiastically, it wasn't only because Corroboree is artistic director Stephen Page's strongest work to date, but because his dreamtime visions of aboriginal Australia include a devastating, all-too-familiar contemporary scene ("Roo") of four young men enduring a police roundup, pinned by lights, and taunted by unseen voices in David Page and Steve Francis's rich electronic score.

Page and most of the dancers are of aboriginal descent, and his works hymn the value of his people's traditions, imperiled as they are by discrimination and industrialization. Corroboree is a healing ritual. Water rains down on the men in "Roo," and they strip to cleanse their spirits so that, applying ashy powder to their faces, they can rejoin the others on the "stomping ground" of the Red Kangaroo.

The choreography incorporates traditional stamping patterns and animal mimicry. These Page has developed and augmented pretty shrewdly: The dancers may spin and kick, but they never quite seem to be doing "modern dance." The powerful and mountainous Djakapurra Munyarryan appears as a guide to scenes of initiation and spirit travel (Russell Page and Sidney Saltner stand out as soloists). The company's six vibrant women are featured as hunter-gatherers and victims of toxic waste from mining enterprises encroaching on their homeland.


We're also in the midst of a British festival, UKwithNY, with Wendy Houstoun at P.S.122 last week, and Wayne McGregor's Random Dance at Danspace and Akram Kahn at the Kitchen this week. The lanky, boneless McGregor was the subject of Physical Dysfunction, a BBC documentary shown on a program of British dance films presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and Dance Films Association. Houstoun conceived Touch, a looping, roiling sea of barroom bodies, with filmmaker David Hinton.

Hinton is a startlingly sensual and kinetically aware artist. His deliciously imaginative nine-minute Birds repeats cuts of avian action, so that flocks thicken the sky in escalating waves or a little orange bird plops down, rhythmic punctuation to a furious squabble on a branch above. Yet this trickery and a discreet score never betray the dignity of his subject.

Dead Dreams of Monochrome Men (1990) invades and reshapes Lloyd Newson's deeply disturbing dance of the same name, rendering its graphic come-ons, cruel obsessions, violence, and futile tenderness even more terrifyingly bleak. Hinton's painterly shadings of black and white confine and stroke the bodies of four men (Newson, Nigel Charnock, Russell Maliphant, and Douglas Wright), closing in on a hand mashing a face, a cheek nestling into a shoulder, and drawing back to show the perspective of a man about to plunge from a ladder toward another below.

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