Ah, the inequities and unpredictabilities of life in Sydney theatre. You can never tell what you’re going to get, or where. Or how good it’s going to be. The other night, Benedict Andrews’ first produced play from his own hand, Every Breath, surprised everyone in the worst possible way. That was Belvoir, where such things really aren’t meant to happen.
Parramatta, to some, is still ‘the sticks’, relatively and culturally speaking, but this proves to be an inaccurate and outmoded notion. Of course, if you relied on the narrowcast predilections of the popular press, you’d never really know Parramatta even exists. Which affords the possibility, for the slightly more intrepid journalist, of locking onto something artistically worthwhile and feeling smug about it.
That’s how I feel, in a small way, about Form Dance Projects and Riverside’s co-production of SuperModern Dance of Distraction. An odd and cumbersome title perhaps, but the content is very much otherwise. Created by Anton (yes, just Anton, kind of like Dante, Socrates, Leonardo or Madonna), which is to say the concept, direction and choreography is his (the last in collaboration with performers Kristina Chan, Tim Ohl, Rob Curtis and Sophia Ndaba), in this his first full-length independent work.
As Anton points out in his programme notes, one way or another, this work has been kicking around for quite some years, gestating in various forms, under the auspices of various grants and has been curated dramaturgically (a great deal of credit is thus due to Joshua Tyler). Perhaps more dance works could benefit from this process, as he result is not only immediately accessible, but completely cohesive, intelligible and relatable. Along the way, quite apart from interpolating some innovative movement, it deploys arresting visual ideas and a great deal of wit; without any pretensions to lofty or heavy ideas and the often unnecessary weight of literary or other references.
It might not be at the absolute pinnacle of the dancer’s art insofar as precision, but this is more than compensated for by ideas, centred around our immersion in all things digital and the psychosocial outcomes of engagement with a seemingly ever-expanding cache of essential devices. The show opens with four jittery people, in a kind of waking REM; as if fast-motion film is the way the world really looks, and feels. now. This epileptic aesthetic is sustained and enhanced by hard ‘techno’ lighting design (Guy Harding, who also does an exemplary job of production management).
Anton and Guy also put their heads together for set (with Julio Himede as consultant) and costume design, which is, thankfully, minimal.
Nick Wales, Jai Pyne and Tim Constable have collaborated on a brand new soundtrack, which syncs harmoniously with the subject and evolves empathically with the movement.
Highlights include a sequence in which the performers adopt a rapidfire series of freezeframe expressions and poses, which we see through white picture-frames they hold up and which are used to define different planes, vertically and horizontally, adding a depth and dimension that’s truly arresting. Personalities shine through and we see how this old snapshot technology humanises and has its own aesthetic vocabulary.
Another standout that puts smiles on dials is when perspex panels are held up to the dancers’ faces. They proceed to use a ubiquitous series of smartphone touch commands to manipulate their own and each other’s faces. It’s brilliantly amusing both conceptually and in practice; an ingeniously innocuous way in which to reflect some of the less innocuous, global effects of digitisation. This notion, of man vs machine, in which the machine increasingly threatens to upset the balance of power, is held up with more poignancy, but still not without humour, when one of the dancers, convulsing and tic-afflicted, asks ‘what?’, ‘is it me?’ of the others, po-faced and aligned uniformly, with a symmetry that suggests all individuality has been sacrificed for a dystopian, digital future we’re about to step into, if we haven’t already.
Producer Michelle Silby, the aforementioned and the work’s funders and supporters (NSW Arts; Ausdance; UNSW; the Australia Council; Sydney Dance Company and Bangarra) can feel as justifiably smug about backing this work as I can for having headed in the direction of the setting sun to see it.