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REVIEW: G and Mah-Hah-Bone | Sydney Theatre and IPAC

Two recent dance works packed a solid punch, but would both benefit from a dramaturgical fine-toothed comb: Australian Dance Theatre’s G and Dansatori’s Mah-Hah-Bone.

The cast of G | Sydney Theatre

Australian Dance Theatre boldly asserts itself to be “Australia’s pre-eminent contemporary dance company”. Call me parochial, but I reckon Sydney Dance Company might have something to say about that, to say nothing of Bangarra. This isn’t to diminish the achievements of present company, as it were, or its artistic director Garry Stewart. Far from it. No one, surely, can help but be impressed by its global status and near half-century of tenure in the cultural landscape. It’s just I’m allergic to such claims. If an objective, external source is to endow or endorse in like fashion, that’s one thing. But no one likes a skite.

I have reservations about G. Firstly, what might be intriguing is, for mine, “G” for gimmicky. The name, I mean. So, we learn “G” is for Giselle. This, when one strips away the rationale and calls a spade a shovel, ’cause Stewart and co had considerable success with Birdbrain, a “deconstruction” of Swan Lake. It’s been 40 or 50 years since Jacques Derrida espoused his laissez-faire, all’s-fair-in-love-and-language literary disposition and I, for one, am a little tired of the pretentiousness that’s come to attach itself to a valid philosophy.

This is manifest in G, with words flashed at near-”subliminal” intervals, behind the dancers, to no good purpose. As a writer, clearly, I love words. Or at least have a love-hate relationship with them. I love them when they serves me. When I fill the tub, I don’t splash in salts or bubble-bath, but a surfeit of words in which to immerse. But words for their own, non-linear sake, particularly when rendered with a lack of typographical elegance, become anti-graphics and proved immensely distracting from the main game.

Worse, Stewart hasn’t adhered to his penchant for deconstruction, succumbing to glib phrases that reveal Giselle‘s plot, before any real exposition. Purist fidelity to the philosophy would surely have demanded an aversion to executive plot summaries, which is what these illuminations via a “dot matrix” screen essentially amounted to. Deconstruction, after all, typically implies a KDR aspect: the rationale for taking things apart is to extract meaning not previously evident, often by rearrangement.

Yet Stewart seems to place a foot in both camps; meaning, for mine, the “con” syllable is all but removed from the descriptor. By this, I mean while the dance theatre seems to jump haphazardly, with respect to narrative direction, the text, while trying to appear avant garde by way of tedious tropes such as missing letters gradually revealed, or rifling through a dictionary of words beginning with a designated letter, is in truth more old guard, methodically dispensing narrative and thematic fundamentals of the ballet. This problem might easily have been avoided, by dispensing with any association with Giselle whatsoever.

Call me cynical, but I reckon the reason for G hanging its hat on Giselle is much more strongly linked to marketing than artistic licence. I come from marketing background, so it’s not as if I’ve any allergy to it. And one can hardly blame Stewart for being led into temptation: his previous exploitation of Swan Lake, adapted as Birdbrain, was outrageously successful. Why not try it again, with the other of the big two? In marketing terms, that easy way out may well have paid off. In creative ones, this work, which in so many ways is otherwise discretely outstanding, is despoiled by its pretensions to classical conjunction. Far better it stood on its own two feet.

If one looks past the wrapping-paper, one finds a gift. It’s enough that there’s convergence with the big ideas in Giselle and preferable that one is allowed to discover the associations for oneself, without having to be put on a leash and dragged through them forcibly. Love. Sex. Madness. Betrayal. Class. Death. All these are addressed eloquently and vigorously through the medium of dance-theatre. In a tightly-packed hour or so, what’s more. Just as orange juice can be purchased in a bulky two-litre or compact tetra pack, Stewart has concentrated the choreography of Giselle enough to make the big ideas recognisable and visible, while affording himself the legitimacy to make a claim on total originality; any assertion to the contrary would fall under the beach umbrella of homage. In other words, the title, gimmicky as it may be, is all the allusion required. Day-to-day life might be all about texting, but that’s all the more reason, in my book, to detext dance. Give us a break.

When you strip it back, G is very satisfying. I can’t say I’m a fan of the all-green costumes, nor could I detect any symbolic rationale to justify the rather unaesthetic hue but, that aside, one could hardly fail to be impressed by the extreme, acrobatic athleticism of the cast, which includes Natalie Allen, Adam Blanch, Zoe Dunwoodie, Scott Ewen, Amber Haines, Jessica Hesketh, Samantha Hines, Daniel Jaber, Kyle Page, Matte Roffe and Kimball Wong.

As if to rail against his own penchant for deconstruction, Stewart has created a kind of illuminated conveyor-belt, along which dancers parade, in a series of contortions and convulsions which befit the jagged and painful narrative that’s inspired and informed the work. In the beginning, it’s almost like a catwalk for emotional states, signified by quite minimal gestures, postures and poses. But the physicality arcs into a mode of blistering intensity, with dancers charged to repeatedly execute downright dangerous flying leaps: a kind of jets that turns into a tumble; no soft landings here. Any dancer watching, I imagine, would’ve been white-knuckled and with heart in mouth. It’s bold, brave, robust penetrating, visceral, even violent and, again, in its own right, easily transcends any need or desire for a classical (or other) reference point; indeed, the only other allusion needed is that present in Luke Smiles’ pulsating, electronic score, which interpolates phrases from Adolph Adam’s and is a full-tilt, relentless, aural assault (in the best possible way). Plaudits, too, to Stewart for the set design (save for the retail, flashing texts) and, especially, Geoff Codham’s lighting.

Eva Crainean’s Illawarra-based Dansatori doesn’t have the same resources as the Australian Dance Theatre. Not even close. Nor does she have a predilection for echoing work from the classical repertoire. Her feet are firmly planted in the soil. Dirt, really, as she has a tendency to succumb to social conscience and tackle big, difficult subjects. With her latest work, Mah-Hah-Bone (a term of Hebrew derivation with diverse spiritual and symbolic meanings, including in Masonry and Christianity, which can mean ‘rise up and walk’), Crainean, like Stewart, makes one cardinal error. Moments of anguish portrayed in this dance-theatre piece which empathically (she has the “advantage” of sibling who’s fallen prey) addresses schizophrenia don’t need verbalisation, any more than G needs Giselle, in any overt way.

Bathed in red light mirrored by costumes, casting a demonic complexion on the disease six young dancers trained by Crainean are “the voices”. All show considerable promise, with Georgina Sadolewski one of the standouts, but not by any margin that really overshadows Kate Marning, Hannah Preston, Charlotte Owen, Eve Dowley or Lucy Owen. They may not yet have the precision or finesse of the ADT, but that company comprises numerous world leaders. And they rise to the challenge of Crainean’s muscular, uncompromising choreography. Crainean herself plays a “victim”, though perhaps not quite the right word; something like sufferer, I would’ve thought. Susan Kennedy is her mother, distraught by the victim’s embrace and abuse, which occur by tormenting turns.

The design of Crainean’s movement often sees dancers rooted to the earth, climbing over each other, as if to exemplify our primal need for meaningful contact, which is accentuated for those suffering from schizophrenia and the isolation it brings, via ignorance, stigma and fear, which show precious little sign of abatement, even in these would-be enlightened times. Mah-Hah-Bone does its best to see schizophrenia from all sides, but especially familial ones and dramatically succeeds in portraying the abject confusion, turmoil and purgatory which afflict the “infected”. Voices, often at odds, heard are as real as yours or mine to the individual suffering.

Crainean and co make this fundamental unambiguous, just as they do the brutality of pharmaceutical treatments which, with their concomitant grab-bag of chronicle effects, can be almost as reckless as the malady. Thus, Mah-Hah-Bone rises to Crainean’s passionate aspiration, that art transcend mere entertainment and abstraction, instead seeking “to inform” and even “heal”. Her close to home, close to the bone, personal contact ensures a cathartic experience for performers and audience alike. Legend has it tears were shed and shared during development. As well as and even amidst an intense vision of confliction, claustrophobia and crunch, there are rare moments of repose. Much of the time the dancers are as rude, unwelcome infestations; occasionally, they hold themselves like flowers, growing in a garden of good and evil.

Both the ADT’s and Dansatori’s work is short, sharp-edged and punchy; both would benefit from a dramaturgical fine-toothed comb.

The details: G played the Sydney Theatre on May 16-18. The show tours to Gosford, Wollongong, Canberra, Albury, Wagga Wagga, Bunbury and Mandurah in June — information and tickets on the company websiteMah-Hah-Bone played the Gordon Theatre, Illawarra Performing Arts Centre on May 17-18.

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