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Sydney Dance Company - ‘Ellipse’

Surreal with the Fringe on Top

March 13, 2004 – Stanford Lively Arts, Memorial Auditorium, Stanford University , CA

By Mary Ellen Hunt

Darn it, I really wanted to like ‘Ellipse,’ which the Sydney Dance Company brought to Stanford Lively Arts last weekend at Stanford University, but I'll be perfectly honest and say up front, I just didn't get it.

I don't know what I thought it would be - frankly, I only knew what I had read about the company. And they turned out to be an immensely likeable troupe of sixteen dancers, beautifully trained and obviously giving their all in this evening-length loosely-connected menagerie of dances. Many of them hail from the Australian Ballet and its academy, and they bring credit to the strength of that schooling with bold, invigorating movement and on-the-edge partnering skills. But it was skill pressed into the service of sometimes unfathomable silliness.

The curtain goes up promisingly on a dark stage framed by Gerard Manion's imposing, oversized, silvery squiggle of tubing, which is suspended across the length and breadth of the space. By no stretch of the definition of the word, does it constitute an ellipse, but it is striking and it makes a better partner to the work than did Matthew Hindson's music. By turns dreamily romantic and raucously irritating, this pieced-together score doesn't just range, it careens wildly -- from contemplative reverie to slapstick. As does Sydney artistic director Graeme Murphy's choreography.

Murphy is at his best in his pas de deux and partnered sections. The initial duet -- for a mobile Wakako Asano and Katherine Griffiths and staged to a "Lament" for cello and piano -- sets a drifting mood and the movement motifs he introduces individually assemble appealingly as the pair are joined by Matthew Shilling in a heavily suggestive menage a trois.

After this not unpleasant opening, however, Murphy launches into what might loosely be termed as a "romp" with Joshua Consandine, Christopher Sheriff, Simone Sault, and Chylie Cooper scampering about coltishly to Hindson's "Technologic 2." Clad in Akira Isogawa's geometric thong leotards with a horsetail of fringe over the backside, the four pony up a frolicsome gambol -- replete with slaps on the rump and acrobatic square dancing. And it was at about this point that I suddenly realized that not only were we not to take this seriously, but we might just be headed for a mite bit of trouble.

The mood shifts sharply again with a mobile solo for Andrea Briody and best of all, midway through the movement (to "Chrissietina's Magic Fantasy") -- and in one of the most visually intriguing moments of the whole evening -- Briody sets frame swinging, so that it sways hypnotically against Tracy Carrodus's solo.

Murphy brings back the "Lament" which opens "Ellipse," this time choreographed for seven of the company's gracefully burly men. It's a nice touch, if not particularly original, and of course it naturally contrasts the male movements against that of Asano and Griffith's duet. Cassandra Grove enters, wandering through what now seems like a herd of strangely alien creatures, gliding across the floor on the shoulders of one man as if riding a dolphin, passed through the air, and finally partnered by Xue Jun Wang and flying suspended effortlessly on his back.

Ostensibly, "Ellipse" isn't about any one particular thing or person or theme -- which is not necessarily bad, but which, in the end, may be its problem. It is somewhat disingenuous of Murphy to suggest that "Ellipse" is essentially plotless -- which he does in the program notes when he says "Without the cushion of narrative, the dancer must find rhyme and reason and a mode of communication so the piece doesn't become a series of complicated exercises." That's the kind of thinking that drives, say, the best works of Merce Cunningham, where context is implied only in the delivery of the dancers and the mind set of the receiving audience.

But are we to suppose that Murphy suggests no narrative when in the archly titled "Homage to Metallica, part 2 (for orchestra with amplified 1/8th sized violin solo)" Andrea Briody contrives to steal a canvas bag marked with a giant "$" from Shane Placentino and Gavin Mitford, who are dressed in the kind of crotchless-chaps-and-thong outfit that would make a porn star blush? She pretends to be tied up to railroad tracks as a wedge of dancers steams relentlessly toward her; and the men "save" her, only to find themselves inexplicably tricked when she makes off with their cash. Just because the story makes no sense, doesn't mean you're not pushing a narrative.

To their credit, the dancers give it everything they've got. Whatever the story is, they'll tell it, and however ambivalent the choreography, they'll throw themselves into it.

In another whiplash-inducing switch of moods, "pretty" returns with a twilight promenade for three couples in decidedly more attractive costumes. The solo violin concerto ("Westaway") shifts away from the romantic with sour notes in the score and an apparently soured relationship for one of the duets, who go from swooping skims across the floor to a violent struggle.

The whole work concludes on a bizarrely gymnastic note to the housebeat thrum of "Speed," at which point I kept asking myself what on earth was going on? The company -- now mostly clad in either genuinely unattractive spider-webbed bodystockings or fluorescent pants with fluorescent shrugs across their shoulders -- morph in and out of circus-like groupings. There are some imaginative moments but the end result is ultimately stupefying not stupendous. And with my mind ranging over the evening's doings, I found I still couldn't figure out really what Graeme Murphy was getting at.

It's true that behind me and to the side of me, other audience members found the whole operation (particularly the horsie bits) hilarious, and they cheered enthusiastically at the end. I closed my notebook, put my pen away and applauded too. After all, the dancers were terrific.

Edited by Jeff.

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