Australian Dance Theatre
March 30, 2007
Edinburgh Festival Theatre
Spring is finally arriving in Edinburgh, and along with the haar – Edinburgh's own brand of all-enveloping sea fog – the changing winds have also blown in the fascinating Australian Dance Theatre. In this, the last stop on a six-week, 11 city 2007 UK tour, the company introduced Edinburgh audiences to a unique blend of music, dance and photography in the innovative "Held", an onstage collaboration with renowned dance photographer Lois Greenfield.
Choreographed by Garry Stewart, "Held" is a high-energy blend of dance, both live and in images captured on film by Lois Greenfield. The piece was conceptualized a way to allow audiences to see the moments in dance that normally flash by too quickly to be noticed, an idea accomplished by the melding of live dance with both real time photography and studio images by Lois Greenfield projected on to two large screens. The resulting 55-minute long collage of dance segments is an innovative if not always even piece of performance art.
"Held" begins with Greenfield center stage, snapping away as the dancers, alone and in groups, begin to move to Darrin Verhagen's pulsing music. The images she captures – in black and white until the very end - are immediately projected on two large screens, which act both as screens and as a frame for the action center stage. It's sometimes difficult to decide whether to pay attention to the live dance or the still image, or both if you possibly can. These are powerful, diverse dancers; each with a distinct style that draw you in, but the images themselves are utterly fascinating. It's mind boggling to see a dancer upside down, completely horizontal or balanced on their head. And humbling, because you realize how little of the dance you actually see, how much happens when you are looking elsewhere, blinking or not focusing.
Later on, in one of the most striking sequences, Greenfield uses a strobe to catch the dancers' movements in quick series. The resulting images reveal the dancers looking like Hindu gods or goddesses with multiple arms and legs, the sequence of the limbs tracing the movement of the dance. It is taking apart the motion so the human eye can appreciate the minutest of movements.
In a separate series live sequence of photographs, Greenfield works with a zoom lense, focusing on the detail of the dancers bodies. Here it is the twisting, the texture, the juxtaposition of body parts that is captured by the camera. It is transfixing because these are close-up images that would never be apparent when watching the dancers themselves, but yet in a way unsettling, because the images are often of body parts we are not used to seeing close up.
Gary Stewart managed never to let the photography overwhelm the dance, and that is in no small part due to his impressive dancers. Australian Dance Theatre's dancers come from a wide range of dance background, but they are all well grounded in the high energy, highly kinetic blend of contemporary dance, martial arts move, breakdance and ballet that Stewart demands from them. And they rise to his challenge of throwing themselves into space – often exploring the horizontal as well as the vertical, yet coming down to earth in an elegant, controlled way.
The specific choreography seems tailored to each dancer's strengths, with two of the most affecting sections coming sections to slower, almost classical music. In one, a couple move together in synchronization, flowing, rippling to the music, never losing the thread even as their movements become more jagged and energetic. In another, the a lone male dancer – clearly one with more ballet training than the others (Alex Leonhartsberger ?) dances center stage in a corner formed by the two screens pushed together, all now bathed in a green glow. The gentle jingling of bells around his neck compliments his slow, inwards twisting solo. Stewart was trained as a ballet dancer at the Australian Ballet School, and it's clear that while he draws from many art forms, he has not abandoned what he learned early on, and the willingness to blend the classical into the very contemporary is refreshing.
If there is a weak link in "Held", it is that there is perhaps too much to handle in one 55-minute blast. In addition to the live photography, there are countless segments of non-photographed dancing, all interspersed with film clips of the company projected on to the two screens. And in trying to do too much, Stewart hit at least one off note in a segment where groups of dancers on a darkened stage were lit at intervals by flashes of strobe lights. Strobe lighting can be used to stunning effect - think David Parsons' "Caught" – but here there didn't to be any rhyme or reason to the timing of the flashes, so it just looked like a half lit piece.
The black and white costumes by David Bonner and Michelle Robinson, though creative in creating a unique look for each dancer, sometimes didn't quite mesh. Ranging from shorts, to bikini tops and bottoms to tank tops and t-shirts, the outfits sometimes hid bodyline, which would have been nice to see on camera. More jarring however, was outfitting of male dancers in black lace dance-belt bottoms. The juxtaposition of such a feminine undergarments with the powerful dance seemed silly, especially in the unforgiving close up of the digital images. It was as if they'd raided their younger sister's lingerie drawer and out of context with the rest of the piece.
Dancebelt gaffs aside, Australian Dance Theatre has scored a success with this provocative and innovative dance-photography collaboration. One hopes that Stewart and Greenfield will continue tinkering with the blend to remove some of the weaker bits so that the fabulous majority of the piece can continue to amaze audiences.