"Limbs retro.spective 2001"

Choreography by: Mary Jane O'Reilly, Mark Baldwin, Douglas Wright, Chris Jannides, Shona McCullagh

Presented by the Auckland Dance Company

Maidment Theatre, Auckland, New Zealand

November 2, 2001
by Malcolm Tay

The Limbs Dance Company, arguably New Zealand's most successful contemporary dance company, started as a group of friends working together in 1977, graduating from a successful student audience debut to performing in parks, schools, nightclubs, fashion parades, rock music festivals and on television. Encouraged by the exceedingly positive response to their performances, the company was established a year later, with an ensemble of five dancers under the direction of Mary Jane O'Reilly and Chris Jannides.

Free from the confines of any one technique, Limbs drew on an eclectic blend of ballet and jazz, Maori and Polynesian performance styles, as well as aspects of gymnastics and acrobatics, to develop a distinctively Kiwi brand of dance. Its vast and varied repertoire, choreographed by O'Reilly and other company members, was enjoyable, highly accessible and revealed a deep passion for communication through movement. Until its termination in 1989, the company not only garnered much praise and support from within the country, but also made successful tours to the US, Mexico, Papua New Guinea, Australia, Japan and Hong Kong.

Flipping through the programme, the list of Limbs members read like an impressive roll call of individuals who continue to contribute to the local and international dance scene as performers, choreographers, educators and administrators. Like Mark Baldwin, who danced with the Rambert Dance Company for twelve years and directs his own UK-based company, and Douglas Wright, a former Paul Taylor dancer and one of New Zealand's most respected choreographers, just to name a few. Old photographs from the late 1970s and early 1980s could only give a glimpse of its youthful enthusiasm and persistent verve that must have attracted a large and faithful following.

Now, more than ten years after the company's disbandment, O'Reilly (currently the artistic director of the Auckland Dance Company) spearheaded the effort behind the Limbs retro.spective 2001, a showcase of some of Limbs' early works performed by an auditioned group of eight young local dancers, featuring the talents of former company members Shona Wilson and Kilda Northcott. Having premiered in Auckland on October 27th at the Maidment Theatre on the University of Auckland campus grounds, this retrospective of fourteen short pieces will also travel to Wellington (November 9-10).

What was immediately apparent to this viewer was Limbs' gift for making tongue-in-cheek dances that actually succeed in being tongue-in-cheek. The opening piece, Reptile (O'Reilly, 1977), established this quite clearly. Contorting their faces into nonchalant expressions of surprise that iguanas tend to have, two men and four women exhibited lizard-like mannerisms in their deeply angled moves, slithering across the floor, hissing and clawing at each other to amusing effect. In Love Song (O'Reilly, 1983), mockingly affected chants of "luuuvsong!" by a bunch of bystanders made an interesting foil for a couple's danced quarrel. In contrast, the couple in Shona McCullagh's Helga and Heinz from 1988, described by the choreographer as "two co-dependent performing canines trapped in a Bavarian beer hall", was a madcap duo in multi-striped, jester-like costumes, executed with great comedic timing by Justine Hohaia and Sean McDonald.

Games (O'Reilly, 1979) cleverly incorporated the movement vocabulary of the various games people play -- be it jogging, hurdling or the martial arts -- into the context of human behaviour, with O'Reilly herself in a walk-on role as a whistle-toting referee. And Jannides' Complicated Legs Dance in a Pair of Jeans and Sneakers from 1979 was just that, except the dance was really not that complicated. Essentially a continuous sequence of running and shuffling steps, leg changes and sideways kicks, McDonald first danced alone, screwing up his rubbery face as though he was barely managing a gargantuan feat of virtuosity, only to be joined by the entire cast -- now all clad in t-shirts, jeans and sneakers -- in the same dance over again. Inspired by Dave Swarbrick's perky "Newcastle Hornpipe", it was meant as a joke and a hilarious one at that, even twenty years later.

Described by Jenny Stevenson as "unashamedly populist", Limbs was willing to dance for anyone at any place. But its repertoire was not limited to the whimsical; the company was perfectly capable of more challenging work on the proscenium stage. Set to Antonín Dvorák's "American Quartet", Baldwin's lyrical Melting Moments (1980) was one such piece that demanded more from the dancers. With attention paid to balance and form, three couples in deep red unitards made intricate shapes with their intimately connected bodies in long, languid phrases. O'Reilly's mesmerising Poi (1982/1987), with fluid, circular motions of the arms and full-bodied movement suggestive of nature, evoked the characteristic qualities of the indigenous Maori poi dance. Wright's Knee Dance from 1982, which critics have hailed as a masterpiece, was stunning in its dynamics, structural shapes and relationship with the ground. Perhaps Can (O'Reilly, 1981), the only solo of the evening, was one woman's private conversation with herself, made more vulnerable by her exposed breasts with her sinewy back revolving towards the audience. Sensitively danced by Northcott, it was perhaps the kind of solo that could only be pulled off by someone of Northcott's experience without excessive sentimentality.

But at the end of the day, what really made Limbs so appealing to watch was their sheer love for dance, especially obvious in their jazzier pieces, though just as apparent in more sublime selections like Moth (O'Reilly, 1978) and Talking Heads (O'Reilly, 1980), both of which were stylish vehicles for feminine grace. The finishing trio of the wild and wacky Girl U Want (Baldwin, 1980), quick-footed Shark Attack (O'Reilly, 1981) and Jannides' assertive Eno (1977) capped the show. Having seen the Limbs repertoire pass through the bodies of a new generation, one can safely say that their work is as fresh, innovative and exciting as when it was first performed. Limbs is, without doubt, far from being history. Judging from the full house and incredible reception by the audience on a single evening -- several curtain calls, shouts of "bravo!" and foot stamping, no less -- this would be an event that few would forget.


Please join a discussion of this performance in our forum.

Edited by Mary Ellen.

Submit press releases to press@criticaldance.com

For information, corrections and questions, please contact admin@criticaldance.com