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Flash Review 1, 6-12: Heart of the Cave
Petronio Sets Sydney Dance to the Poet of Goth
By Suzanne Davidson
Copyright 2003 Suzanne Davidson
SYDNEY -- In a program
note, Stephen Petronio says his new "Underland" on the Sydney Dance
Company was "built as a place rather than a dance, a kind of subconscious
world that locates the heart and essence of Nick Cave's music....
The dark emotional beauty of his work speaks directly to my artistic
motor." In its May 27 premiere at the Sydney Opera House, the work
did indeed speak to most of the audience; I for one was bowled over
by Petronio's creation and by the way it was performed, by dancers
with whom he had never worked before. There were thrills to be had
on every level.
to right, Wakako Asano, Christopher Sheriff, and Katherine Griffiths
of Sydney Dance Company in Stephen Petronio's "Underland." Jeff
Busby photo courtesy Sydney Dance Company.
was new ground for this audience and these dancers. Most had come
through the Australian Ballet School, and many had been soloists
in the Australian Ballet, so their impeccable classical technique
was a given. But, I would say that none of them had ever been required
to extend their technique in this way before.
Surprisingly, the choreography
in "Underland" somehow felt classical -- although you couldn't really
say that "Underland" is a classical ballet. What it is, is choreographic
invention -- a creative realization of the fusing of classical technique
with modern dance, which gives the performers the kind of opportunities
of extending their artistry that normally dancers can only dream
about. Fusing classical technique with modern dance is not so unusual
these days -- and Petronio has certainly worked with classically-trained
dancers before. However, in my experience as a viewer, and at the
risk of sounding flippant, this can simply mean seeing classical
dancers who are required not to point their feet, to relax their
normally straight spine, and to perform the odd contraction. Often
this kind of "fusion" is not performed by the best of classical
dancers, which doesn't help.
In "Underland" a group
of breathtaking classical technicians danced with sensitivity and
enormous energy, smoothly incorporating modern dance into the whole,
using their bodies as true, uninhibited instruments of the dance.
Neither technique was watered down, which can sometimes happen when
a classically trained dancer tries modern or vice versa. Perhaps
it was the performance rather than the choreography? Whichever,
it was definitely a new "look," a new experience for me and, from
their reaction, for the rest of the audience watching this performance.
All the elements of Nick Cave's music (produced for this work by
Tony Cohen and made into a soundscape by Paul Healy), Petronio's
choreography, Tara Subkoff's costumes, and Ken Tabachnick's highly
evocative video effects combined to produce a perfect artistic whole.
One was never conscious of any of the elements taking over to the
detriment of the whole. Apart from "The Ship Song," the costumes
were ideal for the piece, making the most of the bodies for which
they were designed.
14 sections, clearly divided and danced by different soloists or
groups of dancers. The opening movement is a very slow "Descent
into Underland." An upside-down Xue-Jun Wang climbed very slowly
downwards from the flies to the stage, on a net-like structure.
This was spasmodically reflected -- sometimes in close-up and sometimes
in wide shot -- on one of three screens behind him, while the other
screens reflected abstract images of unidentifiable shapes. It was
riveting in its sheer concentration and control.
and the Sydney Dance Company in Stephen Petronio's "Underland."
Jeff Busby photo courtesy Sydney Dance Company.
A special highlight
for its use of high classical technique in modern choreography was
"Prelude to Weep," a solo in which Katie Ripley literally becomes
the music, using her body to interpret its moods and rhythm, performing
whatever movement is needed to best express the music. In a television
interview, Ripley said that dancing this segment is like meditating.
Her unwavering concentration had the audience holding its collective
breath throughout. At the end of the piece there was a second's
dead silence, and then the place erupted in the sort of noise one
tends to associate with rock concerts. Immediate silence followed
for "The Weeping Song," danced by Wakako Asano, Tracey Carrodus
and Chylie Cooper, with Bradley Chatfield, Gavin Mitford, Christopher
Sheriff and Jason Wilcock. "The Ship Song," a study in the sensual,
came next, with an evocative close-up on the screens, of gently
breathing naked bodies. Another highlight for me was the duet in
"Stagger Lee," danced by Katherine Griffiths and Joseph Brown, who
seemed melded together in this high-energy, vibrantly passionate
piece. In "After Lee," a series of solos, those that most clearly
stayed in my memory were danced by Josef Brown and Chylie Cooper,
the latter also performing "Prelude to Death," the last piece prior
to the full-company ending, with great sensitivity and control.
"Underland" ends with
"Death is Not The End," to the song of the same name from Cave's
"Murder Ballads," danced by the whole ensemble. Whilst it was beautifully
performed, it didn't move me the way the rest of the ballet had.
Perhaps I had had a surfeit of beauty?
Sydney Dance Company
performs "Underland" at the Sydney Opera House through Saturday,
touring the piece to Brisbane June 18 - 25 and Melbourne July 3
Suzanne Davidson is a Sydney-based writer and the founder of
the Sydney Dance Company. She also danced for Peter Darrell's Western
Theatre Ballet, the Australian Ballet, and in Maurice Bejart's original
"Rite of Spring" in Brussels.
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