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Flash Review Journal, 11-5: 'Body'
Dance Storms Melbourne Arts Fest

By Chloe Smethurst
Copyright 2003 Chloe Smethurst

MELBOURNE -- The Melbourne International Arts Festival is an annual celebration of arts and culture focusing on both local and international acts. In her three-year tenure as artistic director, Robyn Archer has dedicated each year of the festival to a different aspect of artistic endeavor, nominally text, body and voice. In 2003, it was Melbourne's delight to experience Ms. Archer's interpretation of body, which involved, essentially, huge amounts of dance. Not only were there a great number of dance performances and dance film screenings, every night of the festival saw thousands of people learning different styles of dance out in the cold and occasional rain of Federation Square. Also included were musical performances focusing on dance scores, visual art works centered on the body and a number of movement-theater and other cross-disciplinary performances.

While the overall standard was, as always, very high, there were a few standout performances. Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan's performance of "Cursive II" was masterful and elegant, bringing Lin Hwai-min's choreography to Melbourne for the first time since 1988. In an absorbing exploration of the art of Chinese calligraphy, set to a score by John Cage, the exquisite artistry of these dancers was shown to full effect. It was not only the skills of the dancers that were highlighted, but also Lin's expertise in arranging the movements and performers on stage. Contrasting strong, fast, martial-art like moves against the most intricate and delicate undulations of the spine, the dancers flowed across the space in a beautiful imitation of a calligraphy brush on parchment. For me this was truly art that moves.

In a similar vein, and yet entirely different in form was the stripped-down work of French choreographer Odile Duboc, "Trois Boleros." To three different orchestrations of Ravel's "Bolero," Duboc used a simple and yet effective movement vocabulary to illustrate how complex the relationship can be between score and choreography, and that there are many different possibilities for an outcome between the two. Interestingly, I found that half way through the second "Bolero," I was no longer listening to the music, as I had become so accustomed to its repetitions that it became almost invisible. While occasionally appearing to be little more than a choreographic exercise, this piece's simple structure was pleasing to the eye when performed at the end of such a long and densely packed festival.

At the other end of the spectrum was "memorandum," a creation of the Japanese performance collective Dumb Type. Not only was this piece the opposite of "Cursive II" and "Trois Boleros" in terms of style, it also fell well short of the mark in weight and content. While the work revealed great skill in the integration of multi-media into live performance, its choreographic and theatrical elements were particularly underdeveloped and often seemed completely unrelated. Even given that the nature of memory, the focus of the piece, is often transitory and seemingly irrational, some of the elements brought into the work did little but confuse and irritate, with many sections drawn out far too long.

Unfortunately, I did see another item in the festival which really wasn't up to scratch, Salia ni Seydou's performance of "Weeleni." I was particularly interested in seeing this work, as the promotional material touted a blend of traditional African and contemporary dance. The three dancers in the company began their careers in Burkina Faso, went to France to train and work in contemporary dance techniques, and recently returned to their home city of Ougadougou to make their own performances as Salia ni Seydou. That the dancers had choreographed their own movement was perhaps the main the problem with "Weeleni," as the performance was filled with self-indulgent, repetitive movements with little or no development or structure. Not traditional enough to be counted as tribal, nor formal enough to be looked at as concert art, this uneasy hybrid did not communicate to me at all.

There were of course, a number of other fantastic productions throughout the three-week festival. Of particular interest was Phillip Adam's "Nativity," a fantastically surreal vision of Australian suburbia in the 1950s, featuring vintage furniture, various specimens of native taxidermy and a series of piquant dance vignettes that left me wanting to see more. Also very successful was the premiere of Chunky Move's "Tense Dave," a collaboration between choreographers Lucy Guerin and Gideon Obarzanek and theatre director Michael Kantor. The performance was held together by a brilliant set, strong execution by the dancers and a smooth fusion of choreographic and theatrical techniques. Lucy Guerin also presented her own work, "Plasticine Park," details of which can be found in my earlier flash.

While a three-week international festival of dance was physically exhausting and mentally draining for those of us who tried to see it all, Robyn Archer really succeeded in portraying a wide spectrum of dance, both in terms of style and cultural background. Undoubtedly the favorite performance, winning both The Age Critic's Award and the inaugural Patron's Award, was Cloud Gate's "Cursive II." It really was a pleasure to watch, constantly surprising and challenging the imagination.

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