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dancing with expectations

pauline manley: dancenorth’s night café


Sally Blatchford, Luke Hanna, Night Café Sally Blatchford, Luke Hanna, Night Café
photo Bottlebrush Studios
WHAM BAM: THE FIRST 10 MINUTES OF DANCENORTH’S NIGHTCAFE IS A FRENZY OF ACTIVITY AND JAZZILY RAPACIOUS TEXT. FINELY TUNED THEATRICAL RHYTHMS CREATE A SWIRLING SEA OF BODIES, PROPS, MUSIC AND WORDS. DOORS, CHAIRS, HATS AND BOTTLES ARE CARRIED ON, PLAYED WITH AND CARRIED OFF IN QUICK SUCCESSION, CREATING VIGNETTES WITH SLICK- TONGUED HUMOUR DELIVERED WITH SLAPSTICK OVERSTATEMENT.

Establishing speakeasy through noir irony, dancers crawl to a centralising table: a dinner party forms, becoming a multi-focused, mildly orgiastic moving tableau of flinging gaiety. Bottles tumble, drinks are drained, laughter is thrown, laps are sat on and glasses bounce. Drink, movement, sound. Drink, movement, sound. Night Cafe sticks to this rhythm; short pieces of choreography explode then dissolve in a night of tightly organised bedlam. Promoted as a “fun party piece”, Nightcafe is almost vaudeville, almost cirque, almost music theatre and it generates an intense and rolling energy.

The pre-set loneliness of beautifully strange musical instruments acts as a call to their musicians. Waiting for Guinness provides the live music, and what fine music it is. Hard to name or pin down, it’s sometimes Spanish, Cuban, French, Mexican, but most determinedly moves to the uneven beats of European gypsy fusion. These slightly strange and varied instruments perform themselves, making sound distinctive and furnishing the most authentically cabaret elements of the evening. Horns, piano accordion, wooden boxes and the immensely over-sized Mexican bass, the guitarrón, almost cartoonesque in its proportions, make sound the star in a performance that was really a ‘gig’; one that ends up on the dance floor with audience members in each other arms, smiling, moving.

Recently famed for their explosive athleticism textured by piquantly abstracted narratives, DanceNorth has developed a reputation that now conjures slavering expectation. Beware the devil expectation. Originally choreographed by Gavin Webber in 2007, Michelle Ryan has re-staged Nightcafe for a six-week regional tour. As it hit the Parramatta stage it had been touring for a month and this showed in the polished throwing skills and the speedily confident scene changes. It seems Dancenorth have decided that a ‘party piece’ was best suited to a regional tour. Maybe.

But I mourned for the hot athleticism and physically driven poetics of Lawn and Roadkill. I also mourned for relevance and heart. Here dancers are asked to be slapstick actors and the potency of the athletic contemporary body is almost completely squashed. Signature vigour and power are replaced with a strained burlesque. In an ongoing flurry of clichéd facial responses, this burlesque lacks a cellular physical understanding and nuance of delivery that comes only with musical theatre training. Evident is a certain bravado, maybe even condescension to popular entertainment forms. Waiting for Guinness were the most potent element of Nightcafe as these musicians understand and practice cabaret performance.

Audience participation recurred, and we in the front rows shifted with slight terror as the performers approached. I was pulled up to dance twice and had a mighty good time. Some of us were seated at café tables, close to the dancers, and the heat of the performance soaked and stained us with its undeniable energy. But my ears started to bleed from the proximity of the speakers and after 30 minutes I just wanted the show to finish so I could grab some pain killers for a headache that deserved a Marilyn Manson concert.

Dancers Luke Hanna, D’Arcy Andrews, Sally Blatchford, Jessica Jefferies, Danah Matthews and Adam Gardiner all get a chance to star. Short solos all too briefly reveal their movement signatures and it is in these moments that the performance gets a chance to breathe. But lovely moments are lopped off in the rush of ongoing slapstick.

Female dancers must spend the evening on tables in high heels. All cleavage and red lipstick, the women were constantly cast as seductive, lifting their vixenesque dresses to reveal the flesh of the dancerly leg and the arch of a heeled instep. Wolf-whistling men remained surprisingly clothed, dancing in softly comfy leather flats, loose suits and hats. Certainly there was ironic comment on the iconic femme fatal in the “she wore a red dress, no a blue dress” skit, but Nightcafe remained a deeply gendered performance. Dancenorth have, in recent productions, promoted and applauded the physical strength and presence of their female performers. Here they were all bosom and beauty; there was even a slow-mo ‘catfight.’

Despite the refined focus and consistently hectic energy, despite the lively and unusual music, despite the whimsy and practiced skill, this performance remained only mildly engaging: strangely dull in all its frenzy. Beware the devil expectation.


Dancenorth, Nightcafe, choreography Gavin Webber and dancers, tour re-mount and direction Michelle Ryan, dancers D’Arcy Andrews, Sally Blatchford, Jessica Jefferies, Danah Jane Matthews, actor Adam Gardiner, music Waiting for Guinness (Trevor Brown, Tim Bradley, Dave Stephenson, Marko Simec, Natalino Romeo), text Nathan Page; Riverside Theatre, Parramatta, Sydney, Oct 26-28

RealTime issue #94 Dec-Jan 2009 pg. 37

© Pauline Manley; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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