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Vigorous ruminations on happiness

Mike Bodnar: Shaun Parker & Company, Happy as Larry

Mike Bodnar is a Canadian living in Alice Springs. He teaches middle school and every Thursday 5.00-6.00pm he hosts a one-hour roundup of the arts in the Red Centre on 102.1 FM 8CCC

Ghenoa Gela, Happy as Larry, Shaun Parker & Company Ghenoa Gela, Happy as Larry, Shaun Parker & Company
photo Prudence Upton
During the final ensemble moment of Happy as Larry I thought I could see a flaw in an otherwise seamless mass of movement on stage. A couple of arms and legs struggled to keep up with an intense dance set and I suspected that it was the result of fatigue. But it’s part of the act, as one by one the dancers fall out of synch with the rhythm and movement until we are left to focus on one lone character with a large question on his mind. He sits cross-legged on a stage full of balloons, inviting us to ask ourselves: how does anyone find happiness?

Happy as Larry is visiting the Darwin Festival as a part of a two-month national tour. A product of Shaun Parker and Company, the performance features a cast of nine characters based on the Enneagram, a psychological concept that articulates nine distinct but interconnected personality types: The Perfectionist, The Giver, The Performer, The Tragic Romantic, The Observer, The Devil’s Advocate, The Optimist, The Boss and The Mediator (program note). These are manifested in a broiling mix of contemporary dance, hip hop street style, ballet and a Chaplin-inspired roller skater all set to the refreshingly clean and crisp electroacoustic score by composers Bree Van Reyk and Nick Wales.

The set and the colours are simple, evoking a sense of childlike wonder with the world. A rainbow of helium filled balloons—perhaps a symbol of that happiness we seek—frames an enormous rectangular prism lying lengthwise. The two long sides of this massive set piece are blackboards on which one of the characters traces movements, scrawls simple pictograms and writes the occasional message using chalk. The dancers are dressed in different colours hinting at their distinct personality type, but we never learn precisely what these colours and the dancers represent. With mostly the music and the movement to read we are witness to a series of short dance vignettes as part of a performance that runs nearly 90 minutes: a rumination on the fleeting and capricious human expression of happiness.

Probably the most profound of these vignettes involves a character with traits of The Performer. We watch how this shirtless male dancer discovers an approving and encouraging audience among those gathered on stage. His expression of determination turns towards ecstasy as he lands jump after jump in a series of break dance and ballet moves. But the elation ends when he stumbles and falls. The dancer and his audience leave the stage deflated. Shortly after, shirt back on and seemingly wounded, he re-appears watching a group of men mimic ballroom dancing. They are lost in joyous laughter. I am reminded of small children playing in the mud as the dancers move to the blackboard and smear each other in chalk. Slowly, The Performer is absorbed into the group and they spectacularly launch themselves off the back of the blackboard. In this scene we witness the very simple creation of happiness, first through intense individual effort; the evaporation of that happiness; and then the near effortless recovery of an altogether different form of happiness as a member of a group.

But involving one’s self in that communal happiness is not a simple task for everyone. The often frustrating struggle to find contentment is played out by The Observer—the man who holds the chalk. Throughout most of the performance he watches with detachment his fellow dancers act out their respective experiences of joy and sorrow. Some form of expression is brewing, however, and we glimpse it when he writes, “I need company” only to change that message to “I don’t need anyone” the moment his friends appear. The alternating attraction to and repulsion from company is an example of the undefined nature of happiness explored in this character. In The Observer we see how joy, elsewhere achieved by spinning a ball or learning to roller skate, can be so easily undermined by one’s personal characteristics. Such moments are part of what makes Happy as Larry a dynamic and complex production.

The music of Van Reyk and Wales is as fluid as the personality types depicted in the dance. It moves gently from the strings of cellos, harps and violins to the crisp, crackle and thump of electronic beats. Perhaps this blend of acoustic instruments with electronic sound echoes our experience of genuine and artificial happiness. It is as though we have been left to ponder, watching the lights fade on the chalk-dusted face of The Observer sitting among the balloons at the end of the show. In the lead up to this moment a simple piano tune plays along with beats. We have our moment of quiet to ponder the source and sustenance of our own happiness and then, with a snap of The Observer’s fingers, the rainbow rises and the time for rumination is over.

2013 Darwin Festival, Shaun Parker & Company, Happy As Larry, director, choreographer Shaun Parker, composers Nick Wales, Bree van Reyk, designer Adam Gardnir, lighting designer Luiz Pampolha, dramaturg Veronice Neave; Darwin Entertainment Centre, 22-23 August

The NT Writers’ Centre’s RealTime Workshop project is supported by the Australian Government Regional Arts Fund and the Northern Territory Government.

Mike Bodnar is a Canadian living in Alice Springs. He teaches middle school and every Thursday 5.00-6.00pm he hosts a one-hour roundup of the arts in the Red Centre on 102.1 FM 8CCC

RealTime issue #0 pg. web

© Mike Bodnar; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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