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2016 Darwin Festival: Tradition sustains innovation

Nicky Fearn: Tracks, Landed; Rianto, Medium; Finucane & Smith, The Birds

Nicky Fearn is Artistic Director of Business Unusual Theatre and is a theatre maker and performer specialising in visual physical theatre and full face mask.

Vera Tabuzo, Landed, Tracks Dance, Darwin Festival, 2016 Vera Tabuzo, Landed, Tracks Dance, Darwin Festival, 2016
photo David Hancock

Tracks’ Landed integrates dance, site and community to express a sense of sacred belonging. From a spiritual base, Rianto’s Medium melds ancient cross-gendered dance with contemporary form. Finucane and Smith’s The Birds blends traditional cabaret with New Burlesque. These three Darwin Festival works exemplify more than diversity; they represent respect for and a capacity to build on the past and, for Landed and Medium, to acknowledge the power, currency and survival of traditional spiritual life.

Tracks Dance Company, Landed

Landed is the kind of work Tracks has done so well for several decades now, drawing together diverse communities and providing an opportunity for the young and not so young to develop and extend their practices with the support of professional practitioners. In this production it’s the school children of Millner, the dance students of Casuarina Senior College (CSC), the local Breakdance company and an ensemble of young dancers who get to work with three lead dancers, guest choreographer Gary Lang and Tracks creatives David McMicken and Tim Newth.

Well known for its site-specific work, Tracks often performs in beautiful sites around Darwin and occasionally in concrete bunkers and car parks. This time the site is especially integral to the meaning and theme of the show. Landed is set on the Gurambai Walking Trail which runs by Darwin International Airport. The production investigates what it is to return to Darwin; how we re-integrate with a place where we are “constantly affected by the vastness of our landscape, the extremes of our weather, the fullness of the cultural diversity and our links to Indigenous people and knowledge” (program notes).

Landed begins with the break dancers driving a baggage trolley stacked with suitcases onto an open-air stage. Cases are thrown between dancers in a comic evocation of the baggage carousel. We are introduced to three characters landing in Darwin, each dancing their initial response to the heat, the remoteness and, of course, the mozzies—danced by Millner primary school children. The soundtrack of airport announcements is supported by the noise of real planes arriving and leaving from the nearby airport.

Landed, Tracks Dance, Darwin Festival, 2016 Landed, Tracks Dance, Darwin Festival, 2016

The audience is then divided into two groups to walk in different directions along the trail to the next performance areas where the main characters are individually nurtured into wisdom and linked to land and community. Each section is choreographed by Larrakia choreographer, Gary Lang, working with local Indigenous dancer Darren Edwards and the young ensemble who gently propel, lift and lead Darren through leaf-strewn bushland until he finds his strength and connection with the environment.

Tracks dancer and animateur Kelly Beneforti excels on many levels as she dances on rough ground among the trees and leads the primary children in a piece that begins her character’s re-integration. Beneforti’s VCA dance training is evident and her strong connection to the young dancers keeps them focused as they scatter in the bush around her to dance their books into butterflies. Using lead dancer Vera Tabuzo’s stack of pink suitcases and bowls of water, Beneforti also choreographs the CSC dancers and Tabuzo in their characters’ growing wisdom.

Lang also choreographs the three leads in the finale to a soundscore composed by Matt Cunliffe with Steve Wanta Jampijinpa Patrick’s vocals urging the dancers to “speak to the land and the land will speak back.” The dancers move fluidly as they come together to settle into home and place, taking each other’s weight then extending into solo moments danced concurrently. The rest of the company watches in stillness, the work of showing the returnees the way to connect now done.

Rianto, Medium, Darwin Festival, 2016 Rianto, Medium, Darwin Festival, 2016
photo Paz Tassone

Rianto, Medium

Growing up in the small central Javanese village of Banyumas, Rianto mastered the traditional cross-gender dance Lengger Banyumasan at a very young age and began learning and performing classical Javanese dance in 1997. Since 2001 he has developed a contemporary form that fuses with traditional and ritualistic practices. Medium is a compelling and extraordinary work that explodes boundaries and takes the audience on a journey through complex and multi-layered experiences.

Rianto dances alone in the space but is watched by his childhood friend and collaborator, the Kendang musician and singer Cahwati. Wearing a traditional Indonesian costume, she sits at the edge of the performing space with an array of classical instruments in front of her, but for a long time plays nothing. The only sound is the breath of the dancer as he slowly explores his body, first with delicate caresses then with slaps, then frenzied shaking before running on the spot for an incredibly long time, his breathing building. It’s hypnotic.

Rianto is a master of rhythm, playing with space and time and managing to surprise the audience with sudden changes of form. He moves fluidly between wild contorted angst and a state of childlike innocence, from graceful and contained movements where he barely flutters a finger to explosive body spasms. At all times Rianto appears connected to something deeper, some sense of ritual and culture, something profoundly spiritual that is the base from which he journeys out.

When Cahwati finally breaks her silence, playing intermittent percussion and vocalising, the connection between the two is powerful. In traditional Lengger the role of musician is one of lover but here it moves through lover, mother and playful, childlike friend. The two work together with such connection it becomes impossible to tell whether Rianto is being puppeteered by her or she by him.

Medium premiered in Darwin and is now set for an extended European tour. Rianto will doubtless mesmerise audiences when he appears in Choy Ka Fai’s Softmachine: Rianto in Adelaide’s OzAsia Festival in September.

Moira Finucane, The Birds, Darwin Festival, 2016 Moira Finucane, The Birds, Darwin Festival, 2016
photo Elise Derwin

Finucane and Smith, The Birds

Well-known for their provocative burlesque shows, Moira Finucane and Jackie Smith have been crafting thought-provoking and hugely entertaining work for decades. The Birds is their most recent production and brings together another eclectic mix of performers who work across genres from cabaret to circus to what seems like screaming mad punk performance art and back again. The individual acts are loosely based around wild and wonderful feathered creatures and songs, music and dance that inhabit a fluid time zone stretching from 1880s Paris to modern day clubbing.

The Birds opens with Clare St Clare, a traditional cabaret artist in a glittering gold evening dress, singing a torch song. Unusually for a Finucane and Smith production, this opening is entirely conventional without the subversive and quirky elements we have come to expect from them. The production then moves through a series of solo acts including hoops, trapeze, a walk across champagne bottles in glamorous high heels, a dynamic booty-shaking African dance number and torch songs from around the globe, most accompanied by the superb Miss Chief on piano.

Within a production that otherwise has yet to find its flow, what makes the evening memorable are moments when, between the more traditional acts, Finucane lets loose with her blend of poetic anarchy, appearing with black cape and long talons that are at once razor deadly and strangely delicate. She dwells in the gothic horror realm, decrying love and weaving in astute comments about contemporary life and politics.

The highlight for me was the duet between the extraordinary Mama Alto and Finucane’s slightly deranged wild raven. Mama Alto has a crystalline voice that totally bewitches. Transcending gender, she is sublime as a powerful, ethereal being who sits front-stage dressed in sparkling silver, singing about love. When she opens her mouth to sing I feel that I am a believer. Then, in violent contrast, Finucane, clad only in her talons and see-through black cape, emerges from behind. They are striking as they sing in opposition about love and death. This is a moment of genius.

Tracks Dance Company, Landed, concept, direction David McMicken, Tim Newth, design Tim Newth, choreographers Gary Lang, Kelly Beneforti, Aaron Lim, David McMicken, Tim Newth and dancers, original music David McMicken, sound mastering Matt Cunliffe; Gurambai Walking Trail, Darwin Airport, 5-7, 12-14 Aug; Medium, choreographer, performer Rianto, dramaturg, collaborator Garin Nugroho, scenography, lighting Iskander K Loedin, vocals, percussion Cahwati; Brown’s Mart, 5-7 Aug; Finucane and Smith, The Birds, creator-directors Moira Finucane, Jackie Smith, performers Moira Finucane, Clare St Clare, Rockie Stone, Mama Alto, Holly Durant, Beni Lola, Yeshe Meherate, Miss Chief; The Lighthouse, Darwin, 10-13 Aug

Nicky Fearn is Artistic Director of Business Unusual Theatre and is a theatre maker and performer specialising in visual physical theatre and full face mask.

RealTime issue #134 Aug-Sept 2016 pg.

© Nicola Fearn; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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