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Birds With Skymirrors, MAU Birds With Skymirrors, MAU
photo Susannah Wembley
In a fascinating review of a new edition of Isadora Duncan’s My Life, Joan Acocella writing in the New York Review of Books (May 23), reminds us of the artist’s detestation of ballet: “What appeared to her most vile about ballet was its unnaturalness: the rigid back, the studied positions, the relentless daintiness.” Two productions, MAU’s Birds with Skymirrors and ADT’s G, a response to the classical ballet Giselle, encouraged reflection on contemporary Western dance’s continuing affinity with its forbear.

MAU, Birds with Skymirrors

Immediately after witnessing New Zealand-based MAU company’s Birds with Skymirrors, created by Lemi Ponifasio (interview RT114, p 39), a friend expressed deep pleasure at having seen a contemporary work rooted in a tradition so different from Western, and especially American, modern dance. I’d enjoyed a similar feeling after seeing Tempest without a body (RT95, p14) on the company’s previous visit to Sydney, although that work had, with its screaming angel and other demanding images, a more contemporary performance presence.

The sight of a frigate bird trailing videotape first excited but then disturbed Ponifasio as he reflected on the floating islands of pollution in the Pacific Ocean. Hence a recurring black and white projected image of a large bird struggling in oil spill. Initially the footage is barely glimpsed; by the end it plays at painful length. But this is only a very small part of a work in which a series of images unfold, for the most part slowly on a broad stage against a reflective wall of dark, softly shimmering, silver material. We adjust to Skybirds’ sense of time and space in which apparently natural sounds mutate electronically and a woman dressed only in briefs and high heels approaches us with the aplomb of a fashion model, hands behind her back, and then yells at us. A bare-chested man on the other side of the stage ripples his abdominal muscles. The two slowly exchange positions. She lies down, the light turning her golden until she appears to be become nothing more than glowing embers. With enormous force the man repeatedly slaps his chest and bends slowly backwards, later dipping at the knees, arms extended, and becoming birdlike. He then disappears into the dark to the sound of a rumbling ocean. What is left is a profound sense of the ephemerality of the body, whatever its cultural or species manifestation.

Other images unfold: shaved-headed monk-ish figures in black speedily glide about the stage, hands articulating Pacific dance gestures, bodies swerving away from near contact like circulating atoms or birds in formation, suggesting lives micro- and macro-cosmic and worshipful, if it at times martial. Three women sing like sirens. We glimpse a projection of the moon landing of 1969. Three women dressed in black expertly twirl bright white poi in increasingly complex patterns, their three-dimensional depth conjuring DNA helixes. Crowd noises wash around us. The bird struggles. A huge centrestage shaft, angled at 70 degrees and symbolic perhaps of built civilisation, slowly surrenders to gravity. Birds with Skymirrors is a sombre, haunting creation, sublime in its otherworldliness, but it brings us back to earth with a sense of the endangered wholeness of nature, conveyed by disciplined performers who embody the traditions of the Pacific, not literally—the choreography is not specific to any one culture in the region—but with powerful, rhythmic certainty and a sense of transcendent poetry. And without the dance steps we know only too well.


G, Australian Dance Theatre G, Australian Dance Theatre
photo © Chris Herzfeld – Camlight Productions
Garry Stewart’s G bursts into life with Adolphe Adam’s music for Giselle (1841), but like much else in this entropic work, it soon ‘degrades’ into a harshly propulsive, idiosyncratic score, the product of composer Luke Smiles’ masterful manipulations. But ‘entropy’ shouldn’t suggest that G slows; in fact its pulse is regular, the dancers in perpetual motion mode (a reminder of the work’s endless reproduction and reinterpretation) appear on our left and travel briskly across the stage only to shortly appear on the left again, over and over.

What is in decay is a sense of the work as stable, regardless of digital readouts that tell us roughly where we are in the narrative. Classical ballet movements and flourishes suddenly flower with their inherent sense of display but are juxtaposed with or merge with their contemporary opposites—jagged, a-linear movements and self-contained entanglements of another order of beauty. Roles dissolve—various Giselles and Albrechts suggest opposing states of being ranging from abject to comic, and at all times driven. And for all the cyclic compulsiveness of the movement there is constant, manic change—lighting is starkly demarcated as one brilliantly rich colour state follows another (Geoff Cobham), tiny variations in costuming pass almost unnoticed (a crown glimpsed), a sword suddenly appears, the digital readout offers comment (“S is for sexism,” as the screen romps through the alphabet) and moments from the ballet’s narrative leap out at us with visceral near literalness—Giselle’s wrenching madness, the constraint applied to her and the protracted tormenting of the bodies of treacherous suitors by the vengeful graveyard Wilis, the ghosts of maidens betrayed.

If G represents a critique of the moral values inherent in Giselle the ballet, it is at the same time both respectful of and bemused by ballet’s demands and its follies. There is nothing careless about the ballet steps woven into G. Garry Stewart writes in his program note that he “read a comment in RealTime that perhaps ‘deconstruction’ will become the new classicism.” In G, Stewart transcends ‘pomo’ labelling with an exquisite melding of classical and contemporary.

Lemi Ponifasio, MAU, Birds with Skymirrors, Carriageworks, 1-4 May; ADT, G, choreography Garry Stewart & ADT dancers, design Garry Stewart, costumes Daniel Jaber & Gaelle Mellis, Sydney Theatre, 16-18 May

RealTime issue #115 June-July 2013 pg. 34-35

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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