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Dance is the game

Keith Gallasch: Form Dance Projects, Champions

Champions, FORM Dance Projects Champions, FORM Dance Projects
photo Heidrun Löhr

In the arts, competition is for the most part temporally and spatially scattered, evaluations impressionistic and one-size-fits-all 5-star scoring utterly reductive. In sporting matches, competitors occupy the same space, compete face to face and the scores are an indication of actual outcomes. Scores in, say, an international piano competition, are the results of voting by judges. The similarities between art and sport actually reside in the bodies of players and performers—talented, trained, skilled, capable of great subtlety, effort and endurance—and also in varying degrees of spectacle and the loyalties of followers and fans. The movements of great sports players are often described aesthetically, for example, as dance-like; but rarely the other way round, when, say, a player is perceived to be faking or exaggerating an injury: "an Academy Award winning performance!" Making a convincing case for comparing these activities, is not as easy as it might seem.

In Champions, Martin del Amo and his collaborators at first push the art-sport analogy hard with a dance-football synthesis: there's a big AstroTurf field in Carriageworks’ largest theatre, multiple video screens, media commentary, a mascot, heroic music and the dancers' names are printed on the back of their sporty tops. But, in a calculated point of difference, the dancers are not uniformed. It's a touch odd given that most dance productions still lean towards shared costuming and, of course, there's intense team work on display here. Nonetheless, once on the field, there's a strong sense of the dynamic played out between individuals and the all-female team which features star players in the contemporary dance scene—Sara Black, Kristina Chan, Cloe Fournier, Carlee Mellow, Sophia Ndaba, Rhiannon Newton, Katrina Olsen, Marnie Palomares, Melanie Palomares, Kathryn Puie and Miranda Wheen.

The mascot, a robust white comic-book swan (Julie-Anne Long), executes dainty, balletic steps while appearing to fart smoke from its rear. Clearly the analogy is going to be a soft, if pointed one, and initially funny, confirmed by actual sports broadcaster Mel McLaughlin's pre-game interview on the big screen with dancer Carlee Mellow about the dancers' fitness and states of mind. Kristina Chan has a right hip problem for which she's getting "spiritual treatment." Catherine Puie does the splits, declaring, "I want to dance better than myself." The dancers are briskly identified, each displaying distinctive moves and the writing wittily sustaining the art-sport connection.

Champions, FORM Dance Projects Champions, FORM Dance Projects
photo Heidrun Löhr

The action commences with the screen announcing, "Winning the Moment," a term drawn from sports psychology but apt given all the attention paid in dance to the 'now' in recent years. The dancers mass before us in wedge formation, knees lowered, bodies almost still, individuals slowly rising, leaning left or right in a demonstration of united ready-to-go manoeuvering. A line of defence forms, underscored by a soaring synth melody. The line breaks into smaller units and circlings, while profiles of the players appear on the screens (tricky to absorb amid the action, but I noted CV fragments: numbers of shows, awards won, grants not received, how many times appearing topless). Fast running breaks out in big circles, aerial shots on the screens, adroit sidestepping to stabbing pizzicato in the score, spins, slides and dancers dropping out of the circling until the last is applauded for her endurance. It appears that preparation has morphed into the dance performance proper. But in a break the dancers, taking up golden pom poms, look about to transform into cheer squad as McLaughlin details the inequities in women's sport. It's a didactic swerve barely rescued by the dancers' sympathetic, if low key (no cheering, no wild formation dancing) response to the plight of their peers. In a line across the stage, to the rocking and chiming of the music, they appear defiant, individuals posturing and slowly re-shaping, as if collectively offering refined art as support.

In a return to the game, our attention spread across a busy field, the team breaks into discrete units involving low turns, floor work, hoisting individuals aloft, falling and being caught, some dancers stopping and, like players, masking their faces with singlets pulled-up to show a bit of skin. Again we see admirable finesse and exertion, if not tension. Perhaps the second half will deliver, expectation aroused by an hilarious but finely finessed dance by the mascot channelling Pavlova's dying swan, more humorous media commentary—this time on the choreography—and rousing, almost anthemic music.

But, as if resisting a too obvious impulse, Del Amo takes us onto a field of dreams, slower, contemplative, beautiful, as if extracting and compacting an essence of elegant vigour. The music continues to pulse but with delightful Baroque invention, transcending any sense of mimicry or parody and, on the screens, notations of strategic moves become lyrical abstract artworks. I let my reviewer's pen drop from scribbling in the dark and reverie (no, not asleep) to the movement until an eruption of activity anticipates game's end with fabulous images of exhaustion, head-hung-low defeat, ecstatic jubilation.

Champions is an intriguing work, grandly mounted (design Clare Britton, lighting Karen Norris, video Sam James, music Gail Priest) and finely performed with visible team spirit. "Intriguing" because the sport-art analogy never quite settles (not that it should or could altogether), swinging tonally from comedic to parodic to didactic to mimetic to calculatedly artistic in the second half where the connection is hardest to read. Director Del Amo cleverly suffuses sports team movement with the characterful detail dancers can bring to walking, running, jumping, ducking and weaving and standing still in formation. There's a fine interplay between team and individuals with room for some more expressive play from the latter. Champions is never less than enjoyable, the team an impressive one, and if the overall game plan is a touch re-thought, it could be a winner.

Champions, FORM Dance Projects Champions, FORM Dance Projects
photo Heidrun Löhr

Form Dance Projects, Champions, Carriageworks, 17-22 Jan

RealTime issue #137 Feb-March 2017 pg.

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

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