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Dance Review
The Absurdity of Humanity

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(Photo credit: John McDermott)

The Absurdity of Humanity
The New Zealand Dance Company
The Opera House, Wellington
20 September 2017

Reviewed by Chris Jannides, Theatreview

The NZ Dance Company’s two offerings in this programme feature two very different worlds. While both are equally bleak and unsettling in their dystopian otherworldly auras, they’re high in the area of exciting contemporary dance and choreography.

Lina Limosani’s world in Whispers from Pandora’s Box is freakish. It is nightmarish. It’s a black comedy featuring a bunch of clowns with assassin level slapstick skills. Pandora’s box, with its capacities to unleash all its ills on the world, slides along the front of the stage like a moving laptop screen. Nice metaphor. Once its lid takes flight, there is nothing left but production-line brutality and carnage. Chicken beings are pummelled and slaughtered by evil clowns led by an arch evil clown – modelled on Heath Jones’ Joker from The Dark Knight and all looking like his offspring – not just once, but over and over again. It’s a never-ending cycle of rib-smacking thuggery designed to slay us in bouts of side-splitting amazement and entertainment. It’s a pleaser. Not too long, given that there are only so many times you can say the same thing. These hyper-dancing bodies grunt and splatter themselves at us from the safety of the stately Wellington Opera House stage, itself a perfect setting for a Gothic-esque terror-drama and a choreography of the macabre.

If I try to go beneath the garish choreographic make-up to find meaning, my imagination sifts out references to the onslaught of consumerist technology, the graphic nature and prevalence of no-holds-barred in-your-face violence in mainstream media and entertainment, the cruel practices of animal farming and consumption, and the sinister underside of a capitalist marketplace of aggressive manipulation and greed. But perhaps I’m reading too much into it! In the end, it’s a ‘bloody’ good night out at the theatre watching stuff the rest of us can’t do but expect from high-end practitioners such as these. Well done. Mass entertainment about mass entertainment.

The second half opens with a setting that is in stark contrast to Limosani’s. In Matter, from Ross McCormack, demented Pierrots are replaced by a horde of mindless neo-machinic axle rod worshippers. The atmosphere is other-worldly and serene. If the space was explosive, contracted and claustrophobic in the first work, in this it is spacious and eerie, but not in a nightmarish way, more temple-like. Or perhaps on another planet. Or another time. It definitely feels out-of-time. But also of our time. The elegant simplicity of the set, with its sparse forest of tall thin metallic plinths, beautifully lit, belies the abundance of complex choreography in the piece. This borders on the incredible. How many fast intricate movements can one dance contain? How much can these super-exceptional dancers memorise and retain? Their capacity seems boundless.

Matter is totemistic, with echoes of the Japanese slow-walking maestros, New World Order, and heaps of tribute to the street-dance phenomenon of tutting. McCormack’s movement-making imagination seems limitless. Like some kind of shamanistic movement engineer, he constructs bionic dance patterns that have the speed and intricacy of electronic circuit boards. But he also sheds choreography like a lizard with too many skins. Matter is extraordinary and beautiful, as too is the music by Jason Wright. However, the piece did seem to have one skin too many. Others might welcome the tangent into the more human ‘let’s help each other across a fragile bridge’ moment. To me, the dance went into story-telling mode here in a way that ‘schmultsified’ and weakened the weird power and strangeness that was prevalent everywhere else. The sudden shift into linear narrative felt to me like a departure into a parallel dance, and I lost my way in it (and interest).

With regard to the dancers themselves, there are stand-out performances from every one of them. You can’t wish for a stronger troupe. Versatile, technical, energetic, gutsy, mature. They’re a dream team. It seems futile to mention any one of them over the others. They’re all worthy of equal praise and acknowledgement. (Although I have to quietly mention, without wanting to create jealousy in the ranks, Chrissy Kokiri is my favourite.)

Behind the scenes, what a wealth of resources sit behind the work. It’s a powerhouse dance organisation. To the NZ Dance Company with its fabulous dancers, army of administrative and production personnel, and its visionary director, Shona McCullagh… Congratulations. Great work.

Read original review here.