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Dance Review
The Absurdity of Humanity

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(Photo credit: John McDermott)

The Absurdity of Humanity
New Zealand Dance Company
Theatre Royal, TSB Showplace, New Plymouth
3 September 2017

Reviewed by Holly Shanahan

I am always excited to see what The New Zealand Dance Company has to offer. ‘The Absurdity of Humanity’ exceeded my expectations with two no-holds-barred works by Lina Limosani and Ross McCormack.

The first piece of the night was  Whispers from Pandora’s Box by Australia’s Lina Limosani. It is a surreal, macabre comedy with splatterings of horror. This is a disturbing work, and I truly feared for the dreams of the few children I had seen entering the theatre with parents! (My advice, don’t take the kids! Seriously!)

The piece directly references horror classic ‘Saw,’ and ‘Batman”s Joker – the dancers are smeared in white paint with the trademark bloody lips and green eyes. It is also evocative of Stephen King’s ‘IT’, David Lynch films, and the Elizabethan fool tradition. The mash-up of these elements,  with unsettling horror soundeffects, and shadowy downward and side lighting, create an incredibly disconcerting atmosphere. To begin, a woman sits on stage as a box creeps towards her. It opens itself, and from within a chorus of brutal desires  and impulses emerge to ‘play a little game’. The choreograhpy mixes expressionist horror, surreal vaudeville, slap-stick and viscious combat choreography. Once her desires are freed they feed upon each other; three ‘chickens’ are then brough in to the slaughter by the five ‘jokers’, and the eight performers play out the struggle between brutality and innocence.

There is great comedy in the fight sequences and moments when the innocent ‘chickens’ attempt to escape. The ‘jokers’ in particular use great facial expression to heighten the terror. I love the theatrical influences in this work. The five evil-doers do brilliantly with the frenetic, heightened Commedia/Vaudeville/Expressionist choreography. There is a reason these dancers work for such a great company, they are flawless, individual and completely immerse themselves in the feeling of the work.

While ‘Whisper’s From Pandora’s Box’ had quite a clear meaning, ‘Matter by Ross McCormack was less singularly focussed. I thought this piece might stand in counterpoint to the first, but instead it seemed to build on the disturbing atmosphere, this time evoking human downfall, apocalypse and our relationship with, and decay of, the environment. A single dancer stands beneath a streetlight (Or is it a tree? Or a standing stone? Or a hangman’s gallows?) as a surveyor sizes up the environment in a breathtakingly fast piece of choreography.  A dancer is then stalked by the pack, and a series of solos and group sequences follow, which all tell tales of duality, escape, containment, relationships with the symbolic poles and each other, both individually and as a tribe.

There are some truly frightening synthesised sound effects, over and an apocalyptic drone with mechanical clanging and clanking.  I found the zombie-film visuals powerful, such as seeing the pack devouring ‘a kill’, or the back lighting as the figures slowly swayed, transfixed. The imagery could equally have been interpreted as animals of the forest being hypnotised by the lights of diggers and trucks.

The highlight for me was the hands and arm movement in this piece. The choreography created multiple inhuman forms using the dancers visible limbs. They seemed to form cyborgs, spiders, hanging corpses, giants and siamese twins. Interesting effects created heads and legs on bodies in ways they shouldn’t be.  Emerging from the dark, or scuttling across the stage, many of these were quite terrifying.

It felt ‘Handmaid’s Tale’, ‘Metropolis’ or ‘1984′ in moments, but not without some tender humanity, such as one man takes a stand to hold up the felled pole (could this Tane?). With the exeption of only a short lull in the middle of second work, this hour and a half left me genuinely breathless.

The work is most certainly relevant and provocative. Artistic Director Shona McCullagh has not yet failed to amaze and enthrall me with the work she curates and creates. I hope the Company enjoy another success with this tour, and that not only dance fans, but the public get along and see this fantastic contemporary show.