Dance Review
The Absurdity of Humanity

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(Photo credit: John McDermott)

The Absurdity of Humanity
The New Zealand Dance Company
Aurora Centre, Christchurch
15 September 2017

Reviewed by Andrew Shepherd, Theatreview

The curtain is open as the audience walks in, with a solitary, un-occupied chair at the front of the stage. As the house lights dim, the first dancer, Emily Adams, takes a seat.  A glowing white box – “the kind you bury a cat in” my companion quips at halftime – moves across the stage towards her.  Emily’s movement is appropriately exploratory as she investigates the box and her subsequent vocalization strong and committed, but I find myself asking not only (in a B-grade horror movie kind of way) “why would you go back to the box a second time?”, but more importantly “why am I not engaging with this work?” Carl Tolentino is the first of the possibly-nightmarish-yet-somehow-appealing clowns to appear, and again gives an assured delivery of the somewhat grotesque movement.  Still, I feel outside of the work, cautious and hesitant to be drawn in. There is an almost clichéd familiarity to what is presented – “where have I seen this before? Lord of the Flies?” – reinforced by an overbearing soundtrack and vocalizations – both recorded and live – that unnecessarily repeat messages already being delivered through the movement.  But perhaps this sense of discomfort and over-familiarity is entirely the point?  The Whispers from Pandora’s Box are shouted loud, and while definitely unmissable, are still open for interpretation. . .

By the time three ‘chickens’ are moving in and out of unison on a diagonal pathway downstage I am hooked: after a brief moment of “how did that happen?” I am fully drawn in and no longer questioning what or why.  Xin Ji (the male chicken) in particular has an arresting otherness that he brings to this role: a riveting and beautifully detailed physicality that he maintains throughout the remaining two-thirds of the choreography. In fact, the energy and vitality of the company as a whole feels well harnessed, with deft partnering sequences that are satisfying, strange and somehow sensible in the slap-stick, horror clown, splatter-movie world we have been drawn into.  Choreographer Lina Limosani lets us like these extreme caricatures of humanity that didn’t seem possible at the beginning of the piece.  Horror becomes comedy as the clowns freeze, but trap one of the chickens; who is released by her compatriots, with another becoming trapped in the process.  The piece moves forward: the resolve is foreshadowed and somewhat unnecessary, but overall the piece is pleasingly absurd and very well executed (pun intended).

Ross McCormack’s Matter is detailed, nuanced, wide-open for interpretation and exquisitely beautiful.  It explores the human need for system, order and explanation: linking the random and creating meaning from nothing.  The personification of objects – in this instance the striking poles that form the sparse and somehow meaningful set for Matter – and the way we personalize them also.  The piece is exquisitely crafted: combining rapid, detained and almost obsessive movement sequences alongside simple, almost elegant, groupings and repetitions, with a seemingly effortless understanding of what the audience wants to see. I say ‘almost’ elegant, as I am reminded of local Christchurch artist Julia Morison’s use of the word ‘grotty’: an arresting blend of grotesque and pretty. Hunched over, contorted, with movements designed to deform their beautiful strong bodies, the eight members of the New Zealand Dance Company deliver this dark and absorbing work with aplomb.  The match of choreography, lighting and soundtrack too is masterful in the precision of its execution. Video artist Daniel Crooks has talked of sounds ability to be an “emotional dictator”:  with this work composer Jason Wright and choreographer McCormack harness this ability to maximum advantage, with Jo Kilgour’s lighting adding an additional layer of polish.

Matter is full of contrasts: light and shade, release and containment, movement and stillness, and appears to explore both sides of several themes at once: expulsion and inclusion, interest and indifference, curiosity and resignation. There are pleasing juxtapositions of movement styles and changes of dynamic and focus, and many standout moments: both in the choreography and its performance. McCormack often combines the dancers’ bodies in ways that leave you wondering “whose hand / arm/ leg / body / head is that?” and “how are that doing that?”. . . Perplexing in a most engaging and satisfying manner. “Wow” moments include the full company sequence that build from a sublimely perfect duet by Xin Ji and Lucy Lynch (their unison is breathtaking), and the clever way in which the back to back lifted walking partnerships are instantaneously shattered for the company as a whole after the tentative exploration of Chrissy Kokiri’s feet toward the floor.  Emily Adams solo work is detailed and engaging and leaves no questions about the depth of her ability. It builds nicely into another duet with seconded New Zealand Dance School student Connor Masseurs, who has an earlier, subtly nuanced duet with the very watchable Carl Tolentino.  The way in which Adams is fed back into the larger group is animalistic in that most human of ways. I could go on. . .

The Absurdity of Humanity presents two distinctive choreographic voices, each finding very different ways to explore the commonalities of what it means to be both human and absurd.  While Limosani’s Whispers from Pandora’s Box was for me initially less readable to the audience, on reflection – and after the superb performance of McCormack’s Matter – my appreciation continues grow. There is a lot to take away and think about, and these choreographers do not merely employ but showcase the superb abilities of the dancers – their strength, flexibility, expression, and sensitivity.

In an election year, government funding by CNZ  could easily be called into question, but The Absurdity of Humanity shows our tax dollars hard at work. Congratulations to the New Zealand Dance Company for creating and maintaining an environment where such works can be created, and thanks to the Christchurch Art Festival team for bringing it here.

Read original review here.