Concepts Matter: A Game of Two Halves in The Absurdity of Humanity

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The Absurdity of Humanity is the latest programme from The New Zealand Dance Company and is currently premiering at Q Theatre. From well-regarded and award winning choreographers Lina Limosani and Ross McCormack comes both Whispers from Pandora’s Box and Matter. Makyla Curtis reviews the double bill’s opening night.

 

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The dancers of Whispers from Pandora’s Box performed outstandingly but were let down by the conceptual thrust of the choreography. While the staging had carefully constructed compositions and lighting, the sound composition, rather than anchoring the piece, was distracting and trite. The voice from the film Saw “I want to play a game” was particularly disappointing. The voices of the recorded sound closed off intellectual engagement, reducing the performance to its literal components. The soundscape was full of grunting, gasping and screaming from the dancers, like some purgatorial hell.

It got old quickly.

The violence and simulated ‘madness’ were unpleasant to watch without any reflection beyond ‘aren’t humans absurd the way they’re so violent’ as if that is all we are capable of. In one instance three downtrodden birds sought to escape their violent oppression. This seemed like an attempt to address human capacity for empathy. Would the two birds escape while leaving the third behind? But ultimately this exchange was as trite as the rest of the show. Whispers from Pandora’s Box wasn’t so much an exploration of the very human ideas of the diametrically opposed good and evil, as an immature grasp at quirkiness.

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In contrast, Matter was conceptually rich and wide open for intellectual engagement. Such characteristics were not forced and the conceptual approach did not overpower the aesthetics and stunning musical composition. The performance stood with its ambiguity ready to be read into by the forms and shapes of bodies, by the movement and the rhythms of collaborative and beautifully timed dance.

For my partner, the Kafkaesque set design evoked a bleak environment of industrial oppression. And as such, the tug and pull of the dancers who moved amorphously and yet simultaneously fought against one another, suggested a bureaucratic tug and pull in a societal structure. A group with one who develops into a leader, or one who climbs to the top.

For me the title Matter evoked Janet Bennett’s ‘Vibrant Matter.’ Bennett’s theories revolve around the allure of objects and our innate attraction to things and people. This idea manifested in the ongoing interaction of the dancers to the set design and its dim street scene of unlit street lamps, or flagpoles without flags. As the dancers bowed and kneeled to the posts, so too they shifted them by inches, feared them, and manoeuvred around them with care and at times animosity.

These ideas blossomed into the repelling and attraction of atoms – reflecting human nature not as something unexplainable, but as something recursive and fractal – a part of nature. And yet with the industrial touch to the set, our dichotomy of nature and civilisation produced the question of how absurd humanity is, to think ourselves above it all.

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McCormack, the choreographer of Matter, invites us to look anew at something familiar. The dancers paired and quadrupled to form multi-legged creatures. The uncanny forms of two bodies together incited wondrous sighs and gasps from the audience.

A personal highlight was to watch Emily Adams again, after seeing her in a recent performance of Mana Wahine, and likewise to discover Eddie Elliott. Both had stand out performances in Matter and it is no doubt that McCormack worked to their strengths. Adam’s poise and attention to her fellow dancers fed into her characterisation of leadership of the multi-legged creature. Elliott’s lonesome attraction to a singular pillar and his heft of it once it had been lowered bookended and completed the choreography. That these two stand out also speaks to the talent and outstanding performances of all the dancers and how they worked and moved so elegantly together.

While Whispers from Pandora’s Box leaves a lot to be desired, the skill and professionalism of the dancers alongside what is a visually well-composed choreography means that it is not too much to sit through in order to see Matter. The latter performance is such an aesthetic and conceptual masterpiece, it cannot be recommended enough.

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