Saturday, June 23, 2007

Let's Dance (with a bit of burlesque)

Cripes player, I've seen a lot of stuff lately. Not in the sense of having my eyes open and therefore receiving sensory data transmitted to my brain as a result (though there is that) and certainly not in the sense of saying "oooh, the things I have seen..."

Munch's Despair - not as popular as The Scream. Also more cartoony, no?

No, I've seen a lot of shows. And I might as well get back to writing a little about them, for two unrelated reasons. One: this thing has recently, inexplicably, proven in danger of transforming into an art blog, as opposed to an arts blog (with the occasional posting of animal and automated machinery youtube videos). And two: it's very very cold, and the only way I can keep my fingers warm is by typing (or by wearing gloves).

Typing: is the new "gloves"?

So perchance, some dance.

I've never really been all that hyper-enthused about the whole New Burlesque/Burlesque Revival/Give it a Burl, Shirl/I Made That Last One Up/So It's Available If You Want It caper, and it's not even that new now anyway. I won't be bothered explaining why it doesn't appeal to me, and you can read elsewhere the complete "is it empowering or capitulating to a model of voyeuristic patriarchal objectification?" debate. In short, it's just kind of boring to me.

But The Burlesque Hour is something other.

I missed the first version of this show, and now I'm kickboxing myself (mentally) for not catching it. The unholy trio of Moira Finucane, Azaria Universe and Yumi Umiumare (can I spell it? Yes I can!) are back with a new installment of the show, however, called The Burlesque Hour More! or some variant thereof, and it's a killer.

It's a violent, messy, sexy, offensive, tight and fast-paced piece that rarely leaves you hanging. The three performers take turns performing solo sideshow numbers that range from aerial trapeze to dramatic monologue to martial arts-style dance, but almost every piece plays with disturbing erotic themes or imagery that are much closer to the original spirit of burlesque than anything I've seen yet.

If Old Skool burlesque was clearly about sex but in a twisted, sublimated way - not just teasing, like striptease, but playing with serious social taboos - then this show is truly a burlesque for today. The cheeky striptease-style stuff that usually gets carted out under the name of burlesque isn't as dangerous as it should be, since 50 years ago that material carried the frisson of "I know, deep down, that I shouldn't be watching this..." Finucane and Co acknowledge this in their program notes - while the performers were often very empowered by this kind of show, there was also the plain fact that many of the people watching them were there to get off. If the new burlesque is just a socially acceptable way to watch people take their clothes off, that's the problem - originally, burlesque wasn't very acceptable. It was the bottom rung of the entertainment ladder, and it wasn't spoken about in polite company.

That's what you have here. There's nothing polite about this show. Finucane, Universe and Umiumare take their audience into hugely challenging areas - unlike new burlesque, there's little holding back here. A blood-spattered, quivering and entirely naked Finucane isn't the kind of thing you'd find in most current burlesque shows, for example. Or cross-dressing, and demonic possession, and nails and Victorian era costumes and thrash metal.

See it.

The night after this show opened, I went to a very different opening. The Australian Ballet's New Romantics kicked off last night and while, as a whole, it wasn't the best show the AB have done, there were moments that topped anything I've seen.

AB bossman David McAllister joked afterwards that he was sorry if anyone turned up expecting Pseudo Echo and Spandau Ballet (LOL) and he even had an awesome new New Romantic haircut, but beyond the pun of the title this was a heartstoppingly, eye-softeningly romantic show. The first piece, Ballanchine's Apollo from 1929 (I think) wasn't that romantic, sure, tending a little towards the, um, zany. That's just how it looks 80 years on, though - at the time it was a bold avant-garde piece, the first real modern ballet. But I couldn't help but laugh at some of the choreography, especially the frequent use of what I call Center Stage Hands, after the similar silly move pulled off at a crucial moment in the film of the same name. It's like a batting of the wrist, as if you're shooing away a fly in an aesthetically pleasing manner, and I just don't get how dancers can do it with a straight face.

Just me, maybe.

Anyway, the second and third pieces of the evening are both really strong, and I'll be reviewing them in detail somewhere else, but it's the last part of the last piece - Chris Wheeldon's After the Rain - that melted the audience, and it's the piece that trumps any other moment of ballet I've witnessed.
A duet (or pas de deux as they calls it), performed on opening night by Kirsty Martin and the now-retiring Steven Heathcote, it's a quiet, intensely emotional exchange that evokes almost every kind of emotional intimacy two people can have. It's incredibly erotic, like The Burlesque Hour, and in an equally original way, not playing on the cliches.

The sense evoked by the piece is of a couple who've been together forever and gone through plenty, deeply in love but now having faced something that their love can surmount. There's a shattering sense of loss throughout, and of regret, pleading, grief, anger, hope. You recognise instantly that these people know each other and have something profound, but it's just not enough. I know someone who cried during this piece.

What makes it so stunning is the way that without a word, a prop, even any kind of set, a short piece of contemporary ballet can conjure up what another currently running show, the MTC's Enlightenment, fails to convincingly produce in a two-hour running time. I'll write about that show later, but what interests me here is the way that the MTC show keeps telling its audience that the central couple, with a son missing in Indonesia, are experiencing a terrible and debilitating grief that is tearing them apart, but doesn't really show us that grief.

It's the opposite case with After the Rain. We don't have any idea what's gone on with this couple, but we feel a level of emotion as powerful as that felt by a couple who've lost a child (or something equally crippling).

If all that doesn't sound especially romantic, well, it is. Clearly not the sadness etched into the faces of the dancers, but in the fact that the audience is given such an intensely intimate glimpse into private lives and the secrets of another couple's relationship. Stirring stuff.

And finally, Antje Pfundtner's eigenSinn (The Wilful Child). The season's over now, but I really enjoyed this hour-long solo by the young German dancer. It's rare that dance can make an audience laugh, but Pfundtner's show is an hilariously witty work that races along. She chops off her arm with a cleaver, plays air guitar, becomes a human disco ball, masturbates, morphs into a great ape, hyperventilates, pulls out classical ballet moves - all in such rapid, ADHD succession that you never know what's coming next. All the while, she's constantly flicking her knowing gaze back to her audience, ensuring that we know that she knows we're watching, and that we know she knows exactly what she's doing.

It's also a very personal and autobiographical show, centred on her wilfulness and independence. Pfundtner was born unable to move, the connections between her brain and muscles not operating. Her body was rebelling against her the way the disobedient child of the Grimm Brothers fairytale of the title rebelled against the world. From this base, the dancer constructs a dazzling physical vocabulary focused on freedom and constraint, demands, disobedience, rule-breaking, punishment, naughtiness and mischief, needs and wants. She's been touring the show for three years, and I hope her other works match this one. She also has the most excellent eyebrows in the business.

There was a wonderfully lengthy roar of applause when she took her three bows (which she'd also done halfway through the show) and much stamping of feet and whistling and the like. An hour wasn't nearly enough.

What shocked me most about these three shows was this: I gladly see any one of them again. That's unusual.

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