Melbourne Festival review: Assembly ~ theatre notes

Monday, October 10, 2011

Melbourne Festival review: Assembly

One of the strongest aspects of this year's Melbourne Festival program is the local performance. I can remember a time when under-developed local shows too often made an embarrassing contrast with the production-polished international work: not so in 2011. It demonstrates the depth of achievement that has been nurtured in this city over the past decade, and festival director Brett Sheehy's good fortune in being able to draw from such a rich field.

This cultural depth has come about through the patient investment of many institutions and people. Companies like Back to Back or Chunky Move or BalletLab don't spring up overnight: they emerge from initial risks taken on raw and untested talent, years of often unrewarding work, and, crucially, the faith that gives this work stages and audiences beyond the "fringe". For example, Back to Back's Small Metal Objects premiered at Kristy Edmunds's 2005 festival. That exposure led to an international tour which established their European reputation and to their subsequent 2008 Melbourne Festival premiere, Food Court. This leads directly to the confidence and experience that can mount a show as ambitious and finely worked as Ganesh Versus the Third Reich.

Chunky Move, one of the driving forces behind Melbourne's thriving dance culture, is another. Founded in 1995 by Gideon Obarzanek, this company has constantly surprised its audiences with work that restlessly explores the possibilities of dance performance. It actively nurtures new talent (Byron Perry, whose work Double Think is also in this year's program, is a Chunky Move protege). Obarzanek himself has choreographed everything from extravagant multimedia spectacle to a minimalist one-man show. In Assembly, his last work as artistic director of Chunky Move, he has shifted the goal posts once again, joining forces with Victorian Opera and its director Richard Gill to give us a meditation on the discrete self and communal identity, and the conflicting human longings for belonging, connection and individuality.

Assembly focuses entirely on the bodies of its 62 barefoot performers. They provide the entire score - breathing, yelling, hissing, drumming their feet, or drenching us with the harmonies of plainsong or sacred Renaissance choral works. Obarzanek and Chris Mercer's design is a plain wooden construction of bleachers or stairs, which sits beautifully inside the panelling of the Melbourne Recital Centre. This apparent simplicity belies the sophistication of the design: costumes which appear to be the casual outfits of the performers reveal themselves to be a carefully designed palette of reds and blues (Harriet Oxley), and Nick Schlieper's lighting is a masterly demonstration of the power of subtlety.

Eight dancers, six principal singers and 48 choir members in itself makes a considerable impact on a stage, and Obarzanek's choreography takes full advantage. The movement is bound by a notion of pneuma, the Greek word for "breath" which also means spirit, or creative energy. Even the stage seems to be breathing: at one moment it's crowded with people, and in the next, seemingly by magic, it's empty. People flood over the top of the steps, or stream in from either side, and as quickly vanish. Assembly demonstrates Obarnzanek's control of the dynamics of space: he exploits every plane of the set, vertical, horizontal and diagonal, to full advantage. The work's various moods transform the space from a public area - stairs in a public square, for example, or a football crowd - to stylised abstraction that brings us back to the public act of dance, to an interior evocation of private loss, an expression of the human longing for connection in an alienating world.

Assembly balances its austere structure with a surprising richness and variousness, and creates moments of unexpected beauty. Obarzanek constantly disrupts focus: at one moment we are studying the mechanisms of flocking behaviour, with gestures rippling through a crowd, and in the next are aware of the performers as disunited individuals. He divides his cast into a hostile halves, hissing and shouting at each other, before uniting them in a joyous celebration of a goal, and then immediately shifts us to a different notion of communal harmony with the choral music. The eight dancers emerge from the crowd, spilling down the stairs in gestures of defiance, or abjection, or longing, or expressions of humanity as machine, with pneumatic sounds (breath again) emphasising mechanical movements, and as suddenly dissolve into the collective.

The first half provides some of the most overwhelming moments of the show. The sheer beauty of the choral music emerging from the apparently "ordinary" crowd lends its emotion a strong utopian focus: a choir is a powerful image of community. Here, the work strikes chords with the collective behaviour that is presently re-entering the public sphere, with demonstrations from the Arab Spring to the Occupy Wall Street movement in the US, and feels like a forceful expression of the zeitgeist.

The dance shifts in the second half towards an exploration of coupling, of the individual within relationship: the crowd becomes an expression of the conventions which surround, extend and confine the anarchic possibilities of sexual desire and love. Here the dance becomes more obviously formal: Obarzanek creates a texture of symmetries, with couples mirroring each other's gestures, or weaving images out of their limbs that are reminsiscent of Hollywood dance movies. He certainly isn't afraid of kitsch: at one point the dancers even shape a heart with their arms.

These displays of romantic convention play against a subtext of conflict, desire, confinement and loss, including a fragmentary spoken text that suggests a man inarticulately defending himself against accusation. The final image is of solitude and longing: Alisdair Macindoe, isolated mid-stage, makes stylised gestures of weeping that seem to come from the vocabulary of Asian theatre, as Paul Capsis appears out of nowhere (he is not in the previous dance) and sings an a cappella love song. It feels surprising how far this work has evolved from its opening image of a loudly chattering crowd: by this time, we've had a chance to see all these people as individuals, and to contemplate them (and us) as both social and solitary beings. It's a fascinating and moving multi-faceted work, and a fitting finale to Obarzanek's achievement with Chunky Move.

Picture: Assembly. Photo: Jeff Busby

Assembly, directed and choreographed by Gideon Obarzanek, musical direction by Richard Gill. Lighting design by Nick Schlieper, costume design by Harriet Oxley, set design by Gideon Obarzanek and Chris Mercer. Dancers: Sara Black, Nathan Dubber, Benjamin Hancock, Alisdair Macindoe, Lily Paskas, Harriet Ritchie, James Shannon and Frankie Snowdon. Principal singers: Casselle Bonollo, Olivia Cranwell, Frederica Cunningham, Tobias Glaser, Jeremy Kleeman and Matthew Thomas. With Paul Capsis and the Victorian Opera Youth Opera. Chunky Move, Victorian Opera and Melbourne Festival. Melbourne Recital Centre. Closed.

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