Adelaide Festival: Parallelo’s Lontano Blu, Australian Dance Theatre’s Devolution & Wanted Posse in Breakin’ Ground
Devolution by Garry Stewart (choreographer and director) and Louis-Philippe Demers (robot and lighting designer). With Gina Czarnecki (film maker), Georg Meyer-Wiel (costume designer), Darrin Verhagen (composer) and Anne Thompson (dramaturg). Performed by Australian Dance Theatre. At Her Majesty’s Theatre, Adelaide.
UPDATE: Devolution is returning to Her Majesty’s Theatre for three nights, August 2 to August 4, 2007. The revised work will also be staged at the Théâtre de la Ville, in Paris, November 14 to November 18, 2007.
Breakin’ Ground. Featuring Wanted Posse. Artistic direction: Ousmane Sy and Njagui Hagbe. Stagecraft: Goyi Tangale and Tip Top. Lighting by Patrick Clitus. Costumes designed by Harry James and created by Isabelle Joly. Sets by Harry James. Thebarton Theatre.
Above all else, the director/curator of an Adelaide festival must have supremely good taste. Adelaide is a city that takes its cultural life very seriously indeed. It jealously -- and zealously -- guards the status of its biennial arts festival. It’s not the oldest in the nation -- the Perth International Arts Festival holds that title -- but the Adelaide Festival is the one to beat. And it has been since March 12, 1960.
This primacy is more than just a badge of honour. South Australian tourism depends, in part, on the Adelaide Festival remaining the nation’s one festival worth crossing borders to get to.
A week into Brett Sheehy’s first Adelaide Festival as artistic director, a couple of things are already screamingly obvious. Firstly, low-brow (or no-brow-at-all) is okay. And, secondly, that there’s a very fine line between eclecticism and a lack of discrimination.
Now, the naff outdoor extravaganza Il Cielo che Danza (The Dancing Sky) (picture left), by La Compagnia di Valerio Festi, certainly succeeded in bringing the masses to the banks of the River Torrens on three exquisitely balmy evenings, so it rates as a success of sorts. But festivals live and die on their commissions, on their premieres and on their exclusives... and this one -- a site-specific world premiere and Adelaide exclusive -- was about as hokey as the canned classical music that accompanied it. It had all the clichés: floating globes, acrobats in crinolines, circus tricks, dancers, you name it. It was like a South Park pisstake of Cirque du Soleil.
Another Adelaide exclusive, Lontano Blu, a multimedia play (with dance) about waves of European migration to the new worlds, was an unmitigated disaster. The intention of the project was clear enough: to use the skills and talents of Italian artists who had emigrated to Australia and the Americas after the Second World War. And it did that much, I guess. But the resulting work lacked integration and any obvious purpose. The piece premiered in Cordoba (Argentina) last October. One wonders if Mr Sheehy actually saw the piece before scheduling it here.
The audience reception at the matinee I attended was positively frosty, the applause almost mimed. It’s worth noting that this was a target audience -- older and predominantly Italian speaking -- rather than an unforgiving, critic-studded, first-night crowd.
Superstar French break dancing ensemble Wanted Posse is a much more interesting inclusion in the festival. This is an extraordinarily skilled squad capable of moves that beggar belief.
The Posse also pulls a young hip-hop audience to the Festival, an audience it rarely gets to. But the Posse’s hour-long set (which attempted to cobble a piece of theatre from a series of dance routines) finally looked like a high school eisteddfod... brilliantly executed, strikingly lit and designed, but utterly vacuous.
In one scene, tall “masters of the universe” (in Devo-style overalls) viciously suppress a bunch of tribal folk. But, guess what, they can’t keep them down. The design work is strong, particularly the use of white net masks (all the rage, now, on French catwalks apparently, see here) and ropey web backdrop, but the moves are infinitely more sophisticated and memorable than the story telling.
Australian Dance Theatre’s Devolution was similarly frustrating. Created by ADT’s artistic director Garry Stewart and Louis-Philippe Demers, Devolution is an amazing spectacle with its breakneck, ballistic, twisty -- almost suicidal -- choreography (reminiscent of Édouard Lock’s choreography for Montreal company La La La Human Steps) and its extravagant use of robotics, often for lighting. It’s all very Alphaville; an antique vision of the future. Actually, more often than not, it’s more like Return to the Forbidden Planet or Pink Floyd’s The Wall with squads of tubular metal floodlights scissoring their way across the stage like slow-moving metal dinosaurs.
Likewise, Gina Czarnecki’s animated projections use cutting-edge technology to create anachronistic images. She multiplies and replicates knots of twitching limbs, creating human hash browns. A frieze of bodies sprays onto a scrim right-to-left, then wipes off.
Darrin Verhagen’s music sounds like it was aiming for 2001 but didn’t get beyond Thunderdome. Georg Meyer-Wiel has as much fun as anyone with his cheeky, butt-crack revealing costumes with their batmobile scales of light-sucking matt black.
In Devolution, the humans try to be robotic -- clawhanded and jerky -- and the robots try to be human. Neither succeeds. And neither beast does what it is best at.
Funnily enough, Wanted Posse pull off a few moves that Devolution’s metal men would be proud of: apparently impossible stops and rewinds. I was reminded of some of Carolyn Hammer’s work for Link Theatre in the early 1990s. There are few similarities choreographically speaking, but you could film both, play the footage backwards and not be able to tell which direction the film was playing.
Stewart’s company, ADT, is utterly committed to the choreography in Devolution. Lucky... Anything less than complete faith would be dangerous. Physically and aesthetically.
To be polite, Devolution is formalist. To be impolite, it’s a very physical and very poor relation to Michael Jackson’s choreography in the Thriller mini-movie... with a bit of nudity thrown in. (Actually, when the full-frontal stuff happens, we’re so used to the muscular bared bums that we watch a naked man writhe across the stage as if he were an animated écorché, one of those models or drawings of the human body with flesh removed... it’s as if we can see his sinews and musculature, he’s so lean.)
Some of the robots are just plain silly. 8 mini moonlanders scuttle around, then dangle like massive spiders in the wind. There are hydraulic dragons, one-legged cybermen, prosthetic legs, massive remotely-controlled Borg-like stinger attachments, you name it.
The technology becomes a spectacular end in itself. Yet this isn’t capitalised upon. I have no great objection to humans serving as drones for technology, something Stelarc has been exploring, indirectly, for 20-odd years with muscle stimulators and his third arm. But Devolution is a show that sets itself up as having something important to say about cyborg technology -- about the interface between human and inhuman -- then delivers a kind of circus act.
Perhaps Devolution should be approached as an installation, an amazingly well-designed techno-fashionista display, where the dance -- and thus humanity -- comes in a distant sixth behind machine, lighting, costume, film and sound design.
Labels: Adelaide, Adelaide Festival, Australian Dance Theatre, Brett Sheehy, dance, Darrin Verhagen, Garry Stewart, Georg Meyer-Wiel, Gina Czarnecki, hip hop, Louis-Philippe Demers, Parallelo, Wanted Posse