The Sydney Festival has delivered an astonishing rate of hits this year. An easier question for the foyer chat this year is, what didn’t you like? And it’s hard to imagine the multiple music collaborations with Elvis Costello this week won’t end the festival on an even bigger upbeat.
Slim and powerful, Sylvie Guillem is billed as the biggest ballet star of her generation, especially since she left The Royal Ballet eight years ago to leap into some big collaborations in contemporary dance. The most applauded of these is the George Piper Dances, two young Englishmen with whom she opened the festival dance program last week.
In their signature work, Broken Fall, Guillem is thrown by, entwined with, and majestically elevated by these dancers, Michael Nunn and William Trevitt. Awesomely acrobatic and beautiful, this is a mathematically exact but driving display of dives and counter-balancing.
In another work, Torsion, Trevitt and Nunn show the same synergy and trust with just each other, performing against an elemental score of buffeting sea and winds. In a third short work, Sylvie performs alone, boxed in a square of light from above, lashing her arms and legs like an indigenous bird dancing on speed.
All these works from choreographer Russell Maliphant have this fast disequilibrium and yet still centre, a mark of his interest in martial arts. Architecturally, these dynamic sculptures are perfectly delivered by Sylvie and her boys. There is no narrative, no story, no literal meaning to grasp, which is always a dilemma in dance. This absence of intellectual or social interpretation left me a little restless, but for virtuosity Sylvie is certainly worth her hype.
On the other hand, Gideon Obarzanek and his Melbourne company, Chunky Moves, have gone out to the real world and interviewed ordinary blokes about what they think about dancing. Their show, called I Want To Dance Better At Parties, is a quote from one of these men.
Another man was an enthusiastic gay line dancer who met and then later lost his boyfriend in the dangerous world of clogging and grabbing new partners from behind. Others included a Greek boy dancing out his masculinity and his ethnic pride, and a geek trying to map out the exact permutations of Israeli folk dancing.
Sequentially they talk of themselves and dancing from video screens as the dancers below interpret their stories, fears and obsessions. Obarzanek gives his dancers a freer hand at interpretive differences, with little interest in the type of ensemble precision executed by Sylvie’s team.
His inspirations are drawn from the street, from the clubs and from cartoons and digital technology. The result is involving, personable but strangely glib. I wanted the interviews -“ and the dancing embodiment of them -“ to reach deeper into the souls of these men, and a work which more unified the piecemeal reflections. But audiences appear to adore this show.
Back Home is well worth the journey, which begins in a bus from Riverside Theatres in Parramatta and takes you to a backyard in Blacktown. As we travel there an elder talks us through the original Aboriginal landmarks and induces us to imagine a pre-settler landscape under this blanket of suburbia.
Once there, four actors -“ an Aborigine, a Torres Strait Islander, a Palestinian and a Samoan -“ play out a backyard reunion of old friends over beers and a barbecue.
In this group-devised work involving much community consultation on life in the western suburbs, these men eventually reveal beneath their masculine bravado the social and family pressures on men of their background. Too much marijuana and bourbon releases their tongues and their anger.
They fight, they play soccer, and the artful use of a DJ outfit allows them to sing out their favourite songs and sweatily dance out each of their indigenous roots, under the trees of their own backyard. This is a magnificently raw, funny and real experience. It’s a long way from Oxford Street, but try to see it. The company, Urban Theatre Projects, deserves medals.
But then you must return to childhood joys and see Bright Abyss. Physical theatre, acrobatics and visual fantasy are served up in a circus wonderland created by James Thi?? Evocatively dressed in Gothic rags, the actors tirelessly reinvent a clutter of props, and their bodies. They fly through the air, are swallowed by couches, and emerge again as horses and ancient knights.
Thi??is almost upstaged by the specialities of his three co-performers, but nothing can beat the hilarious contortions of his procrastinating man torn between going in two directions. Thi??s artistic lineage to his own granddad, Charlie Chaplin, is eerie, and it’s all delivered with such cool French class. My description may not be much help for you, but this is a must too.
Bright Abyss is at the Theatre Royal until Sunday; Back Home, via Parramatta, finishes Saturday; Chunky Move has returned to Melbourne; and for Sylvie and the boys, wait for the film from Britain’s Channel 4.