Sunday 1 February 2009

On Morphoses

There may never be many posts on Artkritique that concern dance.  Despite my fascination, indeed seduction, by contemporary dance I feel a lack of language, an absence of knowledge that places my experience and response in any kind of context.  Perhaps that's a good thing.

Morphoses, the company of superstar choreographer (as much as such a thing exists I suppose) Christopher Wheeldon arrived at the Sydney Festival with a critical fanfare as a saviour of modern dance.  Of course messiahs have an uncomfortable habit of turning out to be false, and in this case I failed to feel the get the religion.  The program was made up of four parts, the first 'Commedia' a work for the full company who appear as though ready for a Venetian masque, all primary cloaks, lace ruffs and harlequin lycra, to Stravinsky's 'Pulcinella Suite'.  The reference to the Commedia dell'Arte is only tutu deep and feels a little too pleased with itself.  This is the problem in a piece that felt too long, the ear to ear smiles of the dancers and the archness of pose make 'Commedia' feel like a camp pastiche, too knowing without being terribly smart, a candy confection dressed in a glib reference.  It was not a good start.

Had the second work been as arch I would have left at the interval, but luckily 'Slingerland Pas de Deux' was the most controlled and concentrated part of the evening, beautifully intimate and economical.  The piece emerges from the dark, a man and woman, in flesh toned costumes partially lit joined together in a penumbra.  As the woman weaves around the man their hands hardly part, their bodies often in tension a perfect counterpoint to one another.  If movement has a tone here it is an almost perfect echo the the profound ache of cello in Gavin Bryars' 'String Quartet Number One'.  This feels how most moving of dance feels, where muscle emotes and movement is eloquent the work is a perfect vignette of passion and need.

After the interval comes a piece called 'Distant Cries', again a duet.  Beginnning silently it strikes a more modern note.  Always graceful it evokes a private passion, of the unarticulated space between people and their efforts to cross it.  

The final piece, 'Fools Paradise' begins with a trio bathed in an expressionist cone of light and a dusting of petals, loose limbed and rapturous their movement is punctuated, like intakes of breath, by more rigid recognisably classical poses.  But this tender lyricism becomes increasingly portentous and fails to find its natural close.  In the end it feels terribly long and quite self indulgent.

The overwhelming sense one leaves with is that Wheeldon and his dancers are at their best in these smaller and more intimate pieces, the duets were highpoints.  There is something astonishing that can happen between a pair of dancers when light, sound and their bodies find the language of a moment.  Here they seem less arch and artful, the experience is direct and heady, perhaps the choreographer is liberated from the need to use all the toys and techniques at his disposal, and just reaches toward us with his art.

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