Merlyn Theatre, The Coopers Malthouse
October 17, 2018

Even before One Infinity begins, it is clear that the show’s title is laden with meaning. As we file into the darkened theatre, we are directed to one of two seating banks that face each other. In the middle is the long rectangular performance space, its glossy black floor dotted with traditional Chinese instruments.

Out walks the show’s director and choreographer, Gideon Obarzanek, and an associate. He’s here to break the news that we are not just watching the performance, we are the performance. (A few awkward laughs are stifled; Obarzanek quips that we may not have come had we been warned!)

We are instructed to copy the gestures made by two dancers (Amber Haines and Gao Jing) whenever they are illuminated throughout the performance. It sounds a little banal but, as it is not yet clear how the mass mimicry will feature, we suspend judgment.

One InfinityOne Infinity at Melbourne International Arts Festival. Photo © Sarah Walker

The work begins. Through the inky darkness emerges the first few notes from a Chinese flute played on stage by co-composer Genevieve Lacey. Each long, floating note hints at something alluring and unearthly. Guqins played by the Jun Tian Fang Music Ensemble are soon layered in, their delicately plucked strings creating a textured counterpoint to the soft, rounded notes of the flute. These ethereal sounds transport us, quite completely, to a place of immense temporal space, as we drift into a kind of aural meditation.

In this sonic milieu, two groups of dancers – five from Beijing Dance Theater, five from Dancenorth – emerge from the middle of both seating banks. They execute a series of gentle and fluid arm movements with precise hand articulations. Their bodies lusciously ripple outward from a centre-point like a moving mandala, then collapse back in on themselves before repeating the pattern. One might imagine a giant organism rapidly rearranging and folding its many limbs.

Obarzanek choreographed the movement in response to the transformative and meditative quality of the score, hoping to create a ‘kinetic visualisation’ of the state-altering music. As a result, symmetry, repetition and radial patterns feature heavily in the choreography, which is executed with precision and clarity by the ten dancers. Each gesture or placement of a limb is precise and intentional; there is no wasted energy. This clarity not only brings attention to the action itself but, like the music, also to the space around it.

In what is presumably a reference to the work’s title, the meditative experience is not just for the audience to consume, but also create. Throughout the performance, the audience on one seating bank is led through a series of simple arm gestures that reference qigong and the dancers’ more embellished movements on stage. The other half of the audience bears witness to this simple but breathtakingly effective group choreography, as the dancers disappear then re-emerge against these larger en masse patterns.

One InfinityOne Infinity at Melbourne International Arts Festival. Photo © Sarah Walker

The two halves of the audience take turns mimicking the guided gestures, which are often slow and sustained, but transition to something more emotive under bright flashing lights when the work peaks in intensity. Audience participation can be fraught with danger, but One Infinity manages to navigate the waters fairly well and often to great effect.

Helping expand the scene on stage into the proverbial ‘infinity’ is the electronic score composed by Lacey and Max de Wardener. Vibrating sub-bass, drifting drones and gentle distortion are used to complement and frame the classical instrumentation, especially its unique textures and tones. Lacey and de Wardener’s composition has been intelligently crafted to avoid overpowering the delicate sounds of the guqin and other traditional instruments, instead helping underscore their transcendent qualities.

Although devoid of narrative, One Infinity proposes some big ideas. From the very outset, the work seems preoccupied with division and otherness. Not only is the audience split in two halves, but the dancers also begin in two separate groups (the Beijing dancers on one side, the Townsville dancers on the other) and wearing contrasting costumes (the Chinese dancers in cool tones, the Australians in warm). Even the music is, at least initially, kept separate; the traditional and electronic material occupying different spaces.

But, over the course of the work, these ostensible divisions dissolve. The dancers strip down to a more neutral palette of undergarments and begin to dance with each other. The music also begins to blend seamlessly in a sonic fusion of East-West instrumentation.

And, for the audience, our diametric positioning which at first seemed polarising, gradually becomes one of meditation, mass ritual and, ultimately, recognition. As if looking in a giant mirror, we see an infinite number of arms floating and rippling and drifting in the darkness. We are looking at ourselves and, if only for a moment, we are given pause to contemplate our common humanity.


One Infinity is at Melbourne International Arts Festival until October 20

Tickets

One Infinity plays at the Perth Festival February 7 – 10, 2019