★★★★☆ An emotionally wrought and creatively agile pair of dance world premieres.

The Substation, Melbourne
June 29, 2016

A convulsing form emerges from the darkness. The shivering tremors of anxious impulses and exposed nerves contort this figure as he writhes across the space. This body has been hijacked; a man made marionette, forced into twisted, agonising shapes by some unseen puppet master. It feels like a violation, or perhaps a punishment, and yet there is a wrought beauty in these tortured seizures. Beneath this jerking silhouette is a fluidity; a volute elegance encased in a seething mass.  

The abrasive conflict between the vulnerable and the visceral provides an intensely affecting energy for choreographer Ross McCormack’s If Form Was Shifted. The first of two new works presented by Queensland-based dance company Dancenorth, both these pieces have been constructed around a specific set of parameters, prescribing the lighting, sound and costume; an experiment exploring the creative discourse between invention and limitation.

The language of McCormack’s piece is hewn from a sophisticated understanding of emotion, expressed through a lexicon of textured, pin-sharp detail. Every sinew of the five dancers is engaged, as they swarm and fracture, the anatomical logic of their bodies warped by tangled, twitching limbs. Sometimes they are tasked with violence, other times with vulgar eroticism. Even their faces are involved, stuttering between pained grimaces and lurid, Cheshire cat grins.

Ross McCormack’s If Form Was Shifted

The interplay between sound and vision is pointedly dislocated. Dim, haze-refracted pools of light or disparate downlit columns that cut through the gloaming, make the frenetic minutia of the movement blur into glitchy smears. Our eyes struggle to detect the finer details while simultaneously the deafening throb of Robin Fox’s electronic score assaults our hearing, pushing our senses out of kilter. We too are being conditioned it seems, thrust beyond our comfort zone and into the same dark universe as the dance.

Choreography as confronting and aesthetically specific as this demands an enormous physical and mental commitment from its performers. The movement isn’t conceived to be flattering, and it’s certainly not traditionally virtuosic, and yet the technical capacity required to execute it with conviction is staggering. It needs dancers without ego, who are porous and willing to be immersed in this creative world, letting it seep in deeply. The level of authenticity and nuance displayed here shows that this is precisely the type of performer Dancenorth is blessed with. If Form Was Shifted is not without fault – some variety in the style of movement would offer some welcome counterpoint, and the score is at times rather generic and nebulous – but where it does succeed is in its emotional potency. The most impressive feat of McCormack’s dance is that it’s challenging without being smug. There are no inscrutable metaphors or intellectual in-jokes to contend with; it’s choreography that asks nothing more of its audience than to openly and honestly feel.

Ashley McLellan in Stephanie Lake’s If Never Was Now

Stephanie Lake’s If Never Was Now, offers a more mercurial vocabulary. Accents of hip-hop locking are combined with a more fluently articulate pallet of gestures that seem to toy with the intersection between the robotic and the biological. It’s eccentric and whimsical, with a playful, riotous edge. Lake makes some truly brilliant discoveries here, most notably the use of polystyrene beads that flow and jostle around the dancers. Every sweeping curve and lunge is followed by an echo of eddies and vortices that turn the space into a constantly dynamic canvas.

There are moments when the agitated manipulations of Lake’s dance share the same DNA as McCormack’s, although this appears to be an unconscious sympathy rather than a deliberate quote. Where Lake stands apart from McCormack, however, is her use of stark contrasts. Sudden shifts in lighting state and dramatic intention keep this piece alert, urgent and brilliantly unpredictable. Again, the dancers – Harrison Hall, Mason Kelly, Jenni Large, Ashley McLellan and Georgia Rudd – are superb. They go all-out to make this choreography soar, and it’s thanks to their focus and expressive intuition that both these pieces communicate with such direct, unguarded ease.

Dancenorth presents If_____Was_____, at Substation until July 2.


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