The Dinner Party (titled The Host when it premiered in 2015, and reimagined for the 2019 Expressions Dance Company ensemble) is a contemporary dance theatre work choreographed by Natalie Weir that explores power, greed, ambition, and jealousy in the context of a sophisticated dinner party. The Host (Jake McLarnon) is an influential young man who commands and demands attention from his guests, an array of people in his orbit that seek or envy his power. As the dinner party wears on, the choreography explores The Host’s evolving relationships and power play with his guests and their true colours, and with his wife The Hostess (guest artist Lizzie Vilmanis).
Jake McLarnon (centre) with Josephine Weise, Jag Popham, Isabella Hood and Bernhard Knauer. Photo © David Kelly
The Dinner Party is also the company’s first production under new Artistic Director Amy Hollingsworth, who wrote in her program notes that the production was a “fitting tribute to the legacy that Natalie has created for the company” to “honour her with our first mainstage season of 2019”.
Costuming by celebrated Australian fashion designer Gail Sorronda revealed elements of each character and no detail was missed, down to the Host and Hostess’ wedding rings glinting under the stage lights. Subtle changes in costuming – coats coming off, shirts being unbuttoned – were also used to highlight changes and revelations of character, and shifts in the balance of power.
The recorded music was performed by Queensland’s acclaimed Southern Cross Soloists under Musical Director Tania Frazer and lighting design by Ben Hughes was minimalist, often utilising a dramatic single spotlight to direct audience focus. The dinner table and chairs were used not only as props but as a counterweight, a way to represent the centre of power, and a way to move characters around the stage.
The choreography was undoubtedly Weir’s, characterised by acrobatic lifts and leaps, athletic partner work, rich storytelling imagery, and repeating movement motifs individual to each character and to the work overall. The movement was tailored closely to the music, and who else could choreograph small talk around a dinner table in such an artful and engaging way?
As The Host, Jake McLarnon performed at least one duet with every guest and The Hostess, as well as dancing solo. His movement dictated that of the guests, and he conducted them like an orchestra for a few memorable moments. McLarnon’s leaps and extensions were excellent, as were the differences in attitude and energy he brought to each duet with the other characters.
Bernhard Knauer and Josephine Weise. Photograph © David Kelly
In the role of The Wannabe, Jag Popham idolised McLarnon’s The Host, copying his movements in a solo and assuming his place on the stage. McLarnon’s character, in turn, used The Wannabe as a puppet, pushing and pulling him with incredible precision and balance through floorwork and somersaults, drawing the only mid-performance applause from the audience. Popham’s movements were quick and sharp, but with an impressive fluidity when he spun or rolled, a hint of the rag doll quality from his duet with McLarnon evident even when he danced alone.
Isabella Hood played the role of The Lover, a swirl of legs and long lines in her duet with McLarnon, when she held the power onstage. The duet was structured more like a traditional pas de deux, which emphasised Hood’s technical prowess as well as her flexibility and poise.
Bernhard Knauer danced as The Rival, a direct counterpoint to The Host in almost every way, affirmed by their inverse costuming. Knauer’s balletic training was clear in every movement and his smooth, suspenseful extensions were lovely to watch but he also brought a strong, swaggering characterisation to the stage in contrast to The Host’s reserved demeanour.
Josephine Weise danced with impressive strength, technique, and character as The Insecure Party Girl, in constant motion as her character gained confidence and control over the course of the work. Her final duet with Knauer, using the vertical table as a prop, featured some remarkable feats of strength and balance, and lifts that seemed to defy gravity.
Guest artist Lizzie Vilmanis brought beautiful balletic technique and an understated sense of emotion to the role of The Hostess. There was some incredible physics at work in her duets with McLarnon, heavy in lifts and balance, more combative but also more playful and affectionate than with the guests. During a trio with The Host and The Lover, Vilmanis was dropped from a lift, or perhaps landed heavily, but continued smoothly with the rest of the piece.
The ensemble worked together as a well-oiled machine, and the trust between the dancers was evident in their skilful execution of the complex choreography. The piece concluded with the reappearance of The Hostess, who rearranged McLarnon into his position of power, and the memorable image of the two dancers posed like a portrait, illuminated by a spotlight that shrank inwards until it was darkness.
The Dinner Party plays at QPAC until May 18. Expressions Dance Company will embark on a six-week national tour, taking the production around Queensland, New South Wales, and the Northern Territory.