The Director’s Cut, Sydney Dance Company performing works by Narelle Benjamin and Graeme Murphy at the State Theatre, Melbourne, until July 15.
“The plant never lapses into mere arid functionalism; it fashions and shapes according to logic and suitability, and with its primeval force compels everything to attain the highest artistic form.”- Karl Blossfeldt
In her magnificent new work Gossamer, which heads this latest Sydney Dance Company program, Narelle Benjamin asks: what is the human body capable of? It’s an almost identical question to one asked by Chinese-born choreographer Shen Wei in his New York company’s signature work, Rite of Spring, performed to Stravinsky’s ascetic version for two pianos.
Shen tests and pushes the limits of what the human animal can do: how far a limb can rotate, how fast a body can coil, roll, spin, flex and knot itself. And how perfectly, how lyrically, how precisely it can be done. It’s nothing he wouldn’t -- and doesn’t -- do himself. Mr Shen is one of the ten dancers that perform Rite.
Benjamin -- also an accomplished and dazzling performer -- does something slightly different here. What she demands (and largely gets) from her ten dancers is something more supernatural than superhuman. I’m a bit reluctant to use words like ‘disciplined’ and ‘well drilled’ to describe the performance; though it is patently well rehearsed and awesomely synchronised. It would be a little like calling the work of a Buddhist monk creating a sand mandala ‘painstaking’. It is a thoroughness and attention to detail born not of pain so much as joy. It is art born of -- dare I say it? -- spirituality.
Calling on the company’s acrobatic skills as well as the yoga moves she herself has taught dancers in recent years, Benjamin demands an almost meditative stillness (‘centredness’ might be a better word for such a dynamic thing) and balance from her ensemble.
Also like Shen’s Rite of Spring, Gossamer has a stand-out dancer who is the quintessence -- a tenth element though, rather than a fifth -- of the work. In Shen’s company, it is Kennis Hawkins. In Sydney Dance, it is Alexa Heckmann. Heckmann has a remarkable sense of form and line to go with the requisite physical skills... and she has those in dump-truck loads.
Alexa Heckmann and Reed Luplau, far left, in Gossamer
(photograph by Jeff Busby, click on the image to enlarge)
She squats on her hands with a lotus-tucked leg -- the other leg is extended in front of her, hovering parallel to the floor -- as if it were as easy as leaning against a wall while queuing for an ATM. Later, held lightly by the ankles, she stands on her head with her arms by her sides -- Alice in a natural Wonderland -- and is rocked slightly, as if by an undersea tide.
More impressively perhaps, Heckmann is also capable of not standing out. The recombinant quartet which opens the work -- with Andrea Briody, Emee Dill and Reed Luplau -- is a masterpiece of discretion. And it must be said that Luplau, more than once, eclipses the company’s superstar dancer Bradley Chatfield. There is no higher praise.
Gossamer is a thoughtful and abstract piece inspired, apparently, by the flora photography of Karl Blossfeldt (1865-1932). The German sculptor and teacher was captivated by the designs he found in nature. [Acer Rufinerve, left.] He is said to have photographed nothing but plants for three and a half decades.
Just as Benjamin’s gestures and choreographic phrases have grown far beyond their yoga roots, the look of Gossamer transcends its motivations. Having said that, the design and look of the piece is as tenebrous and richly monochrome as a Blossfeldt photogravure.
Sea Holly (photograph by Karl Blossfeldt)
The action takes place between a front scrim and a rear screen, giving an almost holographic look to some of the projections. But the screens also compress the work into two dimensions, like pressing a flower, and they distance us from the action. In the low, wide, vast-staged State Theatre, even from the middle of the sixth or seventh row, where I was, I might have been watching a large screen TV. And I wanted 3D IMAX.
Cordelia Beresford’s gorgeous film footage dwarfed the immortals on stage. The swirly, slow, chop-stick scissoring images were just too distracting. The work was almost over by the time I worked out how to take in everything simultaneously. Before I could rangefind. Before I could compensate for the design team’s parallax errors.
Benjamin needs to find a way of capturing, in real time, ghost images of each star-spin and rippling swirl and hair flick... She needs to smear them on screens before our eyes, in persistent phosphors. She needs to give us a glimpse of relevant detail. It can be done. I’ve seen it done a couple of times by Sandra Parker, using footage by Margie Medlin, from memory. I’ve seen it done by Garry Stewart in Adelaide, more than once. It’s possible to record and stay live. To be distantly abstract and shockingly intimate at once. To give ‘whole’ and ‘detail’ simultaneously. Even in a 2000-seat theatre.
Alexa Heckmann on screen (photograph by Jeff Busby)
Despite these few flaws, Gossamer is a milestone work. Not just in Benjamin’s career, but in dance. And in visual art.
I can’t wait to see it again... or, indeed, to see what comes next from Benjamin.
In response to overwhelming interest, here’s another shot of company star (and heart throb) Reed Luplau. It’s by Stephen Ward. (You know the drill, click on it to enlarge!)