Melbourne Festival review: Aviary ~ theatre notes

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Melbourne Festival review: Aviary

Some of the dance at this year's Melbourne Festival has been full-on sensory overload. Hofesh Shechter's Political Mother hit like a sledgehammer, an avalanche of sound and imagery that struck me as an almost unmediated response to the violence of our times. BalletLab's Aviary had a similar physical effect, with very different means and imagery. Immersive theatre? The choreographers do it by obliterating the unsuspecting audience with sound and rhythm, so you feel that your brain has been reprogrammed and the edges of your body have dissolved.

In Aviary, Phillip Adams creates dance of such intensity that it plunges the watcher into the experience, destroying any sense of distance from the work on stage. You could try to remain "objective", whatever that means in a theatre, but I imagine the result would only be boredom: the choice is to go with the ride, or to experience painful alienation. The dancers are put through the wringer of physical extremity - you don't see many dances that end up with blood on the floor. One effect is to destroy any notions of "good" or "bad": these become secondary considerations in an experience which invites intense participation.

The word "Dionysian" keeps turning up in my previous reviews of Adams's work. All his dances invoke ecstatic states: he obsessively explores the notion of transcendence, pressing the connection between the erotic and the mystic. Aviary is a reminder that dance has origins that predate human evolution, as is clear to anyone who has watched the complex displays and courtship rituals of birds on natural history documentaries. And it illustrates Adams's impatience with the politeness of art's conventions. Not that he can't exploit these conventions beautifully, when he chooses.

In Aviary, Adams applies his research into bird behaviours in a dance that "pays homage to the spectacle of the bird". The piece is inspired by Olivier Messiaen's Catalogue d'oiseaux, a 1958 work for piano based entirely on birdsong. No trace of this music remains, save as scores laid on the floor in the first act to be consulted by the dancers, but Messiaen's sheer craziness informs the whole work.

It's in three distinct parts. The first, Les oiseaux en cage, is a joyous and lighthearted display of feathered costumery and display (the costumes, which are works of art in themselves, are by Tony Maticevski and Richard Nylon). The connection to fashion is made overtly when two dancers pick up handbags: at another point, four become a parodic string quartet, sawing atonally at their instruments. This is the sequence that most closely follows the conventions of contemporary dance: danced to a score of recorded birdsong, it features some glorious choreography, as dancers mirror each other's gestures, display their feathers, whirling into couplings and groupings, with no attention paid to distinctions of gender.

This display of technical discipline, the excellences, if you like, of the cage of art, begins to be undermined in the middle act, Le coq dandy. Adams himself appears on stage, dressed in a military uniform topped with an extraordinary white cloak, huge wings made of feathers. He dips and bows solo to some grinding organ music by Messiaen which reminded me of nothing so much as Vincent Price in his evil basement. Here he is showing himself off as an older alpha male, a locus of authority but without the suppleness and accuracy shown in the dance of the previous act.

The rest of the dancers soon sweep on stage dressed as brownshirts with delicate feathered masks. What follows is a bizarre cross between an 80s nightclub and some erotic military fantasy, a la Genet: to Simple Minds's Love Song, Adams's minions march, fall over, mime shooting each other, as he directs their bodies, violently shoving them into sentry boxes, making them march in rows.

This leads to the final act, Paradis, which is heralded by stage hands bringing huge heaps of fresh leaved branches onto the stage. It's introduced by Adams, dressed in a formal suit, albeit with an absurd two-peaked top hat, stepping up to a grand piano and improvising freely, using the heels of his hands, his fists and elbows, on the keys and the strings. He makes short, sharply rhythmic pieces to which each dancer, now adorned in a riot of pheasant feathers, are introduced in short solos. Then follows the sequence that finishes the dance, backed by percussive trance music by Geoffrey Hale, which builds from the behaviour of New Guinean bower birds.

This last sequence goes for longer than seems possible. The dancers, with Adams stepping between them, still the cock of the walk, throw the branches all over the stage. They pick up sticks and dance with them, they throw them, they beat each other, roll in heaps of branches, even eat the leaves. There is a strong sense in here of exoticism, but in truth much of it is so strange that it largely escapes a crude primitivism: the animal behaviours observed here are sometimes literally animal.

I had no way of telling if this sequence was improvised or not: there was an organic logic to it, but it kept splintering, the dancers breaking up into couples doing individual movements, at one point running around the stage until they were exhausted. The variations in the music's repetitions echoed the variations in their gestures: it seemed continually the same, and continually different, not so much building in impact as accumulating. At last four dancers began to make some formal movements that echoed those in the first act, coming together forestage holding sticks, which they formed to make a cross. And then, without warning, there was a blackout, and it was over.

There are lots of ideas in Aviary: the relationship between eroticism, display and art; the relationship of dance to instinctive animal behaviour; the fascism of the director; perhaps even an enactment of evolution. But these all coalesce after the fact, once you've recovered from the impact of the dance itself. I sometimes feel that through the extremities he unleashes on his dancers and audiences, Adams is searching for performance at its most pure, its ecstatic centre. Whatever else it is, Aviary is extraordinary.

Picture: Aviary. Photo:
3 Deep Design with Jeff Busby

Aviary, directed and choreographed by Phillip Adams. Costume design by Toni Maticevski, millinery by Richard Nylon, composition David Franzke and Phillip Adams, set design by Phillip Adams, nest design by Matthew Bird, architect, backdrops by Gavin Brown, lighting design by Benjamin Cisterne. With Phillip Adams, Luke George, Daniel Jaber, Rennie McDougall, Brooke Stamp, Joanne White and Peter AB Wilson.


decal said...

I have throughly enjoyed all your blogging about the festival but feel compelled to comment on this production.
You can have the best technical and design elements in the world but if there is very little substance and story the structure is self indulgent tripe. The dancers were obviously brilliant and talented which added to the disappointment about what they were working with.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Decal - fair to say that I wholly understand how you might feel this way about this production. I think there was two choices, ie go with it. Or not...