I've always enjoyed dance. Though I rarely experience it live, few things can be as enthralling on stage (or screen - have you seen The Muppets yet?) than a dance ensemble pulling out the moves to a superb score - be it a musical, a music video, a ballet or a gymnastics display in the Olympics. Involved in musical theatre as a kid, and having friends in the industry, I know just how much work people put into it - heart, soul, dedication, time and of course the pure technical skill required to achieve the art itself. So in reading the descriptions for Assembly, appearing at the City Recital Hall as part of Sydney Festival, I have to say I was pretty excited to see what this piece would be, especially considering the involvement of experimental (and well hyped) dance troupe Chunky Move.
Directed by Gideon Obarzanek of Chunky Move, Assembly is a collaboration between said troupe, the Victorian Opera and the Sydney Philharmonia Chiors. It is an exploration of humans en masse, dealing with concepts of community, togetherness and loneliness, occurring in public spaces and in our privacy. Together we are alone, weak, but en masse we are powerful - albeit constantly at war. We can be friends and we can be enemies. We can embody power, passion and pain. We can be loud and we can be quiet. We can get lost in the moment, or left out of it. These are the sorts of messages Assembly achieve with impressive ease.
While many Chunky Move productions involve projections and aim to entice with spectacle beyond the movement of the artists themselves, this was a piece where the singers and dancers had all the focus. The stage was a wooden, bleacher-like construct, with sports stadium lighting in the rear, creating an opportunity for unique dance interaction. Indeed there was plenty of it...
Dancers would crash to the wooden surface, wriggle around, slide up and down the platform in controlled chaos. They would bounce off each other. They would perform beautiful, fluid motions, while those around them ran around in a game of "follow the leader", unable to survive alone, desperate to be a part of the pack. Those left behind would suffer, falling, crashing, pushing, fighting. And it wasn't just the dancers that were involved in this movement, but the phenomenal singers (of all ages) were part of the performance too - an impressive artistic decision to say the least.
As the performers moved - some singing, some dancing, some just wandering - they each followed their own directive: follow X, or lead Y, and gradually chaos became art - in one particular moment, after several minutes of random movement, two sides of the stage were each occupied by a group of people with similar coloured shirts, and an amazingly powerful Hakka-esque battle ensued, leading to a climax and cheers from the crowd. This moment came early in the piece and showed great potential for the remainder of the hour long piece. It also showcased how incredibly well directed and choreographed this ensemble piece was.
However, in spite of superb, intricate choreography that at times boggled the mind, and innovative direction that made me think the creative team had played a lot of Pikmin (or similar God like video games), after this moment, Assembly couldn't quite keep up the excitement or the pace. Performers were placed into a cyclical motion, repeating aimilar activities over and over again. Running up and down the stairs, falling down (I'd be interested to see how many dancers end up with bruises after these shows... Some fall to the floor pretty hard!) and crawling around on all fours might be poignant for the directive of the piece, but there's only so much you can encompass into a performance before you start to think: "have I really been watching people run up an down stairs for the last ten minutes?"
This isn't to deny the intricacies of what was taking place- directing more than 60 performers (most of them not dancers), and having them all work in fluid motion with one and other is inspired. A testament to performers and the creative team alike, this was certainly an exercise in extravagance; a technical marvel. But with the sort of detail they were putting into the most mundane aspects of the performance, you couldn't help but consider the possibilities of where they could have gone... And in the closing number, accompanied by the song "My World Is Empty Without You" - the only English piece in the set - they reminded you of this. It was a piece that would give Cirque Du Soleil a run for its money.
But there no doubt that it was the point. En masse, and alone, we are caught in an endless cycle of motion, interrupted by brief moments of chaos. It was in these moments where Assembly shined, exciting the senses and becoming the enthralling spectacle that dance - and performance in general - is expected to be. But the duller moments definitely let the concept down, and for that the show missed out on an opportunity to become something truly great. I have no doubt that those less enthused by the spectacle, and more interested in the technique and technical aspects of dance, would highly disagree. And fair enough. This is definitely the sort of show that will appeal to a great variety of people, in a wide variety of ways. Definitely give it a peak and make up your own mind...
The final performance of this World Premiere season is tonight at the City Recital Hall in Sydney - Head to the Sydney Festival website to learn more.