The Oracle. Meryl Tankard

19 september 2009, The Playhouse, Sydney Opera House, Spring Dance

The Oracle, Meryl Tankard’s work set to Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, is a triumph. A solo work for Paul White, who dances with astonishing physicality and intensity, it is an example of how affecting a work can be when the creative team has a strongly shared vision and works single-mindedly to bring that vision into being. The Oracle was visually and choreographically focused and articulate. It moved from section to section as relentlessly as the music until it reached its dramatic conclusion.

Paul White in The Oracle. Photo: © Régis Lansac, 2009

Tankard’s choreography, with shared credit to White on the program, moved between small and intricate movements of the hands and fingers and even of the tongue, which required sensitivity of the smallest body part, and movements that demanded that White fling himself through the air, while always maintaining absolute control of the whole body as it hurtled through space. Introverted movements, sometimes executed with the dancer’s back to the audience or with his head shrouded in a chocolate-coloured length of velvety cloth, contrasted with steps of exceptional virtuosity, exuberance and extroversion. Some sections were acrobatic — at one stage White walked on his hands — others had a strong classical feel. This choreography required an extraordinarily versatile performer and White’s performance was quite simply a tour de force.

Tankard assembled The Oracle following the structure of the Stravinsky score but, in her hallmark manner, it was built on multiple layers of meaning and allusion. There were emotive links to Nijinsky, who first gave choreographic expression to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring in 1913. They were noticeable in some of the choreographic phrases, which seemed to refer back to Nijinsky’s movement phrases created for his own Rite of Spring. They were also noticeable in those moments when White seemed to be lost in a surreal world, which recalled Nijinsky’s descent into mental illness in the later years of his life. There were allusions to Martha Graham’s well known work, Letter to the World, in which she used her long skirt to give extra shape and form to her choreography. White used that long, chocolate-coloured swathe of velvet not this time to cover his head but as a skirt tied to his waist. He made it swirl through the air as he cart-wheeled and jumped and manipulated it across the floor as he slithered and twisted. The work drew on other sources of inspiration from the work of Norwegian artist Odd Nerdrum to Swedish film director Ingmar Bergman. But The Oracle is absolutely Tankard’s own. One of her great strengths as a choreographer is to make references while maintaining an individual integrity.

Regis Lansac, working again with Tankard as he has done over many years on set and video design, created an opening video sequence to a soundscape of whistling and other mechanical sounds and a recording of Magnificat by the Portuguese composer of the baroque period, João Rodrigues Esteves. This sequence picked up on aspects of the choreography and on images of White and manipulated both to explore a different view of the human body. It seemed also to set up a dance of its own that moved from the figurative to the abstract and back again melding and confusing the two ideas. At times throughout the piece Lansac’s projections and video sequences provided an evocative background. At other times they became essential to the unfolding of the dance, especially in those moments when White encountered his image on the backcloth and needed to contend with what he saw.

The Oracle was lit by Damien Cooper and Matt Cox. Highlights included the Rembrandt-esque lighting of White’s face, arms and legs in the opening moments; the expanding and contracting circle of light around whose circumference White made a slow and tentative progression; and the breathtaking closing moment as White, centre stage, jumped high into the air as a shaft of brilliant light closed down upon him.

Paul White in The Oracle. Photo: © Régis Lansac, 2009

The Oracle shows the collaborative work of Tankard and Lansac at its best. It is an awesome piece of dance and theatre and was received with well deserved shouts of bravo and a standing ovation at both performances I attended.

Michelle Potter, 21 September 2009

Thoughts on Pina Bausch’s Rite of Spring

Pina Bausch’s Rite of Spring has always fascinated me. I had seen her production on video in 1989 but never in the flesh. What I had seen in the flesh was the famous (or infamous) Nijinsky version, the original Rite of Spring, as restaged by Kenneth Archer and Millicent Hodson for the Joffrey Ballet, as well as Maurice Bejart’s Rite of Spring danced by the Tokyo Ballet. But the Bausch version kept haunting me, largely because in my mind it was closely connected with Meryl Tankard who had made such an impact in Canberra with her Meryl Tankard Company between 1989 and 1992. The opportunity to see, at last, a live production of the Bausch version arose in early 2008 when Tanztheater Wuppertal was visiting London. At the time I made some brief, random notes in the hope that one day they would be useful in some context:

  • Stravinsky did not dominate, such was the power of Bausch’s choreography. The movement was so expressive of changes in rhythm, sonority, volume and so forth that the music and movement became powerful partners. There was an organic relationship between the music and the choreography, which seems to be missing in the Hodson/Archer reconstruction.
  • This was much more ‘pure dance’ than in any other of Bausch’s works that I had seen and as such it displayed the great technical prowess of her dancers. Not only are they actors in the mode of dance theatre but they are also dancers of the highest order. Dancing in unison they were breathtaking as they were when displaying their capacity to become totally involved in the unfolding of the drama, almost to the extent of entering into a trance like state. Their classical training was clearly in evidence – they could jump, they were turned out, they could extend their limbs. They danced with the whole body and each part of the body was allowed to be expressive to the utmost degree.
  • Looking beyond technique, their shudders, their shaking, their actions of fear and panic built to emotional crescendo after emotional crescendo. One of the most moving moments occurred when the whole stage was filled with frenzied bodies sometimes rushing past each other, sometimes hugging each other giving not just the feeling of impending disaster but of the capacity of human beings to offer support to others.
  • Although it seemed so much like ‘pure dance’, the dancers’ gasps, sighs, and other ‘verbal’ outpourings of exhaustion, panic and fear, were given a place in the work. They were never intrusive. They were gut wrenching and such an essential part of the overpowering drama of the situation.
  • Bausch has an eye for the structure of movement and for arranging bodies over the space of the stage. Whether she arranges the dancers into one or two or several tightly knit groups, or has them move around the stage in one large circle, or scatters them apparently randomly over the stage space with each dancer performing individually, the effect is always powerful and always harmonious.
  • The ‘chosen one’ was a tiny Filipino girl who stood out from the beginning as if she knew it was her destiny to be selected from among the females. She seemed overpowered by the red dress that the victim must wear as she tossed it to others. It was as if it were burning through her. As a powerful foil to the huge emotional involvement by the ‘chosen one’, the male who made the choice played the role almost without emotion. Lying on the floor motionless with his arms stretched forward as if waiting to receive her, or dressing her in the red dress, his back to the audience, his movements were solid, steady and totally without feeling.

I saw Rite of Spring performed at Sadler’s Wells, London, by Tanztheater Wuppertal on 20 February 2008 (with Café Müller as the other work on the program). I wish now, almost eighteen months later, that I had written more.

Michelle Potter, 13 June 2009