Sunday, May 22, 2011


JACK Productions
Beckett Theatre, CUB Malthouse, Melbourne

May 20, 2011 (until May 28)

Choreographed by Lucas Jervies, Animal plays with metaphysics and non-human shapes. Chairs, hens, apes, moody women and even the odd Jesus Christ pose are thrown together in episodic fragments, without leading the audience to any definite conclusions about the choreographer’s intentions.

It’s performed by five mature ladies, including Kirsty Martin, current principal artist with the Australian Ballet, and highly respected former dancers Lisa Pavane, Alida Chase, Shane Carroll and Christine Howard.

Dressed in different combinations of black trousers and tops, possibly from their own wardrobes, the women step up onto the glossy black stage which is set between two opposing seating banks. They look around, curious, disorientated. They discover hidden doors in the floor of the stage, and each takes out an ingeniously folded wooden chair.

What follows is a rather banal sequence of position changes, shifting chairs and bodies in jerky but non-dancerly moves. It culminates in a dinner table arrangement, but Jervies fails to capitalise on the dramatic potential here. Instead, his protagonists look every which way except at each other and gradually splinter away. The same pattern of gradual build up to a point which then dissolves occurs several times, so that there is never a sense of climax, or progression.

Pavane and Martin duet on a human-as-metaphysical-furniture theme, with Pavane manipulating her chair and Martin emulating those shapes. It’s a simple premise, which could work if the two were able to get the timing exactly right.

Another duet, between Martin and Carroll, is more complex and far more interesting. Standing close and facing each other, they develop a relationship, something like that of mother and daughter, with Carroll at first mirroring the younger dancer’s actions, joined at the fingertips. Their arms entwine, but the mood shifts, becomes slightly combative, as Carroll’s attempts to invade Martin’s space are slapped away. Fingers aimed at groin, chest, face, fail to reach their mark. Eventually they come to rest on the floor, lying as though asleep.

In a solo for Martin, Jervies makes good use of her supple back to illustrate the common evolution of man image, from a beast on all fours to the upright shape we bear today. Again, it’s quite a simple idea, but Martin’s precise execution, including the jutting jaw of early hominids and the gradual lengthening of her spinal column, makes it worthwhile.

Less transparent is the repeated inclusion of a crucifixion-like pose. And the unfortunate combination of a sustained squat with an awfully loud raspy sound, which my juvenile mind automatically associated with toilet-humour.

That same squatting action, which turns these elegant women into a flock of flustered hens, appears to have been created by repetition of the earlier phrase of chair shifting, minus the chairs. It’s a blunt equation, people less furniture equals animals, and one that doesn’t translate effectively to the stage in this example.

Alas, the often harsh lighting and jarring sound don’t give us any further insight into Jervies’ choreographic vision.

JACK Productions have adopted the motto arrive excited, leave inspired.

And I do get excited about seeing new work by JACK. I love the idea of innovation in classical dance, of using the wonderful skills of ballet dancers to create something beyond fairy tales and ethereal beauty.

Which makes the two performances I’ve seen so far (this one, and Human Abstract in 2010) doubly disappointing. Particularly with Animal, as the concept of a piece designed for some of Australia’s finest mature dancers is very appealing.

Unfortunately, both productions have seemed overstretched, both in terms of movement material and concept development. Which is understandable for a tiny, fledgling company, working on scant resources. Understandable, but not necessarily forgivable. If these are sketches, then they should be sold as such. Continuing to present half-baked work in the main theatres at the CUB Malthouse, which is also home to the Malthouse Theatre’s subscription season of highly polished productions, is not good form. While it’s a bold move, it makes JACK look poor in comparison to other work recently seen in the same space, and it reflects badly on an already marginalised artform.

There is certainly a place in Melbourne for experimental choreography, but without several choreographic development periods and a dedicated production budget, a mainstream theatre is probably not the right fit for JACK to be presenting this type of work. A smaller scale, more intimate showing, with the possibility of further rehearsals, research and dramaturgical assistance would lead to a much finer product, and a higher likelihood of leaving us inspired.

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