Visual Feast 

Australian dancers perform a crikey good show, mates

To paraphrase the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, you may not be able to define modern dance, but you sure as hell know it when you see it.

To paraphrase the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, you may not be able to define modern dance, but you sure as hell know it when you see it. Australia’s BalletLab, which kicked off Vanderbilt University’s 2007-08 Great Performances series with a terrific show over the weekend, definitely looks like modern dance. But how do you define “Origami”—the company’s strikingly original new concert piece?

The truth is, you can’t make literal sense out of anything as abstract and abstruse as “Origami.” All the same, the work never disappoints on a purely visceral level, probably because its multimedia approach offers such a satisfying visual feast.

Company director Phillip Adams enlisted Australian architects, visual designers and an origami expert to create a movable, tessellated dance floor. So the floor itself became a part of the art, with the mosaic complementing the expressiveness of the dancers’ movements. (That mosaic, by the way, ingeniously suggested the intricacies of origami, the Japanese art of folding squares of paper into representational shapes.)

Other visual treats included BalletLab’s highly entertaining rear-screen animation, which featured images of a roiling sea and an earthbound meteor, along with such instantly recognizable East-meets-West pop-culture figures as Godzilla. Benjamin Cisterne’s imaginative lighting also enhanced all of these visual effects.

The dances themselves expressed a variety of emotions. There were solos, duets and group dances, and most of them showcased the highly regimented performers in an extremely serious light. (These dancers only rarely revealed lighthearted playfulness.) The performers did display their ample classical dance chops—though their movements almost always called to mind the urgency of contemporary dance. Moreover, their dances sometimes suggested a kind of choreographic chaos, and at times it was hard to know whether the troupe was being deliberately imprecise.

In the end, “Origami” turned out to be a kind of dance revue, with many different scenes filling up about 80 minutes without intermission. The performance’s apex was a scene in which the dancers joined together to form a sort of anxious human Slinky. Their arms and legs were sinuously intertwined, with the whole strange mass of flesh snaking around the stage with intense physicality and mesmerizing purpose.

David Chisholm’s original music was especially impressive. His score was written for conventional string quartet, though percussive effects periodically punctuated the music. It kept our ears on edge and the dancers aggressively involved in their body-bending theatrics.

“Contemporary art should make you uncomfortable and enlightened,” said Adams during an after-show Q-and-A. “Hopefully in that order,” added Chisholm.

Mission accomplished, mates.

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