Dancing in the folds

Christopher Scanlon on BalletLab’s Origami

Peering over the fence at another’s discipline is apt to bring home the limits of one’s own practice and make the attractions of collaborative work irresistible. But any collaborative undertaking brings new challenges—personal, technical, and creative. Phillip Adams’ Origami explores the principles of the art of origami applied to dance, but it’s much more than a work of simple transposition. A multilayered collaboration between BalletLab, BURO Architects, 3 Deep Design and Matt Gardiner, among others, Origami engages themes of contemporary Japanese culture, the place of tradition in a hyper-modern society, and the order in chaos of urban living.

With so many creative disciplines and themes in play, the challenge of this work was always going to be incorporating each without having them clumsily competing with one another or, alternatively, falling into the trap of tokenism: including one more creative discipline simply for the sake of adding yet another layer, without adequately relating it to the whole. Origami doesn’t succumb entirely before these challenges, but neither does it entirely rise above them.

The opening sequence sees the 8 dancers in formation folding into, and sliding across, tatami mats. The choreography seems to be reaching for the kind of precision and flowing, complex order found in origami, but the execution appears stilted, the mats encumbering the fluidity of dancers’ movements.

The incorporation of architectural elements—in the form of a performance space and sets that can be continually re-configured by the dancers—provided similar constraints, the dancers seeming to struggle with them. Rather than completing the set, the performers often appeared to be confounded by it. The foldable floor surface, in particular, made for overly self-conscious performances which lacked the subtleties suggested by origami.

The transitions between sequences, in which the performers re-configure the performance space, also seemed disconnected from the work. A generous interpretation might be that this is expressive of life itself: a meditation on the infinite number of minute rituals and work that we enact in the daily performance of living, making, un-making, and re-making the spaces in which we live. If this was the intent, then it was a lost opportunity. The dancers’ movements lacked purpose, with the result that the transitions came across as brief time-out periods, unrelated to the performance.

This is not to say that Origami is a deeply flawed work. There were some beautifully choreographed sequences in which the dancers’ bodies folded one into another creating a complex symmetry: a pure synthesis of form and content. Some of the more playful elements, such as the cramped living space evoked by a tent-like structure briefly inhabited by all 8 dancers, folding their bodies so as to sleep and eat, worked nicely with the themes of the work, exhibiting a grace and order reminiscent of origami.

Similarly, David Chisholm’s music lent order and structure to the work and themes sometimes lacking in the choreography, as did Anatasia La Fey’s beautifully erotic costumes, which melded Samurai influences with Western ballet costume. Combined with Rhian Hinkley’s computer animation, that references Japanese culture—a Godzilla-like monster destroying Australian architectural icons, and the animated version of Katsushika Hokusai’s The Great Wave Off Kanagawa—the music and costumes provided textures and layers to the performance, evoking pop and kitsch culture in a lively exploration of the complex interweaving of tradition and modernity, the organic pace of traditional forms coupled with the frenetic pace of urban living. Even the more gimmicky elements, such as a radio-controlled helicopter occupying the performance space vacated by dancers, worked well within the whole, making for interesting transitions between the different parts of the work.

Origami was at its most successful when its influences and thematic treatment were less literal, conveyed through the subtleties and playfulness of gesture and movement, imagery, and music, than the more obvious references of folding sets. In some respects, Origami was uncomfortably caught between 2 worlds. It needed either to be pared right back to become a much more intimate work, drawing on the strengths of minimalist understatement or, conversely, to require a much bigger canvas (and budget) to become an all-out, sensuous feast. In this regard, Origami is an ambitious though ultimately unsatisfying work. On that front, the collaborative team behind Origami might be best understood as being at the mid point of an exciting journey, rather than having reached their final destination.

BalletLab, Origami, VCA Drama Theatre, July 10-23

RealTime issue #75 Oct-Nov 2006 pg. 39

© Christopher Scanlon; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 October 2006