Rapture and rhythm

Murray Bramwell on new work from Leigh Warren and Dancers

Leigh Warren and Dancers in Shimmer

Leigh Warren and Dancers in Shimmer

Leigh Warren and Dancers in Shimmer

Quiver, the new program from Leigh Warren and Dancers is continuing evidence of the company’s invention and excellence. With last year’s return season of Klinghoffer and now, the unveiling of two contrasting works, Shimmer and Swerve, Leigh Warren’s signatures are becomingly increasingly apparent. His work is disciplined, elegant and has the added intensity which music performed live can bring. With Klinghoffer, he borrowed ethereal choruses from John Adams’ opera, performed on stage by a score of Corinthian Singers. For Shimmer he has used the sparkling playing of the Australian String Quartet and in Swerve, the frenetic rhythms of cabaret favourites Pablo Percusso.­

Under the scrutiny of Robert Hughes, film-maker Ken Burns and others, the Shaker movement has received renewed attention for its minimalist ingenuity, its diligence and apparently serene other-worldliness. No longer intact—unsurprisingly after ten generations of planned celibacy—the most enduring legacies of the once-thriving and financially successful Shaker communities are their quilts and collectable chairs. And, of course, their eloquent witness to the radiance of belief.

Composer Graham Koehne’s String Quartet No.2 “Shaker Dances”, celebrating the pastoral virtues of this gentle, quietist sect, provides the score for Shimmer. The performers, dancers and musicians, assemble silently on stage, their backs to their audience in frozen tableau. Then, successively, the members of the Australian String Quartet separate from the group, take up their seats downstage prompt-side and begin tuning up. Scraps of tunes can be heard, including a few bars of what sounds like Simple Gifts, the religious folk tune used as central motif in Aaron Copland’s Appalachan Spring. The cello joins, then the others, as the six dancers begin their demurely exquisite movement.

Leigh Warren’s splendidly assured choreography uses the dancers in pairs and gendered threes. There are echoes of square dance tropes as they form parallel lines and dance in profile, moving enticingly close but retaining modest distance. Top lit by Geoff Cobham the dancers move under vertical spots that seem at any time to raise them in some sort of beam-me-up rapture. The effect—enveloped in the warm, vibrant playing of the quartet—is fluid and unaccountably affecting.

Central to the success are Mary Moore’s costumes—silky, iron grey frock smocks with yellow-gold linings which button to the navel and then flow across and away from the body with notably erotic ambiguity. Powerfully dramatising the tensions of religious ecstacy, the costumes carry both male and female signification, puritan concealment and then—unbuttoned over the dancers’ flesh-toned body stockings—unexpected sexual abandon.

The movement parallels these dualities. The dancers, in diagonal formation, work in repetitive hoeing and chopping movements, or, hands prayerfully clasped, rotate their elbows in undulating rhythm. Elsewhere, when they raise their arms full stretch, roll along the floor leg over leg, or dance in balletic pairs, they achieve a contrasting sensuality—enhanced by Cobham’s buttery lighting, the throaty repetitions of cellist Janis Laurs and Elinor Lea’s fluttery pizzicato.

Shimmer is a fine work and must rank among Warren’s most accomplished. Carefully conceived, intelligently designed and beautifully performed with solos from Kim Hales-McCarthur and duets from Csaba Buday and Rachel Jenson, it uses Koehne’s appealing composition to good effect. This production is beautifully framed from the opening fugue to the final restatement of the musical theme, and then the curtain image of dancers and musicians gathered midstage as top spots fade to a beckoning side light. Shimmer exploits the conflicts of introspection and worldliness, of piety and a kind of pleasure, which may be secret but never guilty.

By contrast Swerve is a metal-rattling, taiko drumming display of athleticism and grunge style. From behind the curtain we hear the sounds of heavy spinning chrome plates wobbling into silence. Then as the curtain lifts we see Ben Green, Josh Green and Greg Andresen, aka Pablo Percusso, strapping on a variety of hubcaps from Kingswood to Nissan Bluebird and tapdogging up a storm.

The dancers, in skateboard baggies, black vinyl hot pants, leather and leopard skin, enter browsing newspapers as they nonchalantly stack themselves on one another. As the band take up drum kits at the back of the stage the dancers begin to slap each other with the papers setting up repetitions and syncopations. It is reminiscent of Stomp, Luke Cresswell’s kitchen cupboard of found-sound, but Swerve has plenty of its own zing as well.

Lit low from the side of the stage and then washed in heavy scarlets and torquoise, the dancers meld with the rhythms. An angular, exuberant solo from Delia Silvan is followed by a trio of rapping garbage bins then another burst from Rachel Jenson and some breakdance variants from Peter Sheedy and John Leathart.

The “auto”-erotic motifs continue from hubcabs to tyres to traffic as Pablo Percusso take up drumming stations in tilted-back car seats while the dancers let rip in a blaze of foot and sidelights.

Swerve moves into high gear for the fourth section, Head On, with thunderous drumming, spliced-in highway screeching and choreography ready to crash through to Cronenberg.

Leigh Warren and Dancers have compiled a program both meditative and high octane. For many the sustained energy of Swerve is the high point. However, for all its technique, it is more fizz than substance. But those Shakers doing their shimmer…? Well, that’s a road much less travelled.

Quiver Leigh Warren and Dancers, Norwood Town Hall, Adelaide, June 20-28

RealTime issue #20 Aug-Sept 1997 pg. 40

© Murray Bramwell; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 August 1997