That Which Was Once Familiar

By Zoë Bastin | Dancehouse, Wurundjeri Country, Apr. 2021

Queerness has become something of an amuse-bouche recently. Gathered we, befrocked and piquant and pithy, share our latest bite-sized insights: “Did you see that the NGV is doing a queer exhibition later this year?” “That piece was quintessentially queer!” “You know, there’s a lot to be said about how we’re queering the academy right now—Yvonne Rainer ‘exposing the tools’ am I right?!”

An amuse-bouche is never ordered, but rather served to gild and gird one’s guests before the menu proper begins. It means “mouth amuser,” and, as an aside, that of itself would likely be called queer these days. Anything that borders camp, or a certain blue sensibility, or a certain red Twitter polemic, could and might be called queer. And rightfully so, perhaps. The queer amuse-bouche is an invitation to dine; an invitation to entertain that the remainder of one’s meal could be wonderful. That each following mouthful might be better.

That is, if one is to believe in the queer social or the queer utopian. In many ways, to see queerness as an invitation for something better is a normative reading. Palatable to the world of cis-hets, it can be overly focussed on potentialities and pluralities in a kind of ‘infinite Sudoku’: a never-ending chain of semiotic suggestions that, apparently, trouble categories of identity and power. “We’re getting closer to a better mouthful!” we cry, guiltily aware (or perhaps wilfully ignoring) that the political realities of queer people, particularly queer femmes of colour, are brimming with violence and State subjugation. Anything but amusing, we forget that queer lives, that queer acts, underpin this theory du jour.

Reader, you’re perhaps tired of what I have to say already. Perhaps I am coming across as yet another angsty, anti-social queer with more bile than solutions. Indeed, I haven’t even mentioned the work at hand, Zoë Bastin’s rather excellent That Which Was Once Familiar (TWWOF). But I ask for your patience and make no apologies, for my polemic is inspired by Bastin.

TWWOF is a stirring work of queer dance theatre. It is angry, furious even. Unapologetic, vigorous, yet fragile. It is the anti amuse-bouche. Bastin’s logic turns to the signification of the female/femme body (a turn stirred by the over-sexualisation of young girls in commercial dance in Australia) and posits that the ‘familiarity’ of this signification might be challenged through a queer-femme lens. That is, Bastin recreates the embodied negation that queerness allows for: the ‘fears, realised’ of a powerful and flawed femininity, of a feminine threat.

The work opens with the dancers, a skilled and sincere troupe from a broad lifespan, reaching and writhing skyward. They move between immanent, Gigerian sculptures: stunted, ruined pseudo-phalluses decaying and weeping in muddy greys. This Bacchanalian coterie, with guests bedecked in bruised greys and pinks, jitter with nervous energy. Hair is slicked tight against their skulls like Robert Palmer girls; looks are steely like Pris from Bladerunner. The improvised vocabulary is evocative of Expressionist dance, with flat feet stamping and flared wrists, crooked elbows and poised jawlines. We catch glimpses of lateral references: post-modern mincing/skipping, dainty Showcase Australia walks on tip-toe. Much of the choreography has a strong sense of orientation, of turning, which is both a nod to Sara Ahmed and to the witch’s cauldron. The potion on stage slams outward, viciously and viscously. A stronger sense of dramaturgy might have tamed this concoction’s occasional spills—I tend to prefer a greater sense of pace and editing—but perhaps it is more appropriate for the politics of the piece that these spills are permitted.

The dancers are twice joined by live musicians of exquisite calibre. Some slight mixing fumbles aside, this music is used to great effect. A guitar screeches and echoes as the stage fills with haze. Bastin herself navigates the steamy scene: a hornet in a Turkish bath. Indeed, I was reminded of the ways that spaces of sexuality and gender, like a bath, so often police and exclude femme bodies (a recent transphobic survey from one such local establishment springing to mind).

A moment later in the piece points to a different queerness. The dancers become quite clearly out of sync. One smiles, acknowledging this. Another stifles a look of self-consciousness. They continue, imperfect. Indeed, the work doesn’t pretend to be perfect at all. It’s Grotowski by way of Shania Twain (these aren’t the only Robert Palmer “girls” on the scene, after all!). The roles are appliqués unto the dancers whom, through their aesthetic imperfection, reveal themselves in sweat and grimaces as avatars of the abject femme. This is fearless dance, dance that doesn’t pretend to be idealistic or good or polished. Nor does TWWOF prostrate itself to the ‘canon’ by which so much straight dance attunes. It is, rather, an invitation into the negative; into the hollow present that José Muñoz describes. Bastin’s work demands that we resist the fabulous, promising future of the amuse-bouche to recognise the gravity of our own ‘markedness’: of our reality’s resentment of the queer femme.

A familiar request, perhaps, but one I have an endless appetite for. ∎


By Carol Brown for Carol Brown Dances | Lopdell Precinct Rooftop, Tāmaki Makaurau, Apr. 2019

Carol Brown and her fellow artists sing the body (bio)electric in LungSong.

I can only offer the briefest of responses here, albeit one tuned by reflection since I saw this interdisciplinary work of ecological activism on April 13th.

As we looked out onto the dusk of Manukau Harbour from the roof of Titirangi’s Lopdell Precinct, Brown and company wove a nebulous vein of dance, voice, music, and materiality. The dancers would breathe, cry out, and thump their booted heels like Pussy Riot we should be giving more of a shit. As if, like Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg has said, “[We] did not act in time.” 

One dancer pulls an impossible net of plastic across the space. She then disrobes her clinical, chess-piece-like costume to reveal a vulvesque red. Has this dancer dragged a placenta of sorts across the landscape only to be reborn herself? Is birth located in opposition to structure in LungSong, or is humanness bound to a continual birthing process of ‘being’ a responsibility then ‘becoming’ responsible—or, might the inverse be true? Are we foremost predetermined or, less Calvinistically, charged with ‘the task’ before traipsing the ritual threshold of completion?

The subtext that underscores my questions above arguably needs no spelling out. I am being heavy-handed wherein LungSong was considerably more poignant.

Brown herself maneuvers through and around the crowd as the piece proceeds. Instructing the audience to move back and forth, she shuttles them into effective positions for viewing and being viewed alike. As she directs, Brown wields two camera tripods like shepherds crooks or long, ungainly fingers.

Whether this is the consequence of a need for documentation or some Brechtian device is deliciously unclear, but I am tempted to read more into the latter. As an intervention, there is a definite sense throughout LungSong that this work is contingent on the audience’s desire to be held accountable. It is a work that excels in defining the ‘receptacle’ that the audience plays—a work that sets out to be received; to incorporate (incriminate?) the viewer into its protest.

With masterful sound design by Russell Scoones also in mind, LungSong is a difficult piece to describe. I hesitate from calling it a site-specific performance as I am aware that this work is not tied to one site, but rather roams like the wind across myriad biomes. What I hope to convey is that this piece is an ‘instant’—a moment only made possible or observable through an extemporary interaction between the performers and audience: an anacrusis to breath as yet uncaught given our task ahead.

That is, we are charged by LungSong in every sense of the word.

In short an extraordinary performance. I was moved to tears, as were many others alongside me, by the profundity of the piece—this moment that was crafted so finely between the audience, nature, sound, and movement. As each moment dispersed my eyes continued to scan the contours of Manukau Harbour. Will this elegant sky be there for our children and grandchildren? Will they too dance with curious bees as the crescent moon rings? Will the clouds that draped these artists’ shoulders glide across the sky or be gone, too, like this dancing instant?

Is the horizon really so far away? ∎

As It Stands

By Ross McCormack for Muscle Mouth | ASB Waterfront Theatre, Tāmaki Makaurau, Mar. 2019

As It Stands, a new work from Muscle Mouth director Ross McCormack, is a superlative lesson in theatre-craft.

Enter this Wachowskian Eden—bursting with the contrasts of helium-headed, slack-jawed mobility and precision so indirect it wanders without wondering—and witness a chaotic experiment in three parts.


By Various for New Zealand School of Dance | Te Whaea, Te Whanganui-a-Tara, Nov. 2018

I admit: I never read the programme. Although beautifully bound, and surely designed to serve as any balletomane’s keepsake, I try my best to review dance from a place of ignorance. What is available to me, in the moment, is the moment. The fumbles of opening night nerves. The errant strands of a costume undone. The fatigued. The fabulous. The dead author. The audience.

Of itself, I often find that the moment is enough. This is particularly true of nights like last night.

Tor Columbus’ E Tolu opens this year’s New Zealand School of Dance Innovation season with three wandering figures. Bedecked in colourful tracksuit pants and numbered singlets, these three men calmly make their way into a seated triad reminiscent of a Samoan sasa. Laifa Ta’ala, sitting at the peak of this triangle, blows into a conch shell to herald the beginning of the work and the evening as a whole.

Chris Clegg quietly slips away. His sinuous and silky movement wraps and spirals around the space. Ta’ala and Braedyn Humphries counter this by moving from one side of the stage to the other. They shout “Hey!” and punctuate their traverse with sudden stops, ensnaring Clegg: a gentle spectre, then, between two exclamation points.

The vocabulary soon turns to reflect Clegg’s initial offer. Like a valence shell of electrons, this ionic piece deals in fluid orbits and revolutions. Popping and intricate arm locking offers a suitable contrast to the chemical content whilst grounding the work. A taualuga solo by Ta’ala is beautifully sincere. In fact, the work benefits in full from a candidness that the dancers readily extend. The continued use of text is also embellished by this unaffected air, and the audience easily forgives any discord that prefaces the harmonies heard later in the work.

This is intelligent stuff from Columbus and co. A work like E Tolu could easily chew on urbanist clichés or a “hip hop evolution” structure. Given that Aotearoa’s efforts in Pacific dance are so diverse and compelling I am thrilled to see how these three dancers and Columbus have extended their thematic lens.

With its strong sense of sincerity, E Tolu evokes Alvin Ailey’s Sinner Man trio from his classic, Revelations. It speaks to a soft-shoe sensibility; a music hall camaraderie that facilitates parallels between the movement of the Pacific and the African diaspora that shaped American modernism. Undeniably thoughtful, E Tolu is a strong first stanza in the night’s long moment.

From fluid to fluid, Huang Yi’s Wicked Fish lashes out in a maelstrom of dread. Greyed limbs dissect a band of light as dissonant tones blare and concuss. An ensemble of dancers fly forward with a gaseous timbre. Not liquid like water, but contorted like hydrogen incarnate. 

Back bending and bridges are central motifs of this work, as are peculiar unfinished lines and extensions. Partnering provides the backbone, with the lack thereof a seeming prerequisite for the performers—the pliability of these dancers is extreme. Bodies are picked up, with feet carefully tracing the floor like a calligraphy brush, until backs explode into rapid flexion. A duet between Sebastian Geilings and Franky Drousioti at the half-way mark is, in want of a better word, insane.

This is a consummate “dancer’s dance,” and perhaps the most technically demanding piece that the School’s contemporary programme has performed of late. The dancers make a superhuman effort and I note their constant negotiation of its solemn tone. 

For all its aesthetic brilliance, Wicked Fish inspires some daydreaming: what are the stakes of a work like this? What are we risking as an audience, and what is being revealed? As I was churned to chyme in the intestines of the fish, I was dissatisfied to merely read the anxiety of the score and stress of the movement as a commentary on chaos. Perhaps, therein, lies the strength of this piece: to be troubled, and to be left unanswered.

Huri Koaro (Inside Out), by Gabby Thomas, is a contemplation on subtle strength. An arresting work for an all-female ensemble, Huri Koaro is the necessary complement to Wicked Fish that intuitively examines Te Ao Māori and femininity. 

The darkness of the entr’acte is disturbed by the entry of Thomas’ white ghosts. Eyes remain closed as the lights lift on a graphic scene. The dancers are arranged in a triangular layout, with black stripes bisecting their white shifts from lip to hem. This layout across the stage evokes the niho taniwha pattern found in the tukutuku panels of Te Arawa and Waikato iwi. Ngaere Jenkins adopts the apex of this structure as her own and delivers a completely committed performance. 

Legs lunge forward and lick the air, whilst knees are bought to hands as shins kick out at 90-degree angles. This geometric, highly structured language contributes to an assertive atmosphere, yet resists dragging the work into aggressive territories. Some time is given to tableau, with three turtles—high domes with a lone dancer’s head free from the mound—dissolving into pensive sphinxes. I adore this sequence, and as the dancers look out into the audience I reflect on their calm request for acceptance. Later, as dancers melt down the diagonals wielding twin pūrerehua—fiercely spinning these instruments as if to cast an A.T. Field—this invitation is repeated on stronger terms.

Thomas’ work is less about power, then, as it is about presence. The use of line and placement lends itself to a “matter-of-fact” reading, and palms are raised flat against the fourth wall’s face like a declaration of the self. Here I am, there I go: a bold play on quiet strength.

A preamble to It’s Written in the Walls choreographer Adam Barruch: I could not help but read this work as definitively American. I think that’s a good thing. 

An original piece created on the dancers, we enter on an exacting array. The dancers half-gird the stage in an inverted “L” shape, before executing precise marching steps along its axes. They sweep sideways with military linearity—the addition of a drum machine later in the work bolstering this theme. Though this combination of language and technology teases at a more policed vocabulary to come, this is never fully indulged: whipping the nationalist-critique rug out from under our feet.

Barruch instead plays these cards more tactfully. Rather than polemic, It’s Written in the Walls writes meaning into the detail. Curving arms wind over heads, drawing hemispheres to an invisible point. The dancers play it straight, but keep a tenuous instability bubbling away under the surface.

I was somewhat less convinced by the costumes. I dreamt instead of Raf Simon’s prairie dresses for Calvin Klein—a banal but gorgeous statement on fickle Americana; Dust Bowl chic for men and women alike. Hardly a deal breaker, though, especially with the amount of embellishment to process throughout the work.

Its domestic, but not gendered; regimented, but not overtly disciplined. Summated in the example of a duet under maroon light—index and middles fingers sewn firmly shut—that bypasses sexuality and arrives at a place of unusual tension. American Gothic by way of boy scout by way of David Lynch.

Static, by Lauren Langlois, opens with tears.

Slumped forward with pinched hands resting on her inner thighs, Kia Jewell weeps with a staccato heaving of the body. She appears to be remembering something, and her internal process whispers to us in a Stanislavskian reveal. Humphries, in another nuanced performance, juts his chin forward in awkward anguish beside her. The two are close but not intimate—an unrealised duet.

These two dancers move with skill through rapid and specific vocabulary. The material shifts near the middle of the piece as Humphries and Jewell spin out across the space, liquifying into the floor and splaying their legs like matter flung from a centrifuge. A sense of increasing tension reflects the structure that this section brings to the work, and a sense of polarity underscores their relationship.

Langlois’ work immediately evokes an incomplete circuit. One pictures the electricity between the two being denied by their obtuse placement in the front-right corner of the stage. They plead with one another but cannot develop their connection.

I found myself wanting slightly more from this piece, but in wanting found myself satisfied. Like me, the dancers are locked in a moment of tension that is unresolvable, brimming with the friction that begets static. Intriguing to say the least.

The final piece of the evening is Les Médusés (Volk Version) by Damien Jalet, and this delicious examination of femme delicacy and poise delights the eye.

Clad in buff-tone bodysuits and boy-shorts, each dancer languishes within a white cage of serpentine ropes and gridded fabric—imagine a flapper gown for the statement dresser. As the dancers move, the ropes lash out like Medusa’s own brood, adding a strong textural dimension to the work. Jalet has curated a cacophony of visual information for his audience, and although at times confusing (this work would benefit from having a larger space to play in) it is surely compelling.

The choreography is striking and almost martial in nature. Hands reach out only to stop, and legs split into wide, straight-legged stances. The ensemble link and lock together to form a coronet of snakes, and arms bind and unbind to illustrate an energy unbound. A central dancer takes up the soloist mantle by jumping through a series of Italian changements.

This is a queer work, in every sense of the word. A Garnier commercial for the most discerning of herpetologists, yet simultaneously a robust treatise on the “woman as object” paradigm. Camp, but not stupid.

As the work came to a close, I noticed rope fibres drifting through the air. A fittingly ephemeral end to an electric piece from Jalet, these particles bidding us farewell.

Overall, a night of dance. Further scrutiny of the term “innovation” is desired from future performances in this vein, but the cast, teachers, and choreographers have much to be proud of. It does not just “have its moments,” but it is, indeed, a moment all on its own: a microcosm of intensity, wherein one forgets that the artists at hand are only just beginning their journey.

I hope they continue to step forward in bold colour. ∎


niho taniwha:

Movement. A Manifesto

By James O’Hara & Balázs Busa for New Zealand School of Dance | Q Theatre, Tāmaki Makaurau, Oct. 2018

The individual is on the agenda in Movement. A Manifesto, this year’s Tempo Festival offering from the New Zealand School of Dance (NZSD).

This work, by James O’Hara and Balázs Busa, performed by the NZSD third-year contemporary students, is thrilling. It is extremely rare, even in my scant experience, for a work to so thoroughly engross the audience; to calm, challenge, and excite.

Movement begins with eleven dancers girding the stage. A white sheet is stretched across the back wall, casting the dancers’ satin-clad legs and Hawaiian shirts in unusual relief. The atmosphere is informal. Sitar-like music plays, and the dancers gather in a soft group. Even in the opening stillness of the work, subtle vibrations granted by blood pressure cause hands to tremble before larger movements take over.

Iconography is then explored with reference to the Virgin Mary, baroque intimacy, and Nijinska’s Les noces. O’Hara and Busa seem to foreground their manifesto with historical contrast; a point of departure that teases the audience with glib, perhaps purposefully misdirecting references.

As the work progresses, mercurial tableau is abandoned in favour of sustained ‘unison’ that quickly (d)evolves into subtle variation. The movement is minimal, with Graham swing motifs and large, circular arm pathways. The dancers carve the space and wind their spines around malleable axes in drone-like repetition. Later, alongside a change in tone and pace, the dancers explore intricate and rapid thrashing to the excellent mixing of a live sound artist. Prepare to have your heart rate slow to a slumber then accelerate to light-speed.

Throughout, the dancers offer brief but powerful glances into the audience before returning to the folding fold. Eyes close and open according to an unseen rhythm. In tandem, the dancers negotiate an increasingly demanding vocabulary with each step bringing them closer to exhaustion—one that is made fully available to an entranced audience.

These are not cookie-cutter movers speaking to the ‘effortlessness’ of a Gaynor Miden advertisement. Instead, these dancers give themselves permission to tire and in doing so express personal aesthetics.

O’Hara and Busas’ manifesto, therefore, is less concerned with polemic as it is with granting these dancers the opportunity to be themselves.

It is a coincidence, a happenstance, that these bodies should share this space. Like pages gently torn from myriad books, these dancers assemble in a manifesto-bricolage that does the least of any recent NZSD showings yet simultaneously says the most. Like a questionnaire, it provides an examination of our expectations of these young dancers and our dance tastes in general: How patient might we be? What role does boredom play in watching dance? In what ways might we, as an audience, access our own bodies through watching dance? Furthermore, what becomes of the individual within the Institution?

This work, like several New Zealand contemporary dance entries of late, belongs to the Stevie Nicks milieu—ephemeral, feminine, inquisitive, individualistic: Gold Dust Woman by way of lung cells by way of Freire.

Movement. A Manifesto lulls and astounds like a benign dream; a trance that deals in art nouveau sensibilities, techno raving, and the uniqueness of the individual. This is an annihilative piece for dancer and audience alike from O’Hara and Busa, moving and stirring in one. ∎

Iron Eyes

By Cindy Jang for Jang Huddle | Basement Theatre, Tāmaki Makaurau, Apr. 2018

Détentes are deconstructed in Iron Eyes, a new work by Jang Huddle.

This work of interactive contemporary dance is the debut for Cindy Jang’s eponymous collective, and it does not disappoint.

Based in part on Jang’s grandmother’s story of escape from North Korea to South Korea, this work orbits the visceral narratives of the Korean conflict whilst offering further critique of authority and subversion.

Missing Lids

By Holly Newsome for Discotheque | Basement Theatre, Tāmaki Makaurau, Mar. 2018

Irreverence triumphs in Holly Newsome’s new work, Missing Lids.

Described as contemporary dance/theatre, this piece is the latest from Wellington based Newsome and her company, Discotheque.

The audience enters to three dancers in yellow morph suits sealed in a tight mound. As the work progresses these dancers investigate a range of images and qualities that augment and parody the idea of normalcy.