Sydney Opera House
August 30, 2011
By Elizabeth Ashley
Silence. An empty stage, save for a pile of orange blankets. The audience fidgets in anticipation and uncertainty. Unexpectedly a spectator climbs onto the stage, takes off his clothes and wraps himself in a little orange blanket. Moment by moment eight others appear and go through the same ritual stripping to their varied underwear.
So begins Out of Context – For Pina, a piece of dance theatre conceived and choreographed by Alain Platel for his company Les Ballets C de la B (Les Ballets Contemporains de la Belgique). Platel was in the process of developing the work when he learnt of the death of the German choreographer and dancer Pina Bausch and was so moved that he offered it as a posthumous gift to Pina.
Out of Context commences as an intriguing but slightly uncomfortable process for the audience, with only sparse jungle-murmuring sounds during the initial encounter of these diverse beings. We are reminded of animals meeting, sniffing tentatively, inspecting soles and toes, with horse-like swishing of feet, until the blankets are dropped and relationships ebb and flow.
Throughout the next 90 minutes the audience experiences the full gamut of emotions from discomfort and a sense of embarrassment to sadness then amusement, laughter and a joie de vivre. We are taken from the jungle to the asylum and then to a nightclub before returning to the jungle as night falls. With perfect balance the production is engrossing.
There is a sense of exploration and exposure as these disparate dancers try to establish a new form of communication between each other and the audience. We are somewhere between man and animal and what ensues is a sense of tension between the wide range of uncontrolled movements and the more traditional choreographic components. In the words of Patel, ‘They create a new context out of a normal context.’
Despite Platel saying that Out of Context has no direct link to, nor is inspired by Pina Bausch, the influence is unmistakable – the absence of audience/performer delineation as performers randomly interact and engage directly with the audience; the use of singing and other noises by the dancers including teeth clenching and groaning; faces and bodies exuding anxiety and pathos. The audience is confronted and intrigued by a compelling magnetism. It may not be for the fainthearted but it is extraordinarily rewarding.
The spasmodic and deconstructed moving style reminds one of Wayne McGregor’s works that explore the rawness of the human nervous system. Platel’s previous work with children suffering from motor and multiple disabilities is exhibited via the awkward and un-coordinated movements from dancers who appear malformed. He then combines this with his fascination for the way we can communicate purely through our physical being – ‘no set, no props, except for mikes. It’s quite simple.’
The nightclub scene allows the light relief the audience has been waiting for with the various dancers taking turns at the mike in a karaoke-style singing/dancing session. Trying different dance moves to a few lines from ‘Don’t you wish your girlfriend was hot like me’, changes the tone and verges almost on bad taste. The highlight performer here was Kaori Ito singing the Rai pop song A’icha, complete with over-the-top camp moves in his jazzy boxers which have the audience in hysterics especially when he forgets his lines without losing connection with the audience.
Another unexpected and touching moment comes as Dominique Mercy, one of Pina Bausch’s original dancers and current co-director of the Tanztheater Wuppertal, takes the stage. Mercy deftly changes the tone through his imposing presence and dark evening suit as he performs in sign language ‘The man I love,’ giving it a quiet dignity before adding his tentative singing with an almost torch-song poignancy.
With a cast of nine physically and ethnically diverse performers, Platel uses natural diversity to full advantage and provides these superlative dancers with both the technical and emotional range to astound, entertain and move us. And despite the brilliant dancing we are not distracted away from the theatricality, thus making Out of Context – For Pina, a fitting tribute to the pioneer of dance theatre.
The performance ends as the dancers put their clothes back on and return to various seats in the audience. One of them sits next to me as if to say the distance between the everyday and the emotional roller coaster is just a few steps away.