Australian Dance Reviews

Faun in the 21st century – Anatomy of an Afternoon

Playhouse, Sydney Opera House
January 2012
As part of Sydney Festival

By Elizabeth Ashley

While Nijinsky’s L’Après Midi d’un Faune may be 100 years old this year, it still packs an inspirational punch for  choreographers, dancers and other performers.

The original performance premiered in a storm of scandalous success to a 1912 Parisian audience eager to see the iconic Ballet Russes.  To its detractors in the dance world Nijinsky was accused of being “anti-ballet” when he delivered a performance that attempted to strip ballet of its sentimentality and stressed instead a feral, instinctive and coldly sexual quality.

These qualities seem to be the inspiration for choreographer Martin del Amo as he worked with renowned dancer Paul White to create their Anatomy of an Afternoon. Underplaying the mythical and classical elements of the original work, del Amo emphasises the natural and the animal that is in the dance. Also in this work, the mythical aspect of the faun, a strange creature of half man half goat is replaced with a meditation on the potential qualities of an afternoon with its mix of languidity, frustration and possibility.

Paul White’s solo performance is a marvel of animal magnetism as he captures the inherent grace of various animals from upright cassowary-type bird to slithering lizard and underwater squid. The juxtaposition of effortless animalistic grace with human form creates an uncanny sense of mythological faun and the beast inherent in man.

Without narrative or emotion, White holds the audience spell-bound as he evokes the native life forms of a forest conveying the heightened sensitivity of an animal in response to its environment.  From the hypnotic head movements of a snake charming its master to a satisfied cat licking its paws, White effortlessly fascinates us with the centrality of the body in the natural world. 

At times this bodily love is shown in a joyful, undressed and yet aimless running, perhaps conveying the excess of Nijinsky’s Faun.  Yet del Amo and White’s work is objective, studied and appropriately named Anatomy. The body’s centrality is performed with all the strength and graceful control that is Paul White’s forte, but in contrast to the introversion and self-absorption of Nijinky’s Faun, this creature is very much outward-looking. He gazes intently at the audience, proudly rippling his muscular frame and teasing us with a barely-covered pair of animal glutes.

Martin Bradshaw’s eclectic music, played by a small ensemble, attempts to convey the ‘elusive nature of the afternoon’. While there is a strong sense of the longing inherent in an idyllic Queensland afternoon it seems a touch too insipid to convey the rhythmic essence of the wild body.  The sense and mood of an afternoon isn’t helped by Matthew Marshall’s light and design on a bare stage, which while beautiful, suggests more of a moonlit forest rather than a sunlit afternoon.

Anatomy of an Afternoon may not instigate the same controversy as its predecessor, but it does provide a timely reminder that much of what is graceful is centered on the feral, untamed body and instinct; and it can still hold us spellbound. The Faun of the 21st century reflects our increasing fascination and anxiety about our relationship with nature in its various forms.

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