Malthouse Theatre, Melbourne.
10 June 2022.
Imagine if the H.M.S. Pinafore had been taken over by cult leaders or extremists, and G&S camp replaced with strictly modernist militancy. Now the chorus line is a cadre and the orchestra have ditched the strings for the crisp insistence of drums. The new manifesto is being played live.
Creator and choreographer Stephanie Lake’s seeming embrace of a more maximalist aesthetic, which was evident in 2018’s Colossus, is starkly present here. Manifesto channels a kind of industrial might with its clean, monumentalist lines and sense of stadium. The curious cross of vaudeville review, Nuremburg rally and Soviet propaganda poster point at something both heroic and horrific. On top of this, the primal yet precisely tuned thunder of nine drummers speaks of animal immediacy and deliberate cunning. From now on, your hearts will beat like this.
However, Manifesto is far more interesting than a rant about orthodoxy and control. With its nine dancers and accompanying percussionists, it is also an irresistibly compelling work. What composer Robyn Fox has done with his army of drummers is not so much march in time as weave a complex, polyrhythmic soundscape that urges you, drawing you into the flow of the work. The effect is exhilarating and tribal.
Yet, perhaps this is the most telling aspect of Manifesto. We are all so easily convinced. Lake and Fox co-opt us into the journey by making our bodies react, by eliciting our hoots and hollers. At times, we might be watching gladiators or participating in an occultist orgy. It all seems wild and primitive, just beats and bodies, but every element is carefully calculated. Is this a celebration or an exercise in uber-cynical psycho-trickery?
Part of Manifesto’s beauty is that it never answers. One minute, the nine dancers are marionettes; the next, they struggle off the hook. In this, the work lands on a nerve. How to balance the individual’s desire for liberty with the survivalist pragmatism of the collective? Principal or corp de ballet?
Each of the nine dancers seems to embody this. Lake has them range in and out sync. They group and splinter throughout. The high energy choreography has them contorting between obedience and struggle, conformity and expression. Their bodies are tense. They hold a charge. But which way will the current move?
It is easy to take from the inter-war design motif a sense of 20th century totalitarian mania and to read Manifesto as yet another dystopian dream sequence; but the truth (as ever) is likely less obvious. For all the Brutalist architecture and drums-of-war overlay, the show is exultant. It crackles with an energy impossible to ignore. It is, in some ways, basic spectacle. Loud, athletic, sexy. We could be tribespeople sitting round a fire. This could be a party. (Cue the manifesto.)
Lake has shown a liking for dance that revolves around rich ideas — ones that allow for paradox and invite oppositional understanding. Couple this with an eye for strenuous yet sometimes playful choreography and you have works that bounce you around, that tease and entice. Yet, Manifesto may be her bravest and most distilled work thus far. Muscular and sensuous, industrial and cold, it is at once ominous and inviting. The sheer power of nine drummers urges you to join in…but wait…what is this?
Do I dance in time? Will I stand like everyone else to applaud? Your guess is as good as mine.
By Paul Ransom of Dance Informa.