Music direction by Claire Cowan
Directed by Renee Lyons
Presented by Blackbird Ensemble
Basement Theatre, Auckland | April 14-18
Blackbird Ensemble have made a name for themselves as unique innovators within Auckland, delivering musical performances against imaginative theatrical backdrops. Their previous shows, The Wilderness and The Night Sky, received gushing praise, and have earned them a dedicated following. Not having personally seen any of their productions yet, I was more than a little eager to experience their latest work.
Like the title suggests, Dreams attempts to emulate the landscape of dreams. This is most immediately achieved through the transformation of the Basement stage into an intimate bedchamber with fantastical touches, including a giant ladder to the roof and big fluffy clouds. The musicians are also appropriately dressed for the occasion, donning their pajamas with slightly glazed expressions on their faces. It makes for a disconcerting sight, but in the best possible sense.
The arrangements by musical director Claire Cowan are nothing short of amazing, delivering a truly orchestral soundtrack. Taken as a purely aural experience, the show is well-worth attending, playing a bold mix from Stravinsky to The Smiths, though there is a clear emphasis on contemporary over classical. Personal highlights include Nick Cave’s ‘I Had a Dream, Joe’, The Cure’s ‘Lullaby’, and Nina Simone’s ‘Don’t Smoke in Bed’.
The show is filled with subtle touches that elevate it beyond merely being a live mixtape or covers band, though. There are subtle moments that infuse the atmosphere with a light surrealism. Every aspect of the show, from the demeanor of the musicians in the way they hold themselves, to the unexpected entrances and exits, only adds to the magic. And while there isn’t a story or plot to carry the audience through the show, Dreams manage to convey a loose emotional narrative through the songs and setting. The result is what could be best described as a gentle journey through unconscious mind. Occasionally the middle section of the show sags a little with some comparatively forgettable songs, but at its worst it feels languid rather than boring.
As the main vocalists for the performance, Mikey Brown and Jessie Cassin do a spectacular job, though there are times when Cassin noticeably outshines Brown with the strength and volume of her voice. The rest of the talented musicians also do a great job too, managing to pull off looking like they’re half-asleep without ever compromising how well they play.
Does it totally succeed in capturing the essence of dreams? Mostly, but there’s something rather mellow about the whole affair which lends itself to being a cosy, intimate show above all else. The lack of theatrics or songs dedicated to the darker and weirder side of the subconscious seems like a missed opportunity (hence Lullaby being a highlight).
Dreams is an experience well worth attending, though not quite the must-see show I was expecting. It doesn’t so much blow you away as wash over you wistfully, never demanding too much from the audience. In many respects, Blackbird Ensemble have created the ideal environment to listen to music, moving the audience away from noisy bars, and emphasising the purity of performance, all while offering something a little bit different.
* * *
Choreography by Douglas Wright
SKYCITY Theatre, Auckland | April 16-17
The term artist is used too freely these days. A true artist labours and devotes their entire life to their vocation. Douglas Wright is exemplary in this regard. This is not an opinion so much as an accepted fact of New Zealand’s cultural history. On the opening night of The Kiss Inside, the audience buzzed with anticipation to see his new work.
It’s impossible to talk about Wright without discussing his reputation or situation which has, for better or worse, become synonymous with his work. He’s been a prominent figure in the New Zealand dance since 1980 and has created over 30 works, as well as written two memoirs and a book of poetry. His body of work is clearly nothing to scoff at, but the significance of this latest piece comes from the fact that he says it may be his last. Nearing the age of 60 and living with HIV, the life of a dancer/choreographer is undoubtedly an exhausting and trying vocation.
Wright’s works have been described with every superlative statement you can think of. He’s not merely influential; he’s legendary. My personal experiences of Wright have been limited to the Douglas Wright: Body of Work exhibition in 2012, his first memoir Ghost Dance, and Leanne Pooley’s documentary Haunting Douglas. So, having never personally experienced any of his live shows, this was an unmissable opportunity.
If The Kiss Inside doesn’t manage to achieve the status of a masterwork, it’s hard to be surprised with such high expectations. It certainly opens with a strong enough image, a gigantic tree hanging upside down in the middle of the stage, and a man hanging from it by his legs. The rest of the show is filled with equally stunning images. But for every image that impresses—including a Hieronymus Bosch-like configuration of dancers joined and shuffling together—there are also several that seem less thought out. Some quick sex scenes and evocations of execution come off as comparatively shallow and ham-fisted. The most startling and provocative images often seem incomplete, as if, amidst the cascade of thoughts and ideas, some pieces had to be compromised to let others thrive.
What does come through is the absurd and constant struggle of life that seems to permeate the show. Like Sisyphus pushing the boulder up the mountain, the dancers keep pushing their bodies, despite the odds stacked against them. There is a particular sequence where we watch the dancers leap over and roll under each other ad infinitum, tagging in and out as if it’s a wrestling match. Wright puts his dancers through a workout here, and by the end they are drenched in sweat and panting for breath. It’s one of the more authentic moments in a show overloaded with a mixed bag of symbolism.
But it’s not a totally serious show. There are plenty of moments filled with humour, including a random gorilla and some new-age mockery, which while not always laugh-out-loud funny, work to diffuse the heavy-handedness of the darker material.
For many people the show’s most defining moment will be watching Wright himself performing his cameo, an unexpected gift to the audience. It’s a moving moment for those who know his struggles, but perhaps an overlong distraction to those without context. A perfect example of how the most moving aspect of the work isn’t the work itself, but that of Wright’s undeniable strength and perseverance to put the work on. And while it’s understandable the audience burst into applause after his appearance, it unfortunately felt like evidence that his legacy may have overshadowed the show itself.
The Kiss Inside is ultimately a modest work with flashes of brilliance, helmed by a local titan of the medium. It mostly suffers from being a solid but oddly understated work by someone audience’s have come to expect a lot from. Yet those with any serious interest in Wright as an artist will have already purchased their tickets and paid no heed to my reservations. While it’s not a life-changing piece of dance theatre, it’s a respectable piece of work that Wright and his dancers can be proud of, swan song or not.