A SUPERB PARABLE
Triumphs and Other Alternatives – Ross McCormack
23 April 2015, Hannah Playhouse, Wellington
Reviewed by Chris Jannides
The choreographer ‘Maker/God’ slumps over his workbench as a protective cover of plastic sheeting, doubling as an amniotic curtain, rises to unveil to the world of an audience the creation of a new born theatre-dance. The use of plastic promises us transparency and insight into the processes of the artistic craft. The Maker (as he is called in the programme) in this instance is the choreographer himself, Ross McCormack. Through the deaf and dumb language of contemporary dance, he exposes the struggle of putting life into bodies and performance via the setting of a ramshackle artist’s studio inhabited by a dithering sculptor and his ‘clay’, expertly danced by the frequently entwined and malleable figures of his Adam/Eve innocents, James Vu Ahn Pham and Emily Adams.
Mastery and craftsmanship combine to confirm McCormack’s on-stage labelling as an aspiring master craftsman. Although he ridicules the role through parody and the obsessive antics of an imbecile, McCormack cannot hide the high level of artistic skill and maturity that he himself possesses. An ecstatic audience makes this recognition abundantly clear in their enthusiastic response to tonight’s premiere performance. Like the title, the outcome is itself triumphant. Design, dynamic music, calibre dancing and dramaturgical precision orbit each other in a cohesively tight, un-superfluous fashion.
McCormack equally masters tradition and established contemporary practices. He is an originator who expertly vibes up an old world. The founding myths of Western culture, mostly biblical, liberally and literally saturate this production. This is a complex work. It is narrative driven, but readable on many levels. Outsider Art, German Expressionist tanztheatre, butoh and contemporary European conceptual art-dance are what I am reminded of. Powdered near-naked bodies, jerkily distended physicalities, unglamourous post-apocalyptic settings, socially-damaged geniuses. These influences portray the human condition and its rituals and concerns using a physical and frequently humorous language of exaggerated intensity that is paramount in McCormack’s work.
A stack of books on stage invites us to symbolically read the goings on. A brief cross-section of examples provides a glimpse of the way this production references our mythico-cultural heritage. White paint smearing the set, signatures the handiwork of a messy light-bringer. We see humans being formed from dust. Life and language force-fed into pulled-open gaping mouths. Flesh squeezed together at the back of a head to imitate the tubing and crevices of the brain. The Maker as Atlas shouldering his prized human creations. Eve rebelliously separating Adam from their Creator. Adam gawking at her self-animated propulsions and independence. The Creator strenuously squeezing himself between them. There is a see-saw of immanence and transcendence. God sky-high, suspended, distracted. God in creation. God in flesh. God wanting human attention. Story and symbolism everywhere!
Getting down and funky at the end in hyper-intense unison with his creations, McCormack, the Maker, demonstrates: ‘I and what I have made are one’. After firmly bolting on their own heads, the synchronised Frankensteins entertain us in a patterned celebration of in-our-face bio-pulsating automatism. But I am left wondering: is an artist simply a craftsman and a giver of life into existing traditions and forms, or something more? I sense that Triumphs and Other Alternatives sits at an autobiographical cross-roads for this overseas’d local. Where might the progress of this highly talented choreographer, beyond the theatrically triumphal and self-satisfied ‘ta-da’ moment that climaxes the intelligent crafting of this well-received offering, go to next? Less sporadic opportunities for originality (for want of a better word) might be what NZ may next uniquely provide him and invite.
Thank you, Ross, and your excellent team. Bravo. Your superb parable of the artistic struggles of creation and exhibition was both well told, and a rich and stimulating read.