REVIEW: As it Stands (Auckland Arts Festival)

Review by Cynthia Lam

As It Stands, by Ross McCormack. Muscle Mouth Dance Company

[When Man, Nature and Industry Collide]

Inspired by the monumental and mammoth-sized steel sculptures of American artist Richard Serra, As It Stands is a contemporary dance work directed and choreographed by Arts Laureate Ross McCormack and his company Muscle Mouth.  Featuring eight very strong dancers — James Vu Anh Pham, Lauren Langlois, Luke Hanna, Emily Adams, Jeremy Beck, Tiana Lung, Christina Guieb and Toa Paranihi — choreography by Ross McCormack, and Melanie Hamilton as dramaturg, I was drawn into an alternative world that embodied the juxtaposition and meeting of order and chaos, the natural and the man-made.

The show opens with a male dancer engaging with a large irregular shaped lumpy rock.  He is feeling the rock, touching it, caressing it; he tries to lift it, leans his body weight against it, twists and turns it.  All this happens against a high-pitched whirring sound, reminding me of the beginnings of creation when humanity was fascinated with the natural and mystical.  His fluid and natural movements are then contrasted when two female dancers emerge, creating straight lines and swift angles with their bodies, leveraging on one another to create hard angular shapes, demarcating lines and boundaries.  These contrasting movements between the fluid/natural, and the angular/mechanic is a prelude that sets the tone of what is to come.

The work is split into three parts, in Part 1: The Offer the dancers start to ‘interact’ with the mammoth-sized rectangular bronze structures on stage.  They look at them in awe, touch them, climb them. A large white circular disc is hanging on the wall (reminiscent of a clock), and the dancers turn the disc, rotating it back and forth.  Together with the affecting soundscape (Jason Wright as sound designer), these create an image of industry, hard structural lines, order, machinery and civilization. The meeting of contrasts occurs when dancers create sinuous undulating movements against the hard bronze structures.  One of the bronze structures begins to tilt downwards and a shift in time and space follow, signified by the dancers walking in slow motion. At this moment, I think of Serra’s sculptures and the disorientating effect they have on the viewer — drawing you into an alternative space where time and reality is altered.  

In Part 2: The Echo, McCormack’s inventive choreography comes to light — taut hard lines and flowing sinuous movement meet in solo, duet and group pieces.  The ensemble piece is exciting and performed to a high-tempo ‘clacking’ sound, displaying the dancers’ virtuosity, precision and agility.  The dancer’s interaction with the natural and the man-made is constantly referred back to. Interesting shapes and imagery are formed with bodies, including one which resembled a wheel with the rock as fulcrum. The lightscape (Natasha James as lighting designer) plays a key feature in highlighting these two opposing forces, with moments when the focus is on the rock and the bronze structures, with the dancers obscured in the shadows.  Chaos and conflict is referred to by the dancers’ movements — the desire to cling onto versus the desire to run away. When words are spoken: ‘The distance between the words and their… apprehension’, they sound unclear and far-away, similar to an echo. When watching this segment, I thought of the space and distance between objects and people causing tension and disjoint.

In the final segment, Part 3: An Exchange, the final meeting between chaos and order, the natural and the man-made, the mystical and the logical is battled out.  I believe that the strength of As It Stands lies in the execution of the ideas and feelings that McCormack sought to convey, and this is done effectively through inventive choreography, agile and expressive dancers, storytelling, a well-designed set, and the light and soundscape.  The piece works as a unified whole. What I enjoy about the expressive arts is that it works on a symbolic and abstract level and therefore subject to our own interpretation. I left As It Stands pondering where human-kind stands in relation to all the chaos and order happening in the world. McCormack has created a beautiful dance work that is an exploration and presentation of what happens when man, nature, and industry collide.

As It Stands is a new dance work by Arts Laureate Ross McCormack and his company Muscle Mouth. It plays at ASB Waterfront Theatre until March 10 as part of the Auckland Arts Festival.

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  1. Dance performances Jan – March 2019 and associated reviews – allmyownwords

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