First the politics, then the pageantry, finally the poetry. That's the ritual we expect of the Olympic Games as the bickering gives way to the opening ceremony before the games begin.
The first three days of the curtain raiser - the Olympic Arts Festival - yielded the same three Ps from three dance companies, the political correctness of DV8 Physical Theatre, the pageant-like pomp of Sydney Dance Company, then the simple poetry of Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan. Two of the three works were commissioned for the festival, two referred to gods and goddesses, two focussed on sacred rituals, two on homoerotic love, and all three displayed hectares of flesh, sometimes veiled in skin-coloured body stockings, often encased in sparkly G strings suitable for recycling at next year's Mardi Gras parade. It's fun to find similarities but all three pieces were as far apart in style and substance as the intent of their choreographers. In The Cost of Living, DV 8's Lloyd Newson takes a pessimistic view of man's journey through life while preaching acceptance. In Mythologia, SDC's Graeme Murphy puts his sexual fantasy world on display while invoking the spirit of the original Olympics. In Nine Songs, Cloud Gate's Lin Kwai- min warns that gods let us down; it's wiser to find strength in ourselves and comfort in nature's continuance.
Nine Songs springs from the 2,400 year old poetry of Qu Yuang which speaks of the eternal struggles of life. Lin counterpoints masked or white faced gods, goddesses and a red-dressed shaman with contemporary figures, travellers carrying suitcases, criss- crossing the stage on bicycles or on foot. They, too, are hidden, not by masks, but the accoutrements of convention. These travellers resemble Magritte's surrealistic figures, blank faced, bowler-hatted, drifting through time, umbrellas aloft.
Downstage, the river of life flows on, symbolised by a pond filled with lotus flowers, signifying renewal. The gods fail to appear or make only a token appearance. Lin makes the point that during our journey we waste time waiting for magic, just as Beckett's tramps waited in vain for Godot. Lin uses three, equally effective means to communicate in movement - gestural, sculptural and dynamic. Delicate gestures, often with flexed wrists and quivering fingers, refer to his Taiwanese heritage and his study of the art in Taipei's National Palace Museum. Western influences, from ballet to choreographers Mary Wigman and Martha Graham, are more apparent when the dancers form sculptural groups, as if snap frozen, or traverse the stage with speed and force. Nine Song's second half focusses on the seasons, and on balance and support. Spring is represented by a goddess balancing on bamboo poles. Summer is a vain ``god of the clouds'', balancing on the shoulders of two mortals dressed in suits, Autumn is a mountain spirit, intense in his anticipation of tragedy to come, then winter is symbolised by condemned warriors, themselves representing those killed at Tiananmen Square. The title of one segment of Nine Songs, Homage to the Sun God, is a reminder that from the time of the sun god Louis XIV, theatrical dance has depicted the adventures of gods, never more simply, or more effectively, than in the 1920s, with George Balanchine's interpretation of Apollo's ascension to Mount Olympus.
If only Mythologia was told with such economy. Danced to a commissioned score by Carl Vine and accompanied by Sydney's Gay & Lesbian Choir on stage, the work depicts the exploits of another son of Zeus, Heracles. Monumental in scale, Mythologia's beautiful images are enhanced by video projection. Yet often, Murphy seems more intent on impressing than moving his audience. He holds us at a distance from the action; we observe a pageant. This opening ceremony effect is enhanced by the gee whiz mechanics or props - four giant architectural columns on wheels, erupting occasionally with fire, tightrope walking, dancers flying on ropes (as in Murphy's Salome), fake phalluses and horns, more sparkles than a fairy store, and hectares of billowing silk (as in Murphy's Air and Other Invisible Forces.) At one stage, Eros (Bradley Chatfield) appears in feathered wings, a cod piece and pointe shoes while Omphale (Wakako Asano), in dominatrix costume, whips Heracles to submission, both scenes a disappointing revisiting of Murphy's mid-1990s work, Fornicon.
The best of the choreography is a tender duet for Heracles and his lover, Hylas, danced by Simon Turner and Christopher Harris - just as the best dance segment in DV8's The Cost of Living is a duet for Eddie Kay and David Toole.
Now Toole does actually dance, with rhythm, swing, dynamics and grace, an astounding thing for a man with no legs. When he settles on the stage like a squeezed accordian folds into its bellows, he appears to have no hips either, but only a torso which ends somewhere around the navel.
Newson's choice of Toole inspires admiration and a re- thinking of what makes a dancer. Yet it also verges on the voyeuristic and exploitative - accept the legless man yet stare at him too.
Newson places his 90 minute piece on a green carpeted stage. Within this claustrophic space, his 17 performers describe in words and movement who they are and how they suffer. One, Paul Capsis, is - perhaps - supposed to be embarrassing, pathetic and sad. Unfortunately, the way his role is written, it turns out to be just embarrassing. The dancers, in various states of distraction and/ or undress, often speak directly to the audience, asking if they are acceptable or sexy enough - indicating that Newson comes from the same German dance drama school as Sasha Waltz and Pina Bausch (whom one dancer, Roz Hervey, strongly resembles.)
Yet Newson's muscular, ensemble choreography, incorporating a kind of horizontal waltzing with bodies supported by palms and heels, was remarkable, and the Dali- esque sight of Toole perching on the back of Kate Coyne, so that he at last appears to have grown legs, is the image everyone will remember. It's a telling one, considering the Olympics is about speed and mastery.
This piece first appeared in the The Australian Financial Review on 26-27 August 2000