CounterMove

Roslyn Packer Theatre, Sydney, February 29

Cacti

Sydney Dance Company in Cacti. Photo: Peter Greig

“This is a bit weird isn’t it,” mutters one of the dancers in Cacti to a huge laugh from the audience.

Created by Swedish choreographer Alexander Eckman in 2010, Cacti is a rare thing: a genuinely funny contemporary dance work. Sydney Dance Company first performed it in 2013 and is now reviving it alongside a new work by Rafael Bonachela as part of a double bill called CounterMove.

Poking fun at alienating, self-absorbed contemporary dance and at critics who indulge in a pretentious search for meaning, Cacti features 16 dancers, each with their own square, wooden platform (and later a cactus), a string quartet, an orchestral soundtrack and a wanky, jargon-laden voice-over analysing the work.

Cacti begins with the dancers in flesh coloured tops, black baggy pants and skullcaps kneeling on their separate wooden tiles. Seemingly trapped, they beat out rhythms, sprint on the spot in perfect unison, writhe, leap, fall and strike poses in a joyous display of exuberant physicality before larking around with their upended rostra and creating a large sculpture.

In a very funny duet performed by Charmene Yap and Bernhard Knauer, their humdrum thoughts are revealed via a voice-over as they dance. (“Look out for my head” and such like).

It’s lovely to actually laugh out-loud at contemporary dance and to see the dancers matching their glorious physicality with such animated facial expressions. Using wit to make a spiky point, Cacti is a breath of fresh air. Oh, and there’s a dead cat.

LuxTenebris

Nelson Earl, Holly Doyle, Fiona Jopp and David Mack in Lux Tenebris. Photo: Peter Greig

Bonachela’s Lux Tenebris, meaning light and darkness, was choreographed to a visceral electronic score commissioned from Nick Wales that buzzes, throbs, pulses and thumps, sending vibrations through the body.

Performed in shadows, we glimpse the dancers through the glowering half-light of copper-coloured light bulbs and shards of wan illumination (design by Benjamin Cisterne). Often, the effect is similar to a roving spotlight picking out people in the middle of already unfolding situations.

Clad in casual streetwear, the dancers hurl themselves into a frenzy of highly physical movement, kicking, whirling and whipping their way through solos, duets and various groupings.

Two beautiful, sexy duets between Charmene Yap and Todd Sutherland to more gentle music are like lulls in a storm. Acrobatic yet poetic, they resonate with the human yearning for connection before the work powers back into top gear.

Lux Tenebris has a slightly uneasy, disquieting air of mystery. Eventually the pounding score and ferocious physicality starts to feel relentless but the kick-ass choreography is incredibly exciting and the dancing is extraordinary.

CounterMove plays at the Roslyn Packer Theatre Walsh Bay, Sydney until March 12, Canberra Theatre Centre, May 19 – 21, and Southbank Theatre, Melbourne, May 25 – June 4

 It then goes on a regional tour:

 NSW: Wollongong, June 17 – 18, Orange, June 22, Newcastle, June 25, Port Macquarie, June 29

QLD: Rockhampton, July 2, Gladstone, July 6, Cairns, July 9 – 10, Gold Coast, July 15 – 16

NT: Darwin, July 29

WA: Geraldton, August 3, Mandurah, August 6, Albany, August 9, Bunbury, August 13

NSW: Bathurst, August 20, Griffith, August 24, Dubbo, August 27

A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on March 6

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A Christmas Carol

Belvoir St Theatre, November 12

Ivan Donato, Ursula Yovich, Peter Carroll, Miranda Tapsell and Robert Menzies. Photo: Brett Boardman

Ivan Donato, Ursula Yovich, Peter Carroll, Miranda Tapsell and Robert Menzies. Photo: Brett Boardman

The magic begins as soon as you enter the theatre to find the seats dusted with (paper) snow. All over the theatre young and old excitedly lark around with it, dumping it on each other’s heads and tossing snowballs.

It’s the perfect start to Belvoir’s A Christmas Carol: a production so delightful and touching it would melt the hardest heart.

The costuming is contemporary (Mel Page) but the adaptation by director Anne-Louise Sarks and Benedict Hardie is a faithful telling of Charles Dickens’ timeless tale.

In this materialistic society of ours, the story of the miserly Scrooge resonates as powerfully as ever. Visited on Christmas Eve by the ghost of his former business partner Jacob Marley, followed by the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Yet To Come, Scrooge learns to open his heart (and wallet).

The messages that although you can’t change your past, it’s never too late to change your ways, and that it’s more rewarding to give than to receive, are as beautiful and timely as ever.

The Belvoir stage has rarely looked larger than it does with Michael Hankin’s steeply raked black set. It’s a deceptively simple design with trap doors and a platform that rises and falls, brought to vivid life by Benjamin Cisterne’s dynamic lighting.

Steve Rodgers. Photo: Brett Boardman

Steve Rodgers. Photo: Brett Boardman

Sarks’ production doesn’t avoid the dark corners of the story but her production twinkles with joy and playfulness along with showers of snow and glitter, a human Christmas tree, and carol singers in wonderfully naff, knitted Christmas jumpers (think Mark Darcy in Bridget Jones’s Diary).

Robert Menzies is perfect as the mean-spirited, grouchy Scrooge, who starts the evening growling “Bah, humbug!” to any mention of Christmas and gradually thaws until he is gamboling in the snow making angel wings.

The other seven actors take on a number of roles each and work together as a tight ensemble. Steve Rodgers brings a beatific smile and deep humanity to the role of Bob Cratchitt, matched by Ursula Yovich as his kind-hearted but tougher, spirited wife. Together they are incredibly touching.

Miranda Tapsell. Photo: Brett Boardman

Miranda Tapsell. Photo: Brett Boardman

Miranda Tapsell’s radiantly glowing face could light the darkest night as Tiny Tim. Wearing a gorgeous confection-of-a-costume made from gold tinsel, Kate Box brings a deliciously mischievous exuberance to the Ghost of Christmas Present. Ivan Donato is a more solemn presence as the Ghost of Christmas Past in a shiny suit, Peter Carroll is hilariously, maniacally unhinged as Jacob Marley, while Eden Falk is decency and kindness personified as Scrooge’s nephew.

Robert Menzies, Ursula Yovich, Steve Rodgers, Peter Carroll, Kate Box. Photo: Brett Boardman

Robert Menzies, Ursula Yovich, Steve Rodgers, Peter Carroll, Kate Box. Photo: Brett Boardman

With music by Stefan Gregory and movement by Scott Witt, the heartwarming, family-friendly production (which runs 75 minutes) moves you to laughter and tears, sending you home filled with the spirit of Christmas.

In fact, I felt so uplifted that the next morning I booked tickets to take my family to see it just before Christmas. A real gift of a show.

A Christmas Carol is at Belvoir St Theatre until December 24. Bookings: www.belvoir.com.au or 9699 3444

A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on November 23