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Review: MANIFESTO at Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide Festival Centre

Review By Lisa Lanzi

The lights brightened to reveal nine dancers relaxing on simple black chairs set in a gently curving line before an unexpected salmon-coloured set topped by nine drum kits, a musician seated at each. Stepped, elevated and curved, the upstage set was immediately reminiscent of a 1940s bandstand from a Fred Astaire movie with draped fabric covering the backdrop as well as falling to the stage at the front of the risers. The dancers were clothed in white baggy trousers, white tops and black ‘braces’, again with a vintage feel. This was probably the most relaxed moment in the work.

With a precisely timed and coordinated crash, from who knows what prompt, the nine drummers hit a single beat while the dancers simultaneously punched out a pose, and half the audience stifled a shriek - or maybe slopped their wine. The single synchronised drumbeats and movements continued and the speed shifted gradually as the dancers began to depict versions of a ballet barre warm up: Plié, Tendu, Dégagé, Grand Battement and so on to Port de Bras and then Allégro steps with increasingly eccentric additions. As the drum music became more elaborate, I was reminded of the work of Iannis Xenakis. Even more so when percussion on the rims was reflected in the shaking and vibrating of the dancers’ bodies. The movement and music became faster, more vibrant and diverse with different groupings of bodies and great use of the space, elevation, lifts and floor work.

The synergy of rhythm, musicians, dancers and choreography was inspiring but also playful. During one fragment, a solo female ‘conducted’ the rest of the ensemble to shift and play as her own singular physicality controlled tempo, spatial grouping, travel and volume. In another moment, a male dancer briefly seemed to communicate with each musician, then performed with hints of capoeira peppering his solo. The precise, complex duo, trio and group sequences where lifts featured were exquisite and the interplay of balletic, contemporary, hip hop and other influences was a joy to behold.

The beauty of Stephanie Lake’s choreography is in both its breadth and in its intricacy. The breadth of the movement design is indicative of her own training and influences. Lake’s prodigious command of classical and contemporary vocabulary benefits from quirky inclusions of other genres and the rich textures they incorporate. In a few of the sequences where heads and upper torsos were cradled tenderly, some photographs of Man Ray came to mind, or the expressiveness of Martha Graham’s mythic works. There are perfect examples too of fall and recovery technique, the ideas of catch and release playfulness and the gender neutrality of athletic lifts where any gender might lift or position another gender with purely elemental joy, affection, grief or sass. Lake’s familiar use of idiosyncratic gesture and elaborate upper body quirks give the audience glimpses of inner emotion or even a fun moment where a musical eccentricity might be reflected.

The dancers themselves inspire awe and admiration as they (seemingly) effortlessly hurl themselves into the intense and insanely energetic hour-long Manifesto. They navigate both the dynamic and the more subdued moments with perfection. They are faultless in their technical execution and completely present in whatever an expressive moment might require, be that a smile or a grimace, or instants of transition to another mood. These dancers connect to each other and the audience in a manner that serves to compel us forward in our seats, totally drawn to the power on stage. It is impossible to single out one person amongst this remarkably talented and committed company and I applaud how each dancers’ individuality is highlighted - a true ensemble where each is captivating in their own right but can master the cooperative nature of unison work as necessary.

As admirable as the company of dancers is, the musicians are also integral to this landmark work. Composer and audio-visual/performance artist Robin Fox is an awarded collaborator working alone as well as beside many dance artists and with Lake, his life and artistic partner. Initially composing for Manifesto using a core of four drummers, Nat Grant, Robbie Avenaim, Rama Parwarta and Alex Roper, Fox was inspired to expand the group to nine adding Maria Moles, Rohan Rebeiro, Alon Ilsar, Jen Tait and Tina Nguyen. All of these are amazing musicians in their own right and together, they create a profound sonic environment that somehow accompanies but also plays with, guides, controls and bends to the will of the choreography and the personalities so that the music and rhythm intriguingly become, in a sense, another vital character. It was also a revelation how many sounds a collection of drums can create from restrained and whisper quiet to raucous, primal and forte enough to feel through your body.

Adding their creativity to the Lake/Fox dream team are sound engineer James Wilkinson, set designer Charles Davis, Paula Levis on costumes and Bosco Shaw as lighting designer. All design elements contributed to the success of Manifesto with a seamlessness that speaks volumes about the trust, motivation and connection these artists must all possess. I enjoyed the subtle costume shifts as the piece progressed; all in white but with increasingly more flow and texture. I also appreciated the relative gender neutrality of the costumes which complemented the egalitarian choreographic aspects.

A true Festival-worthy offering and ending in an ecstatic frenzy and deserved standing ovation, Manifesto had its world premiere at the 2022 Adelaide Festival and I truly hope more of our world is able to view it, when touring is a safe possibility. More audiences deserve to experience the work of Stephanie Lake.

Image Supplied

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