Review: The Oracle

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Dunstan Playhouse, Wednesday August 20

Dunstan Playhouse, Wednesday August 20 Wednesday night took me to the opening of The Oracle, a solo choreographed for Paul White by Meryl Tankard and White himself, danced to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, with video projections by Régis Lansac and, just as essentially, lighting by Damien Cooper, Matt Cox and Ben Hughes. Premiered in 2009, the work has had much success in England and Europe and America. Adelaide is the only Australian city to be seeing it this year. Lucky Adelaide! In certain ways The Oracle can be seen as homage to Vaslav Nijinsky, the great Russian dancer and choreographer, whose innovative, anti-balletic choreography for the Rite of Spring, coupled with Stravinsky’s throbbing, avant garde music caused a riot at its Paris premiere in May 1913. In an introduction and 29 dances, the original ballet portrayed a barbaric ancient folk ritual in which a virgin – the Chosen One – assists in the celebration of her own sacrifice, and finally dances herself to death. Instead of using the large cast of the original, Tankard has choreographed a solo, or rather a series of solos, White’s movements and expressions sometimes more than hinting at Nijinsky’s – the agonized beseeching of Petrouchka, the delicacy of arms and head of le Spectre de la Rose, the spinning body of Scheherazade’s Golden Slave, the earth-pounding stamping of Nijinksy’s own Rite of Spring, and the profile poses of his Afternoon of a Faune are some of the allusions. The work begins not with dance but with projections of Régis Lansac’s photographs of White’s face, then parts of his body, particularly head, arms and hands, which morph into strange, sometimes sinister shapes, set to a magnificat by Portuguese baroque composer João (Jwoo) Rodrigues Esteves. Images of crosses proliferate, some reminiscent of Nijinsky’s, drawn when he sank into madness. This section, which is a little too long but sets a religious tone, is a prelude to White’s slowly rising from the darkened stage, crawling along a line of light. He stands, covered in a long black cloth, dancing with it, his head always covered; sometimes it becomes his partner, other times it whirls about him, or he wraps it around himself. We see he is wearing only white briefs. The visuals become violent, but later retreat into blankness. His top bare, the cloth becomes a long skirt, flaring above him as he cartwheels about the stage. In another sequence, he appears in a rough, fringed kilt, and his dancing appears captured on the screen, but then the real dancer and the unreal image lose synchronicity, as if uncertainly regarding each other.  It’s a weird moment. Two images appear, a white and a dark silhouette, and a struggle ensues. The movement is rapid, athletic. Then a cone of light pierces the darkness, and the dancer is confined in a ring of light. The movement is at first slow, White contorting his body with suffering, reaching out, yearning for salvation. He retreats off the darkening stage, then in a sudden burst of smoke, music and a diagonal thrust of light, he hurtles into view naked, on his back. It’s a stunning theatrical moment. He tries but fails to rise, but eventually does, to be hurled about as if by some unseen force, spiralling in a single handstand, wildly leaping, turning in the air, springing horizontally from the floor. He is King Lear’s “Unaccommodated man … a poor, bare, forked animal” at the mercy of the elements. With a final extraordinary leap into the air, he collapses to the floor. There are probably as many possible interpretations of Meryl Tankard’s typically inventive, thought-provoking work as there are people who see it – a series of dichotomies suggests themselves: male and female, sex and religion, love and cruelty; imprisonment and freedom; sadness and joy. A descent into the maelstrom of madness – perhaps Nijinsky’s decline into insanity. Paul White’s astonishing performance, superbly athletic, but turning gymnasticism into dance, has rightly gained him awards, and beyond The Oracle, he has now been with the Pina Bausch company in Wuppertal for nearly two years, with a further contract; and he has just been given a Dancer of the Year in Germany award. Not surprisingly, Tankard has had further interest for overseas tours for the work. But the question is, could anyone replace Paul White? The Oracle continues until Saturday, August 23