Watching MADSOC’s ARC—a first time mini-show supplementing the society’s usual major production—I have the distinct feeling of being twelve years old at a ballet eisteddfod again. Even the first few moments of Amy Pham’s performance of Take Me to Church accompanied by Margery Ai, I can practically smell the hairspray in the air. Stiff smiles, foot thongs, and the occasional wobbly fouette, ARC is everything you could expect from a dance compilation show.
Each dance is choreographed by a different person—most of them by those who dance in them—and paired with live performance by a musician, singer, or, in the case of Georgia Britt and Emily Baird’s closing number, spoken word poetry. This spread of choreography leads to an interesting diversity in the performances–predominantly contemporary, littered with ballet, tap, and pas de deux. However, this democratic division of labour also means that there is little linking the pieces together. A loose through-line which follows the emotional stages of a life–spanning innocence, passion, and reflection, among others–nominally connects the pieces, but is not quite enough to tie them together as a complete product. Music choices are disparate, as well as styles and physical motifs which remain inconsistent. The experience of watching several discrete dances in a row, as opposed to a complete work with thematic consistency, means that I find myself focusing on technicalities—a pirouette fumbled, an extension not quite complete—I should otherwise have been unaware of in a full length movement piece.
As such, much of the dancing, technically, is also standard fare for competitive dance. Performers moved well, and were by and large technically strong, but moved with a certain unease and unfamiliarity with the space. Whilst it is always a pleasure to see dance in spaces small and intimate enough for one to hear and see its physical demands, the Cellar seems an odd choice for the staging of this piece. Its awkward shape and unfortunately necessary load-bearing poles make it hard for performers to use the whole space. That said, use by Bec Clare of said poles was to great effect in a tense and tight struggle against the frenetic trumpeting of brother Alex Clare. Space was also restricted by the presence of a piano and musicians in the corner, meaning that often the room lacks symmetry, something vital to an art form as visual and spatially dynamic as dance.
Few performances are as emotive as they could have been. The dancers have a tendency to perform on one level emotionally, relying on steps and music rather than conveying intent with the whole body. A strong balletic influence can be seen across most performers, which seems to hurt as much as it helps. Ballet dancers are notoriously stiff and find it difficult to be grounded in the way many modern dance styles require, which meant that Arc’s movement rarely reach the tips of performers’ fingers to extend beyond. So frequently in theatre actors become too focused on dialogue and meaning and through this lose bodily expression and meaning—it is disappointing to see a show based entirely in movement fall into this same trap.
Arc works best when its dancers and musicians work in tandem, beyond simply performing at the same time. Lisa Kobayashi on violin circled Haiqiu Zu as she performed, and Madeleine Norris and Josh Chee’s duet encapsulates perfectly the scratch and slide of the violin in a strong balance between jerky and sensuous movement. The clear highlight, however, is Britt and Baird’s mesmerising final piece. Choreographed by Baird, who speaks with power and feeling in a poem about how we are made up of our stories, Britt’s movement is barely distinguishable from the words, and choreography is imaginative and challenges the confines of the body in a way that none of the other performances manage.
As a first run of a still-developing show, ARC demonstrates a great amount of potential. With life’s emotional arc as its theme, it can never really stop growing. The show can be seen at the upcoming Verge Festival, once more in the Cellar.