5 Min Read

Bold Brash Festival Opener: Manifesto

Manifesto. It’s a bold, brash work; and a bold, brash choice for an opener.

Lake’s gutsy, accessible style of choreography and staging is a perfect match for Grandage’s own heart-on-his-sleeve, culturally democratic aesthetic as a festival director, and the opening night audience seemed to devour it – spontaneously clapping and cheering during the show, and giving it a standing ovation at the end.

Nine dancers – five women, four men – are initially revealed onstage lounging on chairs and wearing neat white pants and tops with black trimmings and bare feet; while above them nine drummers ­– with a similar gender-mix including at least one non-binary performer – sit dressed in black behind black rock’n’roll drum kits on a tiered platform with pink drapes descending to the floor.

Charles Davis’s set, Paula Levis’s costumes and Bosco Shaw’s lighting all explicitly invoke the look and feel of a classic post-Depression 1930s Busby Berkley Hollywood musical, and the predominant mood of Lake’s choreography and Robin Fox’s score is for the most part similarly upbeat, upfront and shamelessly free of pretensions to deeper content or significance.

Manifesto. Photography by Roy VanDerVegt.

Manifesto was conceived by Lake and Fox over the past two years of the pandemic during the seemingly endless series of lockdowns in Melbourne, and the sense of relief, joy and (literally) tongue-poking defiance is palpable (and must have been even more so when it was first performed there in 2022 after debuting in Adelaide earlier that year). Lake describes the work as a ‘A Tattoo to Optimism’, and there’s a demonstrative and even regimented quality to the exuberance of the movement, music and staging that reminded me of cheerleading or ritualised military display. This sense of regimentation gradually breaks down (and breaks out) into more freewheeling and individually expressive sequences, including trios, duets and solos by both the dancers and drummers (there are some explosive drum solos, call-and-response sections and chain-reactions). The dancers change costumes twice, their outfits becoming more dressed-down and then more personalised, leading to a final outburst of collective celebration, with hair loosened, items of clothing discarded, furniture attacked, and even the odd outbreak of that uniquely Australian (and much missed) form of protest, streaking (bring it back, I say).

The technical virtuosity and evident sense of enjoyment shared by the dancers and drummers is compelling, and the audience responded in kind; but for me the work had an underlying emotional ambivalence, intentional or otherwise. Much of the choreography and music – most notably in the opening section – took the form of jarring, unpredictable stop-start freeze-frames and ‘samples’ of suddenly erupting and immediately arrested movement and sound (the two seemed to be so conjoined that it was impossible to say which was leading or following the other). This form of image and music-making reminded me of the jarring, unpredictable rhythm of the lockdowns themselves; it also made me think of the stop-start freeze-framing and sampling associated with video or hip-hop. In terms of movement this is a contemporary-dance trope that’s almost become a cliché, but as a form of group spectacle I’ve never seen it taken to such extremes; and in the context of the pandemic it felt almost post-traumatic.

More broadly it made me think of the accelerated expansion of digital media into every aspect of our lives and work during the pandemic – including the increasing colonisation and even replacement of live performance by the internet and the screen; though it felt like an act of resistance to see this embodied onstage by the dancers and drummers, rather than invading the stage with cameras and screens or bombarding it with pre-recorded sound, as is increasingly the case.

Manifesto. Photography by Roy VanDerVegt.

In relation to this sense of traumatised fragmentation I also sensed a (possibly deliberate) absence of structure or sense of direction in the choreography and music, despite the impressive creation of stage pictures and the dazzling execution. In a way the whole show was more like a circus or cabaret consisting of a series of disjointed routines or ‘acts’ than a fully integrated work, which perhaps accounts for the strange sense of anticlimax I was left with at the end. Again, perhaps this lack of overall architecture was itself an act of resistance to traditional forms of progression or integration, or simply an acknowledgment that such forms have been irrevocably shattered or are no longer relevant. As such, the work could be read as an aesthetic ‘manifesto’ as well as an emotional one.

At times however I felt an urge to resist the insistent sense of mass appeal and the seemingly relentless if unspoken barrage of injunctions (‘Stop! Go! Enjoy!’). After all, the pandemic is not yet over; and the social, political and environmental problems that preceded it are still in train, perhaps more catastrophically than ever. That said, the show was at least a welcome distraction and invitation to put those problems out of mind for a while – much like the effect of watching a Busby Berkeley musical, in fact.