Choreographers: Olive Bieringa and Otto Ramstad with composer Clare Cowan; Catherine Chappell with composer/percussionist Chris O'Connor; videographer Alyx Duncan.
at Te Whaea National Dance and Drama Centre, 11 Hutchison Rd, Newtown, Wellington
Until 29 Aug 2015
Reviewed by Sam Trubridge, 28 Aug 2015
I first saw Touch Compass a few years after they had formed, at the 1999 Celebration of the Performing Arts in Auckland. It changed my perception of dance from that of an art-form beyond the reach of common expression. Until then dance had seemed to me more athletic than polemic, more technique than content. However, watching the amazing Touch Compass dancers moving together on stage through their unique ways allowed me to see the broader potential for dance as a live and powerfully expressive artform.
16 years later and Touch Compass are a class act. This year's Acquisitions Tour features some fantastic dancers and collaborations to create a moving night of movement. The set design remains consistent throughout each work: in the two choreographed works Undertide and Watching Windows, as much as in the three featured film sections. This elegant construction of one large cubic space on elevated wheels and other various boxes of various sizes helps bring the whole evening together. Windows, hatches, and doorways provide spaces within these spaces, portals between, spaces of passage, and frames for the bodies that pass. It is a shame that this design (and the lighting) is not credited in the programme because it is an incredibly strong and sophisticated contribution to the work, allowing the whole set to perform in collaboration with the choreographers and their seven dancers.
Undertide is choreographed by Olive Bieringa and Otto Ramstad from The Body Cartography Project. It is wonderful to see their trademark sensitivity to tiny shifts and touches, initiating small changes in energy within a group that share a strong empathic connection through each movement. After a video introduction, the dance starts outside the largest of the wooden boxes, in a knot of bodies that slowly emerges from the low light. The box becomes a stage within the larger stage of Te Whaea's auditorium. Alisha McLennan's departure from the group to enter this space is a lovely and poignant act that highlights the decision to be seen, to perform, and to do something that is seen. As other dancers follow her, they unite in a liquid, tidal investigation of this small interior together, rolling past and over one another, like bodies at sea. Sometimes they join in a trembling that shakes the walls and floor of this enclosure. They finally break the bounds of this little space and spin like dervishes, one hand to the heavens and one hand connecting to the earth below. It is testament to Bieringa and Ramstad's sensitivity and tenderness as choreographers that the final exit is so moving – as the dancers turn and simply walk out, with each body comfortable in its own gait, its own rhythms. It is beautiful.
Two videos come next: Alyx Duncan's Dancebox is a stunning play between small and large scale, with stunning symbolism and theatrical image-making filmed entirely within the boxes. Another video features Duncan Armstrong in a jubilant play on the percussive character of the same boxes. They make a powerful interlude in the evening of live performance.
The last work brings to life the whole array of the cubes that have been arranged around the larger ‘home' box. It is a playful work of acrobatic engagement with the architectural arrangement on stage. The dancers spring through small openings, pace around the larger ones, they slide through hatches, emerge from the ceiling, twist under the elevated flooring, and glide over another's own bodies. Gravity, a sense of up and down, beneath and above, is often inverted, rotated, and unsettled by this tumbling weave of movement through the compartments and contained spaces. It reminds me of Malia Johnstone's own use of boxes in Miniatures (2007), and Ross McCormack's recent Age for the 2014 NZ Festival. These works all express a certain New Zealand relationship with home and landscape: a miniature, temporary, or fragile enclosure in the large open terrain of the theatre/landscape. At the strongest moments Touch Compass bodies pace these spaces, look out, and examine tender, awkward, or solitary relationships inside each enclosure.
Sometimes it is not clear what the boxes are meant to be, other than a jungle-gym for this very strong and adept group of performers. A mime sequence with smaller boxes seems to evaporate a lot of the powerful symbolism these boxes have accumulated throughout the evening. This is not so strong, but other scenes bring things back to life, when a box vibrates as it is pushed on stage. It is then turned to reveal Georgie Goater crammed into the tiny interior. Her drumming on the box infects the rest of the cast, and in the final victorious moments of the performance everyone hammers on the walls of various pieces of the set. Others clatter the smaller components together, shaking the walls, swinging the doors, and animating this little settlement of cubic shapes with their collective energy. It is a fantastic finale.