Choreography Down Under

Article excerpt

Free Radicals, a new work by Sydney Dance Company artistic director Graeme Murphy, highlights Australia's affinity for space, light, and movement.

The spotlight falls on Xue-Jun Wang. Barechested, tall, and chiseled like a god, he raises his head and begins to count--1, 2, 3--writing the equivalent Mandarin characters on his chest in ink. Behind him percussionist Allison Eddington follows his careful counting on her drum. Other dancers slowly circle around them, and the chanting grows.

Thus begins Free Radicals, an explosive ninety-minute piece conceived by Graeme Murphy, Australia's leading dance choreographer and the artistic director of the Sydney Dance Company. The work begins with the percussionists' and dancer's common language--counting--and develops into a series of duets, trios, and ensemble works in which sixteen dancers and three percussionists interact and exchange rotes in a free-flowing synthesis that takes your breath away. Murphy conceived Free Radicals last summer for the company's three-month fall tour of the United States, their first tour in the States in ten years.

For the true origin of the piece, we must travel back some fifteen years when Murphy, having choreographed a new work to a score by Richard Meale, was confronted with one of those crazy backstage strikes and was without music. The show went on with the dancers' own feet to establish the beat. Then in 1992, Murphy and his dancers joined forces with Michael Askill's percussionist group Synergy and created Synergy With Synergy, a dance piece that grew out of eight percussive scores by such luminaries as John Cage, Elliott Carter, Ross Edwards, and Nigel Westlake.

With Free Radicals, Murphy became a little more daring. When his troupe assembled in the studio to begin their second collaboration with Askill and his percussive colleagues Allison Eddington and Alison Low Choy, they were faced with no musical score and no choreography, just musicians and dancers and two months to develop a full-evening work. Murphy's idea was to build the piece from scratch. "I didn't know where it was going to go," he admits. "We started with nothing, so the whole thing is fresher than it would have been otherwise. Whether the dancers are generating the sound or the musicians the dance ... we needed each other to achieve the total sum of the parts."

The result was uninhibited movement full of improvisational power. The dancers were forced to abandon simple eight-count phrasing for the rhythmic complexity of the musicians, who in turn were, as the program note states, "forced into an avalanche of movement." In one sequence, the musicians play the dancers and explore the different timbres the body makes as the dancers become musical instruments and the musicians become the dancers. In another sequence, two percussionists boogie around the stage as dancers tap, clap, snap, and breathe with them.

"I have abandoned the melodic line, the idea that the dancer must interpret the music," explains Murphy. "Free Radicals is a departure because it's based on the marriage of musician and dancer. It was an exciting piece to create because it forced both the dancer and the musician to improvise. I love the idea of a dancer as maker of music."

While he abandons the melodic line, Murphy has not done away with lyrical and breathtaking moments so characteristic of his choreography. One example is a solo for Wakako Asano in which she plays charmingly with lights that flutter around her head like fireflies, all the while cooing and laughing in a darkness that suggests the vastness of the Australian wilderness. Her piece flows nicely into a synchronized and sensual duet where one dancer glides across the stage on her partner's feet. Janet Vernon, the Sydney Dance Company's associate choreographer (Murphy refers to her as his "muse"), performed an intricately woven quartet with three other dancers. Murphy's dancers are tied to his love of the classical. …