Underground | DancenorthDancenorth’s latest piece, Underground, is an athletic and entertaining production. Melbourne saw an excerpt from this work at the Australian Dance Awards in June, but that was just a taste of the kind of high-impact, dynamic and collaborative performance Artistic Director Gavin Webber and his company are creating up in Townsville.

Set in the bowels of a decrepit underground train station complete with cheap plastic benches, a line of battered vending machines and flickering fluorescent lights, Underground explores the relationships between a group of quirky stock characters, including a sleazy businessman with sex on the brain (Joshua Thomson), a Taiwanese tourist wielding a mobile phone (Hsin-Ju Chiu), a hard-edged waitress with a cigarette invariably hanging from her lips (Alice Hinde), and a grungy young man who contemplatively works his way through an impressive amount of food and drink over the course of the evening (Kyle Page).

All six characters are searching for, or avoiding, intimacy with their fellow passengers in a way that explores the level of responsibility we each owe to the strangers with whom we share our world.

The dancers are given an opportunity to show what is most exciting and accessible about contemporary dance as they roll, slide and leap across the stage - landing, more often than not, atop one another. Hinde delivers an impressive solo, bouncing like a rubber ball off the floor after every high-impact fall while Page seems almost suspended in the air as he leaps and flips across the stage. Most of the movement patterns are familiar, although the dancers occasionally surprise us with brave lifts and dangerous landings that reveal a level of fearlessness only belied by a bruised thigh or bloody knee.

These dancers are tough - and that’s what carries the work through.

Luke Smiles has created the perfect sound design for a piece that flirts with both real life and the world of dreams, grounding the work with a gritty mix of rock music and the textured noise of mass transit. He effectively uses sounds to underpin moments of slapstick onstage, including Chiu’s hard-core karate-chopping stunts, as well as several other clever gags that ring with a decidedly masculine sense of humour.

However, this work is not without faults. Interesting moments of movement, stillness and text last far too long, allowing the punch of initial impact to drain inexorably away. Just as the dancers are waiting for their train, so too does the audience for the next explosion of movement. From there, we wait for a respite from what consistently devolves into gratuitous action.

At times the intimate set-up at Artshouse is truly effective, especially when it seems as though the dancers are going to crash in a tangle of thrashing limbs and flying hair directly into the laps of the front row. Despite the sense of danger such close proximity provides, the eventual expansion of the space gives a welcome relief and a chance for everyone to catch a breath. The piece might have worked better in a larger, and less intimate venue.

Underground fails to deliver on the age-old adage that you should always leave the audience wanting more. This is a shame considering how pleasurable it is to just sit back and appreciate some great dancing. And these dancers really know how to move.

Underground | Dancenorth

Arts House, North Melbourne Town Hall | 521 Queensberry Street, North Melbourne
Wednesday 12 to Sunday 16 November 2008
7.30pm. 75 minutes no interval
$25 / $18
artshouse.com.au or 03 9639 0096

National Tour Dates

Brisbane 8 – 11 October
Lismore 14 – 15 October
Bathurst 18 October
22 October – 1 November
Hobart 5 – 8 November
Melbourne 12 – 16 November
Perth 19 – 29 November

Visit: dancenorth.com.au

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