Poupée | Trudy RadburnLeft - Trudy Radburn. Cover - (l-r) Sally Smith & Trudy Radburn. Photo - Tania Jovanovic

The minute I sat in that great space at fortyfive downstairs and looked at the set and the three performers in place on the stage, I knew it was going to be a good show. I wasn’t disappointed.

Poupée (French for ‘doll’) is a dance work that pushes the boundaries of the partnership between dance and music. There are moments of brilliance in this production. The repetition and conformity of the everyday is transposed onto the dancers’ bodies, through their very fingertips, and the poignancy that results leaves you smiling, nodding, and goose-pimply all at the same time.

Choreographed by Trudy Radburn and performed by Radburn and Sally Smith, Poupée explores female identity and the archetypes of femininity through doll-like characters that make their way from birth to death through the duration of the show.

The beginning of the piece is one of the best openings to a dance piece I think I’ve ever seen. The representation of birth, or awakening, is original, humorous, and extremely well devised and performed. The use of a big armful of white tulle is one of those ideas that sparks with brilliance because of the utter simplicity of it.

Radburn (who has an MA in Choreography from the VCA) and Smith are both seasoned dancers, which became increasingly obvious as the show progressed and the partnered work increased. They clearly have an intimate understanding of each other’s physicality and they work well together. There is a long fight sequence (perhaps slightly over-long) at end of the show that particularly demonstrates this. There are many moments in Poupée where the choreography demands technical skill combined with this intuitive sense of ‘an other’ and they work exceptionally well. There is a small series of moves where Radburn and Smith dance with the top of their heads joined together; they make it look easy.

Radburn does a wonderful job exploring individual identity as well as how individuality is restricted in modern society. There is a great sequence that involves exploring the self in a mirror, showing how confronting and liberating that can be. But then the dancers are suddenly wearing identical wigs and falling into a tug-of-war with the self about having to conform to certain fashions and behaviours. This is followed by a wedding sequence that’s a fantastic, humourous moment of shock, fear, and disillusionment, followed by a ‘breaking out’ that is brilliantly choreographed and stunningly performed by Radburn and Smith.

The use of live music with musician and composer Madeleine Flynn playing the piano onstage is a great inclusion for a show that explores who we really are in battle with who we think we should be and who we are often pressured to be. The relationship between the choreography and some of the more discordant and pared back music is interesting and certainly shows the skill of the dancers. One of the show’s aforementioned moments of brilliance is when Flynn has her own live battle, playing counterpoint with a piece of recorded music. Brilliant.

As well as a performer, Flynn’s presence onstage at the baby grand piano also makes her part of the set, which adds to the whole flavour of the visual style of the work. The curtain of suspended dolls that covers one corner of the set is surprisingly striking, especially when backlit at the end, and I did find myself wishing there had been more use of it. In general, the show would benefit from a lighting design with greater complexity that would contribute to the notion of the deconstruction of archetypes.

In terms of exploring these female archetypes, I wonder if even one expression of joy might be a necessary addition to the show. There is much bewilderment, angst and resignation on the faces of Smith and Radburn, but I wanted a smile, just one. Another thing that jarred somewhat was the voice work by Smith. It was ably performed, but included somewhat hesitantly in only one sequence; ultimately it gets lost within the whole context of the show.

The layers of context and meaning in Poupée creep into your thoughts hours after seeing it. It’s well worth a look.

a dance work by Trudy Radburn

Venue: fortyfivedownstairs | 45 Flinders Lane, Melbourne
Dates/Times: February 12-15, 2009 at 8pm; Sat Feb 14 at 4pm & 8pm
Tickets: $20/$15 Conc.   
Bookings: fortyfivedownstairs.com or 9662 9966

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