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Arts Festival Review: Happy as Larry

Arts Festival Review: Happy as Larry

Review by Jack Gray

Happy as Larry
Shaun Parker and Company (Australia)
7 – 10 March
TSB Bank Arena


The TSB Arena Stadium is reconfigured for a theatre performance with black curtains, while at the front of the stage stands a man (Dean Cross) drawing little miniature cartoon people in rows in chalk on a grey free standing wall (designed by Adam Gardiner).

Cross then writes YOU with an arrow pointing to one of these cartoon people that draws applause from the crowd. Next, he draws a light switch that cleverly “activates” a real light then a balloon that brings down from the rafters a network of brightly coloured balloons tied together by intricate invisible threads.

This device of using written language, drawn symbols and the wall to navigate through this coded world, becomes established as the primary way choreographer Shaun Parker transitions through different mind states for the characters and audience.

Centre stage an Torres Straight Island woman (Ghenoa Gela) in street track-pants stands expressionless with a basketball. We think someone in the audience is laughing but realise she is laughing herself using some ventriloquist trick. It is a totally bizarre effect. I wonder about the effect/consequences of urbanisation on Australia’s indigenous and become curious as to whether these issues may be explored specifically and further in the work.

Soon after a group of people (representing 9 different archetypes in a pyschological map called the Ennegram Model) in varyingly coloured shorts, shirts (and one with rollers-skates) appear from behind the wall. They all ripple, fall, stand, shift, smile and look outwards with different facial expressions. We see a myriad of movement combining ballet, break dancing, T-shirt pulling, sliding off the wall, coming and going, the wall turns back, more facials. A pulsing beat brings a stepping pattern in stop-start motion; little shifts, and lifts, smiles and no smiles. Gradually the configuration becomes more acrobatic with break-dancing, jazz, capoeira movements threaded throughout the vocabulary.

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As the dance evolves, I get a sense that the choreography – whilst not predictable – is highly premeditated in its approach, as the steps and timing jar between moments of frenetic freedom and being married fastidiously to the music. A statement “That was fun” written on the wall at the conclusion of that piece, makes me question its irony.

A beautiful dark haired girl (Marnie Palomares) does an articulate solo to a more pulsing, sensuous, rippling beat of music. Knees, elbows, long, stretched, contracted, robotic, she catches bits of the music with gestures, constantly moving, little offerings of smiles, clicks, sign language, beats, clicks, cicadas.

At this point I consider that everything in this work seems so thought through. For example a line is drawn in chalk, then another character comes to put the ball on the line. The aboriginal woman does robotic locking type movements all the way to the ball. Then a guy in a green T-shirt (the fantastic Josh Mu) appears and bounces in synchronicity with her ball. Though he is an incredibly physical and a magical mover, the relationship that is set up between them is unchanged throughout this scene and stays inside the parameters it has created.

A duet with the dark haired girl (Palomares) sees her contorting around the board as the draw-er guy (Cross) moves his chalk around her. My favourite moment was a sweeping bold arc that he draws on the wall as he sweeps her into his arms. It leaves a tangible thing hanging in the air demarcating the spaces in between them.

A ballerina in yellow socks (Harriet Ritchie) performs a series of classical dance exercises in a happy and animated manner. The chalk guy begins to cut off her space, by enclosing her within a series of increasingly smaller and more furiously marked out boxes on the floor. However she is let off the hook at the end as he draws a line that enables her to get out of trouble. Throughout the work these scenes of potential power play are relieved at the end so perhaps the potency and underlining messages are not as fully pointed.

A highlight for me was seeing the two B Boy dancers (Josh Mu and Matt Cornell) perform. Their style was so relaxed, intricate, highly skilled and effortless. They definitely had the most original movement and seemed to have some kind of authentic connection to their physicality with their performance quality. Their dancing throughout the show stretched from pulses, locks, transfer of weight, popping to fluid, seamless and gravity defying floor moves that left the viewer breathless.

The older bearded man (Lee Wilson) in skates leaps and falls repeatedly…but I think none of this is really accidental. A girl (Miranda Wheen) tries to come help him up but is unsuccessful. An intense solo to strings sees the chalk guy moving with arcs of sound, into and out of the floor and back again. Its intensity makes me think that perhaps this world is constructed of a backwards happiness – are they really happy? It builds to a climax as the wall spins and the skater does faster and faster circles around the stage. A moment of potential mishap almost happens as the wall encroaches upon the prone chalk guy, but he deftly manages to avoid it and we see his transition to being dragged offstage again present a neat happy bow to the story.

More scenes come and go as the work becomes to spiral into areas of darkness lurking beneath the surface. A crazy chalk hysteria, a gymnast (Paul White) solo turning on his cheering crowd like a cornered dog, a trio of giggly girls overwhelmed by their own vicious movement, a waltz seduction by the boys, jumping and falling off the wall. Ghenoa Gela appears again flicking and catching her ball with prowess, performing Beyonce-style hip hop movement that again alludes for me at least to the sense of globalization, for better or worse.

The finale of the show features what I would call a ‘Happy Dance’ where they perform an extravaganza megamix of every dance cliché known to modern audiences. This is followed by oodles of frenzied dancing that gradually de-cumulates and whittles itself down to the last image of the chalk man and his balloons.

Overall my biggest appreciation was towards several of the dancers who had a fantastic physicality and commitment to their performance. As a work however, I was left unsure of the title “Happy as Larry”: What made them happy, what were they searching for and were they changed at all by the nature of their pursuit?

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See also: Katie MacKinnon - Arts Festival Review: Happy as Larry (2)

Press Release: New Dance Programme Defies Borders
Arts Festival website: Happy As Larry
Scoop Full Coverage: Arts Festival 2010

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