The latest work by battery opera, “Cyclops”, is their winning proposal for the 2003 Alcan Performing Arts Award, which gave them $60,000 towards its creation. The award operates on a three-year cycle of dance, theatre and opera; this is the second dance winner, after 2000’s “Circa” by The Holy Body Tattoo.
“Cyclops” is a loose compilation of myths and imagery about the sea, created by battery opera co-directors Lee Su-Feh and David McIntosh. The credit for choreography is given to battery opera itself, suggesting the duo both had a hand in it. Lee is well known for her cross-cultural modern dance choreography, which is heavily influenced by her training in Malaysian dance and martial arts. In 1998, “Gecko Eats Fly” won Lee the Prix de Jeune Auteur of the Rencontres Chorégraphiques Internationales de Seine-St. Denis. In 1990, art school-trained McIntosh began studying martial arts and, with Lee, teaches wushu, a form of martial arts, to both dancers and non-dancers. In “Cyclops”, and in their previous collaboration, “Spektator”, it is clearly martial arts that most inspires the choreography.
The movement in “Cyclops” – performed by Lee, Billy Marchenski, Jen Murray and Ron Stewart – is guided by forces of efficiency, release, flow and focus, which the quartet of dancers beautifully embody. The two women, who perform together although in separate spaces, glide purposefully about, low to the ground, poised for defence or attack. One foot is often flat on the floor, while the other perches in a high demi-pointe, so they are both grounded and light. Their arms are fluid snakes.
The men also perform as a team, although Stewart has some strong solo movement. At the beginning, for instance, while Marchenski lies stretched out on the floor, moving his arms and feet as if swimming, the tall, red-headed Stewart steps upstage in a minimalist Highland fling, arms held easily in ballet’s third position, alternating this with the low, grounded lunges of martial arts. Later, he roars around the stage, a mad, naked king. But the bulk of the men’s movement is a more general kind of graceful release, lovely for what it is, but not enough to sustain an eighty-minute work. Marchenski, a theatre graduate, is a strong performer, but I began to long for some signs of virtuosity, some deeper understanding of the subtleties of time and space which is so much at the heart of dance.
Jen Tam has costumed the dancers in plain dark green pants, with the women in brief, white halters and the men bare-chested. Early on, the men approach two odd, white shrouds placed at the side of the stage, which turn out to be shirts. They put them on and then flap their arms and twist their torsos about, so the shirts snap like sails on a ship out at sea on a windy day. On the bare, dark stage, the shirts/sails shining brightly, the men seem tossed about by a storm, and the vulnerability and romance of old sailing ships strikes home. It’s a beautiful scene.
As this section ends, the band perched on the balcony at stage right performs a wild rendition of “What Shall We Do With a Drunken Sailor?” Vocalist McIntosh throws himself into a raucous version of the sea shanty, filling it with nonsense words, accompanied by saxophonists Chris Grove and Max Murphy. Later, singer Liz Hamel lends the work a more elegiac note when she performs Dido’s Lament from Purcell’s opera “Dido and Aeneas”.
From my seat at the end of the second, ground floor row, I couldn’t catch even a glimpse of the band so, although the sound quality appeared to be live, I was only sure of this once McIntosh stood forward to narrate a tale and I could see his face if I craned my neck. The story was about a man who had to”fuck” a horse in public in order to become king. McIntosh tells the story in a straightforward manner which strips it of any possible metaphorical meaning, although he begins it with “A long time ago when a man would be king”. It’s a fairy tale, but without the magic.
The approach to sound and movement in “Cyclops” are markedly different. When Stewart holds Marchenski’s arm and appears to take a big bite out of it in an act of cannibalism, he does so slowly, gently, so that the desperate act is layered over with something else. Unlike the text, the choreography reaches for metaphor.
And where is the Cyclops of the title? I have no memory at all of a one-eyed giant, although some of the manic songs were difficult to decipher and I might have missed a reference. There are certainly monstrous events in this work – that mad king, that cannibalism and bestiality – but the overall impression is a calmer one carried through the abstract sea changes of the choreography.
The work has many of the same contributors as Lee and McIntosh’s earlier “Spektator” from 2001. The performers were all part of that popular three-ring circus (a boxing ring, more literally). Both works had the same dramaturge, DD Kugler, as well. Kugler’s influence was more evident in “Spektator”, which was dramatically clear, with a plot line that had the audience full of anticipation. Dramatically, “Cyclops” was nebulous. At a point, the two women’s mysterious entrances and exits even became tiresome. The men’s roles were unclear, making it impossible to follow any dramatic arc.
Another problem lies in the choreography’s remarkable blend of martial arts, traditional Malaysian dance, modern dance and hints of ballet. While that blend is the work’s strength, it is also a limitation. In this incarnation, the dance is less about choreographic concerns and mostly about martial arts, thus losing out on musicality and other choreographic possibilities.
I hope battery opera develops “Cyclops”, which at this stage is a promising first draft with many wonderful elements. The quirky McIntosh with his affinity for manic energy and humour, and the more finely crafted, serious force that Lee brings to her choreography and performance, need to somehow come together in a fundamental way, as they did in “Spektator”. The band should be on stage, or at least clearly visible, so that the sound and vision are forced to work as one. Battery opera has come a long way since its founding in 1995, and hopefully will continue to press hard.