Insolent River: a Tango Review
Reviewed by Paul Young
For those of you who find such things relevant, this dance was created thirty-one years ago, exactly halfway through Michael Parmenter's life. Parmenter is 62 years young.
I will try to recite the whakapapa of Insolent River: a tango succinctly.
In 1983, while dancing with Stephen Petronio in New York, Parmenter became fascinated by and compelled to study with the renowned Butoh artist Min Tanaka in Japan. The ultimate challenge of Tanaka's training was an invitation to the students to endure eight days of isolation in situ on a mountain, with neither food nor shelter. It was freezing cold and it rained the whole time. Parmenter's great realisation was that the only way to weather the experience was to embrace it and to let the elements embrace him. This experiential opening of the body and mind was the key to Tanaka's lesson. Also while, in New York, Parmenter had witnessed the tango revival show Tango Argentino and was impressed by the Dancer’s improvisational partnership which is built around their embrace.
Parmenter imagined the two experiences coalescing, the relational and bodily embrace of the tango situated in the elemental embrace of the mountain, and these seemingly antithetical ideas merge and diverge conceptually and thematically throughout Insolent River: a tango. The performers switch paradigms often, one minute abstract and metaphysical, the next familiarly mundane.
Like its predecessors in ’85 and ’88, the 2016 version of Insolent River: a tango is a dance which deals with desire, more specifically perhaps, the desire to find completion through another.
A tectonic rumble heralds an awakening and a crumb of earth falls from the tightly packed earth on the far riverbank. A tiny landslide reveals a finger, then a shoulder, and then two sensationally beautiful bodies are slowly birthed from each side of the riverbank. They are incomplete and helpless, twitching and reaching with every fiber of themselves until BANG, they are together. Lovers. Magnets. Sperm and egg.
Operatic in scope, and full of allegorical imagery, the work makes us party to an epic journey of discovery as the performers navigate their relationship. Domestic ritual, kneeling penitence, sensual erotica, and joyful exaltation are grist to the mill as the characters are literally tossed around by unseen forces. No matter how helplessly they fall, equilibrium is restored by returning to the embrace. They are stronger together. Not necessarily linear in narrative, one could interpret the emergence from the ground and eventual ascension to hurtle through space clinging to a rock as being a Biblical analogy. While the relationship between the two is existential, their bodies are perhaps not autonomous.
Re-imagined with two casts, Aloalii Tapu and Josie Archer, and Emily Adams and Kosta Bogoievski, the talent on display is an embarrassment of riches.
Adams is a slightly dark presence, powerful and resigned while Bogoievski is springy and muscular; his ‘made to move’ boyishness gives this cast an oedipal subtext. Tapu and Archer fill the space with warmth, limbs, sensuality and joy. Their connection is a dream to watch
The often punishing physicality complements often minuscule virtuosities such as the roll of a foot across the floor, the turning of a face skyward, the quivering of a single muscle. Concepts of masculinity and femininity are addressed and undressed through shared costume, role play, and gender-performative acts. When Tapu/Bogoievski lip sync “Stand by Your Man” by Tammy Wynette, my heart melts.
John Verryt’s simple set, modelled on the original by Stuart Griffith, begins as a silver river but, like a palimpsest, is overwritten as a dingy house, a church, an arena, a ballroom, a backyard an airplane, even outer space. David Downes’ sound and AV design pulls together his own arrhythmic compositions replete with percussion, breath, and a bed of primordial rumbling. Lighting by Sean Curham is effective and unobtrusive.
Insolent River is largely improvised but let's just exorcise any connotations of hippy-ness or ‘winging’ it which does little justice to the complex methodology and skill deployed by the dancers. The original work was tightly structured as a series of short episodes and that structure underlies the improvisational performance. Parmenter has spent the recent part of his career developing the partnering techniques Piloting and TACTICS, which he says differ from contact improvisation by focusing on the two-ness of the improvisers rather than one-ness. The partnering vocabulary originally developed for Insolent River is prototypical of these techniques, and in 2016 one might say that Parmenter now has the technology to fully realise his original vision. Application of these techniques is evident throughout the work but particularly in the opening section of piloting which progresses from a tight, intertwined duet ‘in utero’ to spacious, sensuous partner dance. TACTICS is employed throughout to demonstrate more discordant and dramatic relations.
One of the possible benefits of transverse staging is that the experience is triangulated between the two banks of the audience and the performers. An elderly lady in the front row opposite me is clasping her daughter's hands, immersed in the gladiatorial romance being played out between us. My heart, already mushy, is liquefied.
Fluid, beautiful, and alive, Michael Parmenter's Insolent River is unequivocally timeless, crossing and uncrossing Rubicon by way of its own resurrection, the virtuosity of its dancers and its conceptual depth. And could there be a better analogy for the twists and turns of our lives than a river, which no matter how ferocious and singular, slows, and is eventually subsumed by the sea?
*All images by Caroline Bindon
Presented by: Tempo Dance Festival in collaboration with Commotion Company and Zanetti Productions, and made possible by Dance Aotearoa New Zealand, Creative New Zealand and Wallace Foundation.