Chocolate - Java Dance Theatre
"We started at the beginning of time and now we have reached dessert”.
Java Dance Theatre’s Artistic Director and Creative New Zealand Fellow, Sacha Copland, initiated the company’s five-part Artisan series in 2011 with RISE. This was followed by The Wine Project (2014) and The Creamery (2017). Chocolate, the fourth part of the series, is another tactile and integrated experience which evolves from a thorough exploration of the chocolate-making process. Performed by three dancers and two musicians, Chocolate is an hour-long performance theatre work with plenty of sensory appeal.
Audience members are required to remove their shoes before the house opens, and when it does, the smell of chocolate is powerful and enticing. Tapere Iti (small theatre) is set up in the round, and the performers verbally and physically welcome us into the space. Initially breaking the fourth wall then (in a tonal schism) adopting fixed, unwavering grins the performers leave no question that Chocolate is primarily joyous. Like the others in the Artisan series, Chocolate has a companion children’s show Treat, although for older children this work is totally accessible.
Java Dance Theatre’s Chocolate is consciously integrated, with each performer moving, playing instruments or making sound to some extent, however, marked differences in skill differentiate dancers and musicians. Live music enriches this experience, particularly the use of cello and violin. Percussion is rhythmically simplistic and not always in time, but the deep range of a snared cajon provides welcome aural contrast. Chocolate embraces audience participation; if you choose to sit in the front row you will definitely be involved. The humour is tame and gentle, and for people new to this style of theatre it will be a safe initiation.
Chocolate takes a light-hearted, abstract, and thematic approach to its subject matter, and somewhat unexpectedly does not explore its rich cultural history, widespread production or iconography of luxury in depth. The work begins with an extended sequence of performers eating small pieces of hand-wrapped chocolate, which is expanded to include audience members. The first round of participants are treated to some additional sensory experiences (descriptions of which would require a spoiler alert) which perhaps misses an opportunity to explore Aztec and Central American links between chocolate, currency and social status. The performance overall is brightly lit, and this section in particular calls for more deliberately differentiated lighting.
Chocolate relies heavily on the use of props, stored around the periphery of the performance space. These have been designed to be easily transported, as the production heads to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival this August, and at close proximity do look to have been restricted by budget. Brightly coloured costumes contribute to the overall sense of joy, however would benefit from more mobile fabrics and flattering designs.
While Chocolate touches lightly on gluttony, jealousy, frustration and over-indulgence, what it really succeeds at is covering all five senses: sight (liquid melted chocolate drizzled into mouths from a communal spoon), sound (cacao pods shaken like maracas), smell (chocolatey from the first moment), touch (a carpet of cacao husks poured from cupped hands onto a recumbent dancer), and taste (everyone gets a piece). I was hoping for more dancing, and in the main dance section unison and balance need development. Nevertheless, Copland’s choreography provides the most iconic imagery of the performance; the three women dancers embodying strength with arms outstretched, cacao dust coasting them, and one dancer contracting and rising from her chocolatey resting place, ritualistic and renewed.