The performance outcome of cross-cultural collaborations, especially short-term ones, doesn’t always match the benefit of the process for the artists. But Matrix resoundingly demonstrates how a five-year connection can synergise the best of each company into apotheotic dance.

Initiated in 2015, the Chinese-Australia Dance Exchange Project has been an extension of the pathways Expressions Dance Company has navigated over several decades. EDC’s involvement with BeijingDance/LDTX Artistic Director Willy Tsao actually began in 2011, with the work First Ritual and continued with his other associated companies in 2016 and 2018 (Natalie Weir’s gorgeous 4Seasons).

Stephanie Lake’s Auto Cannibal. Photograph © Wang Xiao

Matrix was created during a five-week creative development between EDC’s six dancers and BeijingDance/LDTX’s 14 in China. Each nationality is represented by a choreographic voice rendering contrasting acts of reflection, both works distilling a distinct cultural spirit.

As suggested by its edgy title, Stephanie Lake’s Auto Cannibal invokes contemporary philosophies of dance and a quirky eclectic approach that resonates with Australian sensibilities. Despite Lake referencing self-derivation the work is an acknowledgement that this is intrinsic to the process of being and living, and an ode to how we can infuse new influences and interactions to explore, grow and develop.

Auto Cannibal feels fresh, unique and exciting – very much of the now. As in last year’s stunning Ceremony for the Converge season, the movement is set to a percussive score and features intricate and precise movements hitting and holding geometric angles, off-kilter poses and positions. Isolations, contortions and contractions feature strongly in arm lines and body movements. These are juxtaposed with fluid sweeps, releases and undulations, and explosive and expansive extensions including breakdancing windmills.

Then there are sculptural tableaux, processional friezes, nightclub grooving and white petals I imagined as a floating fall of feathers related to arm shapes I saw as bird arms and chicken wings – the power of suggestion! In conjunction with Robin Fox’s score incorporating (what sound like) whip cracks, whirring, chimes, waves, breaths and vocalisations, you never know what to expect next – and it’s riveting.

Created in collaboration with the dancers, the movement strikingly showcases the strengths of the dancers from both companies individually, but it’s the use of groups and unison – especially when focusing the impact of 20 dancers working as one – that makes this a tour de force. Auto Cannibal’s conclusion drew a spontaneous standing ovation from pockets of the opening night audience – rare before an interval. The work and artists deserved it.

Ma Bo’s Encircling Voyage. Photograph © Wang Xiao

Ma Bo’s Encircling Voyage is more traditional in style, ethos and approach, drawing on historical and philosophical Chinese attitudes to the life cycle.

Its tone is poignant and meditative, enhanced by David Darling’s evocative string and guitar score of differing aural textures – legato, staccato and pizzicato, acoustic and electric. As in Auto Cannibal, Joy Chen’s lighting is beautifully atmospheric. Staging utilising mirrored benches, gesture, text and dust vividly depicts the stages of the journey from birth to death and the difficult balancing acts in between. One of the most effective and touching motifs suggests elderly people trying to run forward but being repressed by the passage of time.

Ma’s choreography is inherently theatrical – she recognises the identifying impact a single image or movement can generate. It’s also detailed and complex, occasionally to the detriment of the viewer’s experience – at times there are too many clusters of activity around the stage to be able to take them all in at once, unfortunately, and repetition of themes creates moments that drag in the 45-minute passage.

Although Lake’s is the shorter work, at 25 minutes, I feel perhaps Encircling Voyage playing first would maximise its impact, because adjusting to its more introspective nature is harder after the exhilarating effect of Auto Cannibal.

Finally, opportunities to see contemporary dance of this calibre aren’t as frequent in Brisbane as in the other east coast capitals, so I hope audience numbers recognise this by Saturday, after which Matrix does a single performance at Hong Kong’s City Contemporary Dance Festival on November 20. No doubt it was a treat for Cairns and Queanbeyan dance fans earlier this month.

Matrix plays at QPAC until November 16


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