120 Birds

Lynne Lancaster

RIVERSIDE THEATRES: Wickedly wonderful, this is the glorious ‘factional’ story of Company Elle and its major place in Australian dance, where history blends seamlessly with imagined autobiography
120 Birds
This dazzling show was sheer enjoyment. A potted ‘factional’ (i.e. a melding of fact and fiction) history of dance in Australia in the 1920’s and 30’s (think prima ballerina Anna Pavlova and the Ballets Russes as envisioned in Graeme Murphy’s Poppy, Tivoli and Nutcracker) and featuring a terrific cast, it is the culmination of 20 years of dance and research by choreographer/performer Liz Lea.

In 120 Birds, a dancer has found her voice. It opens in 1933 and we, the audience, are attending an elegant fundraising soiree to celebrate a decade of ‘Company Elle’. Madame Elle (Liz Lea) is the narrator, telling the story behind the scenes of the company, the hardships of their travels both around Australia and overseas, the drama of love, and an acknowledgment of the massive influence of Pavlova, the Ballets Russes, and Denishawn.

Black and white footage of the period is cleverly montaged – some of it is a hoot. We see Madame as a young entertainer at Manly, with lifesavers at Bondi; there is a hilarious ‘Berlei Maid’ underwear modelling sequence, plus a mention of the 1932 Australian cricket team. We also see incredible footage of Annette Kellermann as well as a sensational tap-dance by Stan Ray and George Moon.

There is also ‘social dancing’ such as the waltz, the slinky and passionate tango, and the Charleston (featuring an ironic, sculptural solo to a voiceover of a complicated description of how to do the Charleston), all of which blend live performance with black and white film. There is some ballet, but hardly any pointe work.

A lot of the choreography is ‘modern’, almost German Expressionist like Wigman, some of it influenced by the showbiz world and jazz of the period; and some possibly early Balanchine, or influenced by Denishawn (there is a fun, very difficult sequence of a ‘modern’ dance rehearsal to Indian dance counts), and of course the major influence of the great Pavlova (as well as hints of Ashton, with a ‘mermaid’ solo by Ash Bee). The finale features allusions to Perrot’s ‘Pas de Quatre’.

Named after the 120 birds in Pavlova’s entourage – Pavlova was a great collector, which caused major transport and customs headaches – the show is a celebration of Australian dance history steeped in humour, fashion and feathers. Pavlova toured here in 1926 and 1929, and in 1923 toured India. As with Helpmann and Ashton, Pavlova was a major inspiration and influence for Lea’s fictional Madame Elle. And yes, there is a tribute to her famous ‘Dying Swan’ solo.

Inspired by Florence Broadhurst and based on the Ballets Russes, Erte etc are the numerous stylish costumes to die for. Oh! The beading! The jewels! The headdresses! Miss Phryne Fisher would love them. A lot of the work is danced in light sandals or strappy, small heeled ‘chorus’/’character’ shoes. The ‘modern’ works are mostly barefoot.

The excellent set designs include folding screens and chairs, cushions and are objects which are also Ballets Russes/Broadhurst inspired – I particularly loved the Broadhurst bird painting projected on the rear screen.

The four main cast members – Lea, Ash Bee, Miranda Wheen and Melanie Fayd’herbe de Maudave – are sensational. We see how the small company grows together and has its ups and downs and fractured interwoven relationships. The denouement provides another unexpected jolt – I won’t say more or I‘ll spoil it, but special mention must be made of the sometimes Louie Fuller-like use of rippling material, providing an almost vaudeville finale to Gershwin’s ‘Rhapsody in Blue’. Lea as fiery Madame Elle is inspiring and dynamic, a glorious performance. Demanding, witty and acerbic, she was sometimes caustic in her comments and at other times wistful, especially when pondering her inevitable future once she could no longer perform.

Wickedly wonderful, this is the glorious ‘factional’ story of Company Elle and its major place in Australian dance, where history blends with imagined autobiography. Required viewing.

Rating: 4 stars out of 5

120 Birds
Concept & direction: Liz Lea
Choreography: Liz Lea and Co 2012, and Leisl Bourke, Laura Caldow, Federico Farfaro
Performers: Melanie Fayd’herbe de Maudave (Palomeres), Miranda Wheen, Ash Bee and Liz Lea with Toni Allen, Madeleine Bullock, Charmaine Hallam and Glenys Harris
Film edited by Tim Cowie and Liz Lea
Costume and set: Liz Lea and Gabriella Csanyi Wills
Costumes made by Liz Lea, Nina Caie ,Bruce Scott, Kevin MuScatt, Pam Diver and the company
Lighting design: Gillian Schwab

Riverside Theatre, Parramatta
May 23 – 26

About the author

Lynne Lancaster is a Sydney based arts writer who has previously worked for Ticketek, Tickemaster and the Sydney Theatre Company. She has an MA in Theatre from UNSW, and when living in the UK completed the dance criticism course at Sadlers Wells, linked in with Chichester University.