Anatomy of an Afternoon

Lynne Lancaster

SYDNEY FESTIVAL: A radical reworking of the noted Afternoon of A Faun, Anatomy of An Afternoon sees one of Australia's most acclaimed male dancers give a mesmerising performance.
Anatomy of an Afternoon
Developed out of a research project for Critical Path, this is a radical reworking of the Debussy/Nijinsky Afternoon of A Faun. Now regarded as a groundbreaking modern masterpiece, Afternoon of A Faun was first performed during the 1912 Ballet Russes in Paris. In the Nijinsky/Debussy version the work has a series of scenes in which a young faun meets various nymphs, flirts with and then chases them. Based on Greek friezes, its style was deliberately archaic with the dancers across the stage like an ancient bas relief. It was performed in bare feet and rejected any classical formalism associated with the balletic tradition. At its premiere it caused a major scandal because of its overtly sexualised nature for its time.

In the century since its premiere, Afternoon of a Faun has survived in recreated productions of the original. It's also inspired numerous new versions by many choreographers including Jerome Robbins, Graeme Murphy, Marie Chouinard and Raimund Hoghe, both as ensemble and/or solo work 'slants' on the piece.

This new work by choreographer Martin del Amo seeks to physically capture the elusive nature of this legendary afternoon. Regarded as one of Australia's leading contemporary dancers, multi award-winning Paul White as the Faun gives an astonishing, magical performance, entering a dreamlike landscape full of hidden dangers and secret pleasures.

It starts off very quietly, with him just standing near the musicians. He wears a casual blue t-shirt and cream trousers. At first there are some very slow isolation movements. The rest of the work is hard to describe and classify – at times he is like a golden Michelangelo sculpture, turning into a tree. At other times he is like Nijinsky's Faun, with the neck turns and twitches. Sometimes he is feral, playing to the audience. Sometimes he is feline, sinuously stretching contentedly in the sun and almost falling asleep. In yet another glorious section he is an alien being, floating in space. And during yet more parts the movement is slow and robotic.

White begins fully clothed but strips to green underpants that just manage to not fall off (which can be quite shocking – another possible reference to Nijinsky's faun perhaps?). References to the well-known Robbins version can be seen in the way the audience is at times a 'mirror' that the questioning, narcissistic Faun uses as he pleases.

Some of the choreography is yoga-like (including headstands etc), some uses Graham technique and isolation exercises, as already mentioned; and there is a lot of floorwork. Every finger and toe is important. White gives a bravura performance of amazing athleticism and control that occasionally explodes. It’s a mesmerising performance of powerful, hidden, indolent semi-eroticism. While the performance itself is amazing, with several brilliant bits, it perhaps needs to be trimmed in parts. It meanders too much and is slightly repetitive in some sections. But that is a small quibble.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Anatomy of An Afternoon
Concept and Direction: Martin del Amo
Choreography: Martin del Amo and Paul White Dancer: Paul White
Composer: Mark Bradshaw
Lighting Design: Matthew Marshall
Musicians: Jacob Abela (Celeste), Andrew Smith (saxophone), Marcus Whale (laptop /saxophone)
Production Manager: Mike Smith

Sydney Opera House
January 9–16, 2012
Bookings: www.sydneyfestival.org.au

What the stars mean?
  • Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
  • Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
  • Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
  • Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
  • Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
  • Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
  • Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
  • One star: Awful, to be avoided
  • Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level

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.