With its starting point of Olivier Messiaen’s cascading piano work, Catalogue d’oiseaux (1958), one might expect Aviary – A Suite for the Bird to be a work that gently soothes and surprises, evoking the twitters and hops of orioles and warblers. But in the hands of maverick dance creator Phillip Adams, Messiaen’s “musical scores for the bird” are laid across the stage, unplayed; reinterpreted in dance to create a flamboyant choreographic paradise, where desire and display meet the dandy, the disco floor and the screeching jungle.
Aviary grew out of Phillip Adams’s preoccupation with Messiaen’s extended series of tone poems, combined with an interest in exploring the relationship of composition to choreography. Once immersed in the process of creation, Adams says, its “avian research” expanded to encompass, among other things, the figure of the English ‘dandy’, and the nesting of Papua New Guinea’s trinket-collecting bower-bird.
Creative development of Aviary began in 2009, in a unique partnership between Phillip Adams BalletLab and The Australian Ballet. Involving dancers from both companies, the idea, says Adams, was to explore the common language between 20th-century classical ballet and contemporary dance techniques.
Using Messiaen’s scores, he says, “inspired the dancers and myself to develop a hybrid language using movement and the dancers’ voices to physically interpret the Messiaen scores.”
“I removed [Messiaen’s music] from the work altogether…and began to interpret the scores through experimental improvisations. What remains from this incredibly rewarding first development is a physically mesmerising technical articulation of birdlike choreography that is highly classical yet very contemporary in execution and nature. It’s the opening suit of Aviary and incredibly beautiful, adorned in [Toni] Maticevski couture and atop with [Richard] Nylon’s headpieces.”
Aviary has brought together a splendid array of design talents, about whom Adams waxes lyrical. Describing Maticevski’s costumes, his description ranges from “black-feathered couture birds in extravagant layers” to “a dandy parade meets 80s royal-empire-exotic-in-punk”. No less vivid is his take on celebrated milliner Richard Nylon’s work for the show, which includes “crystallised Mohican concepts…willy-wagtail-inspired”, “mutton chops and moustache excess” and “a crowing symphony”. Painter Gavin Brown has created a brilliant backdrop of “sweeping plumage”; while architect Matthew Bird’s ‘bower-bird nests’ are constructed to craft “a bespoke amour suitable to attract and ultimately procreate”.
Adams himself is credited as set designer, as well as working with composer David Franzke to create a free and transcendent soundscape that, unsurprisingly, features field recordings of “our feathered friends of the sky”. It was Franzke, says Adams, who introduced him to ornithologist Dr Ian Woxvold, who imparted his knowledge of the habitation and behaviours of birds – and in particular the bower-bird.
“The bower-bird has extraordinarily complex courtship and mating behaviours, where males build a bower to attract mates, often festooned with brightly coloured found and natural objects. […] In the last section of the work, inspired by Messiaen’s own observations, I transcribed [the] perspectives of the dancers as exotic birds by accompanying them with improvised live music on grand piano, becoming both bird watcher and interpreter of their birdsong and movements.”
Adams’s investigation of the avian does not end where performer embodies bird, however spectacularly. In what the choreographer terms “travelling great distances to find the source”, further development of the work led to the incorporation of “contemporary reference points via 1980s art, fashion and music”, shedding light on “the notion of flock/group behaviours versus individual performance through the central figure of the dandy – the self-constructed hero/celebrity as outsider within society.”
Exploring historical figures such as 18th-century dandy Beau Brummell and the more recently departed UK celebrity Sebastian Horsley, Adams cast himself as the dandy figure, “a post-punk-inspired misfit…disciplining my birds through a live choreographic process…”.
Adams describes Messiaen’s Catalogue d’oiseaux as “visual and fantastic”, referring to the 20th-century composer’s egocentricity as being at the heart of his suite of piano pieces. And the Catalogue d’oiseaux, he adds, remains the lynchpin of Aviary, underlying the work’s journey through paradise, disco dance floor and architectural nest.
But what is it about birds that fascinates us – is it their song, their freedom, or the bliss of what seems a purely instinctual being?
“Birds have always held a special place in the collective imagination of humanity,” says Adams, “often seen as something pure, wise, and above reproach… The sanctity with which humanity views our feathered friends perhaps finds its source in the genetic ease with which birds defy gravity and soar the skies, as humanity has sought to do since time began.”
“Mythology and superstition have accompanied birds since man first saw them take to flight. They have been the focus of attention from science and religion, as well as receiving constant exposure in popular media.”
“Life, death, luck, and love have all been tied to the tail-feathers of these winged marvels.”
AVIARY – A SUITE FOR THE BIRD
Phillip Adams BalletLab
Arts House, North Melbourne Town Hall
Wed 19 – Sun 23 Oct 2011
(03) 9322 3713
1300 723 038