Choreographer: Douglas Wright
Set Design: Michael Pearce
Costume Design: Kirsty Cameron
Lighting Design: Jeremy Fern
Audio Design: Rachel Shearer
Herald Theatre, Sky City
Thursday 16th April
“I want to make a dance about religious ecstasy and the paths that lead into and out of it”
Douglas Wright is a master choreographer, and it’s been four years since his last full-length work, rapt. There is a sense of occasion and some high expectations from the audience on opening night; very little information about this new work, The Kiss Inside, has been available to the public. The brief media release mentions “kinetic meditation” and the search for ecstasy in human culture. I hope that the programme will have more information, as I know that every work Wright makes is deeply researched, layered and considered.
Aside from cast, crew and music credits, the programme offers this; “33 years ago, on a marae on Rotorua, I made a promise to Iriranga Te Akiawa, a Tohunga, that one day I would make a certain dance. This is that dance.” Tohunga, an expert healer or priest, gives an indication of the spiritual basis of the work. Religious and spiritual themes are woven throughout The Kiss Inside, as always with Wright’s work; simultaneously respected, teased and mused upon.
Wright’s work is often referred to as dark, however, I think that description doesn’t do justice to the choreographer’s exquisite sense of beauty, humour and sophistication. Personally, I find the work beautiful rather than shocking. If you’re new to contemporary dance you might feel differently – there is nudity, there are images of violence (such as self-flagellation), there are sexual themes and religious/cultural images that may be surprising. Case in point; the dancer in a burka doing a questionable job of swinging poi to When My Wahine Does the Poi by Daphne Walker featuring Bill Wolfgramm and his Islanders.
Wright is a striking visual artist as well as a choreographer; the opening image is a full-sized tree, suspended upside down from the top of the stage. Hanging from the tree by his ankles, dancer Luke Hanna leads the karakia as he begins spinning himself ever faster. This image reminds me very strongly of the The Hanged Man from The Tarot - this card features a man hanging upside down from a living tree, or sometimes a wooden cross. The interesting thing about this image is the card is said to symbolise life in suspension, not death, and the relationship between the divine and the universe. It is sometimes associated with the Christian imagery of crucifixion and matryrdom, but in Norse mythology, Odin hung upside down from the world tree, Yggdrasil, for nine days to attain wisdom, and this seems like a closer fit with the other imagery in The Kiss Inside.
There are religious and spiritual references throughout the work, sometimes quite literal; dancers crossing themselves, bowing, or the use of Khampagar Monastic song, and at other times subtle. A section of a distorted, recorded voice - an effective feature of Wright’s work - speaks an abridged and slightly altered version of the Buddhist Heart Sutra. The most beloved of the sutras, the Heart Sutra talks about bliss when all human experiences of bliss are no longer being sensed. This reminds me of Wright speaking about God, in the 2003 documentary Haunting Douglas, when he explained that in his experience, “God is a verb”.
The Kiss Inside explores many more paths to ecstasy than just religion, and we see a range of ways that human culture finds bliss – drugs, sex, knowledge, new-age spiritualty, ritual, music and, of course, dance. Choreographically, everything Wright does with movement is exquisite. He has an absolutely sophisticated sense of repetition – how to use it, when to use it, when to reference it, when to stop. His gesture-based movement vocabulary is unsurpassed by any choreographer I have seen. In one section, a series of gestures is developed into a ‘conversation’ for two, three and eventually four dancers, and it is simultaneously hugely entertaining and strangely beautiful.
The work uses a diverse soundscape including live and recorded voice, monastic singing, karakia and waiata, classical Sufi music, Patti Smith and Bach. The variety seamlessly ties together, and provides contrast without feeling scattered. Similarly, the various paths to ecstasy being explored contrast, overlap, and run alongside one-another in a way that gives the work cohesion and sense.
In a sophisticated, layered and brilliant new work, Wright created something completely fresh, but with the hallmarks of his artistic expression. Three knockout moments for me were; the last, exhausting, raw solo by dancer Sarah-Jayne Howard in a blood-red dress. Her performance was immaculate, detailed and superbly powerful. Secondly, the surprise treat of Wright dancing a solo onstage, so many years after retiring as a dancer, with as striking a stage presence as ever - detailed, gesture-based choreography, and a uniformed nurse alongside him. Finally, the closing moments with Luke Hanna; naked, bent over like some kind of human dinosaur, balancing a tall stack of books on his back, using large bones like precarious jandals - rhythmically, and laboriously, clomping across the floor.
The Kiss Inside is evidence that every work created by Wright is a taonga. Don’t miss it.
Gold Stars: 5/5