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In full flight

Erin Brannigan: Kay Armstrong, Rara Avis

Kay Armstrong’s first full-length, one-woman show has been a long time in the making. Parts of the work were seen in Twosome at One Extra in 2001, a showing of The Narrow House at PACT in 2001 and LEDA at the Sydney Fringe Festival in 2002. Armstrong has had to make her own opportunities to present most of her work, which is par for the course in Sydney, as is maintaining and funding her own rehearsal space. For Rara Avis however she was aided by Western Sydney Dance Action (WSDA) in partnership with Paramatta’s Riverside Theatres as part of WSDA’s Dance Bites season of works by independent artists.

Armstrong is a very watchable and genuinely comical performer, particularly in ‘storyteller’ mode. Elements of her past work have come together in Rara Avis in a more coherent way. The 2 themes of Rara Avis-Australian car culture and Swan Lake-have both featured throughout this idiosyncratic dancer’s career. Although an unlikely combination, there are moments where the themes have been worked to advantage. The final image of Armstrong perched on a car bonnet, draped in fabric blown against her, is a striking moment where bird and hood ornament merge. Another is the dancing dog designed for car windows, here balanced on a car tyre, jiggling to the Swan Lake ‘theme song’ cranked by the dancer from a tiny jewellery box mechanism. And there’s the dying swan, performed in a car seat with a sound score of aggressive traffic forcing Armstrong down and down again every time she tries to raise herself up.

Small objects throughout the work are ‘animated’ and suggest an interest in puppetry. Tiny cars move magically out from the dancer’s body curled on the floor. The dancing dog is another instance where the inanimate undergoes a tricky transformation. Armstrong’s dance with an exhaust pipe during which she transforms herself into several animals in a forest of pine tree car fresheners is a clever play with mimesis and the nature/industry opposition, again transforming props and giving them a ‘life.’

The episodic format of the piece, a structure so familiar in dance theatre work, ultimately works against the dual themes of Rara Avis with most sections devoted to one or the other. The “101 things to do in cars” monologue is my favourite section with its pumping movement-piston-like action and aggressive, half-formed gestures of road rage working Armstrong into a frenzy. The problem with such structures is that a few strong scenes are sometimes expected to carry a loosely formed totality. Jumping from one idea to the next involved, in this case, some bold leaps with major changes in performance mode and tone. The more dance-based sections, such as a movement across the floor with a side mirror or an arm solo from behind the back curtain, seemed oddly subdued and abstract given the more literal, comic and whimsical mood of the rest of the work.

Rara Avis, performer/deviser Kay Armstrong, dramaturg Kate Gaul, lighting Stephen Hawker, music selection Kay Armstrong, Drew Crawford, Parramatta Riverside Theatre, April 30-May 3

RealTime issue #55 June-July 2003 pg. web

© Erin Brannigan; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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