Limbs at full stretch

BRIAN McNEILL

GRAFTON ARTS CENTRE. Home of Limbs. The Sweatshop. Clouds of tu'tu's? Arrogant young bodies entrechating down distant corridors? Not here they're not! Strictly entre nous, it's laughter - camaraderie. Be-daubed walls Winnie the-Pooh - I Am Limbs chuckling down at us. Dancer's graffito? The 'tap, tap' of the dancing master's cane, stale rose-water, cachous; the enormous scent-sodden presence of Serge Diaghilev? Not here he's not. It's Rock here. It's Chris Jannides, wrapped in black leotards, contained in multi-coloured knee socks, concerned/nonchalant, taking the floor. A displacement of old ghosts. No memories of Les Sylphides - no pastel effusions of Edgar Degas interposing. All is freshness, exuberance, poise.

Pause. Mary Jane O'Reilly, Companion in Limbs, puts in her appearance. She looks slightly French, chews gum, and smokes! Between them both they constitute the fire-power behind the movement.

Limbs: left to right, Chris Jannides, Debbie McCulloch, Adrian Batchelor, Kilda Northcott and Mary-Jane O'Reilly

Beat. Enter the corps-de-ballet; bored, envious; hoping against hope that our premier danseur - our prima ballerina - that either one or the other will twist a ligament, collapse; fall ashen to the boards. . .? Such thoughts do not occur. Too much ensemble work, too great a responsibility. Besides, this is jazz-ballet, rock-ballet, modern dance. Not the world of danse d'├ęcole.

' . . .around, 2, 3, 4. Left, 2, 3, 4 - swish, swish. . . Right, shall we try it?' Chris out in front, the others behind easing their way into the routine. The high wall mirrors bounce back the corporate image. Very much a team. Chris, Mary Jane, Adrian, Debbie, Kilda. Once there were six, now five, tomorrow, who knows. Mark Baldwin, their most accomplished mime, has left, snatched up by Phillip Chatfield and money. Can the group re-adapt? Keep up the momentum move on? Male dancers are not two a penny. Change is inevitable.

Change is necessary. Up to now their repertoire's been a collection of mobile vignettes, Reptile, Watch it Buddy, Vertigo. Short displays of grace and agility. Soon the company will be celebrating its second birthday. The demand for a full-length work is now paramount - only then will they come of age.

'It's a goal we have', says Chris. 'We are still new at choreographing: that's why we do shorter works.' They would like to work with a New Zealand composer-a composer working in New Zealand yet not necessarily on a work ethnic to this country. 'The language of dance is universal not specific. Also...' Chris leans back, 'we would like to develop the piece over a long period of time'.

'To be able to hibernate and really work on something for six months': Mary Jane. Looking intense now. 'Most overseas companies rehearse for six months, perform for three months, rest for three months'. Wishful thinking perhaps. They all know it. A final lament from Chris: 'We're getting ours together in a couple of weeks'.

Yet he utilizes his team to its fullest extent, both in training and performance. His dances are never isolated points of action. They snake and gesture like animated Bruegels: multi-dimensional launch-pads for the spectator, replete with guttural and not without humour. They train exhaustively. On the giving side it's jazz ballet classes, modern dance classes, movement classes, improvisational classes, commercial modelling engagements, schools tours and public performances. On the taking side it's classical ballet lessons, hatha yoga classes, voice classes and creative drama lessons. There is a certain uniqueness apparent here in that they consider their drama training to be as essential as their dance training.

'The dancer is terrified of using his voice - he should not be. An actor's body is often like mashed potatoes - it should not be'. . . .Chris Jannides

With any group in this country, any endeavour, there is always the problem of isolation. As Chris puts it: 'We had to get it all together from nothing. We'd love to go to a dance performance and get blasted out of our seats. I know there's The New Zealand Ballet Company...' The atmosphere stiffens. An aroma of ghosts hinted at; soon dispersed. After all the 'Ballet Company' is no real threat. A large, subsidised machine deep into Romantic traditions. Respect certainly. Respect for their dancers especially. Several of Limbs have worked for the New Zealand Ballet and Chris would like to choreograph for them. Neither are likely to clash in open conflict. The one 'recognised' modern dance group is Impulse and they do offer a challenge. Based in Wellington and sponsored by the Arts Council, their presence does tend to put Limbs 'out on a limb'.

Modern dance. Classical dance. Chris admits to no overweening influences. Mary Jane thinks of Merce Cunningham: otherwise. . . 'A hotch-potch. Influenced by everybody and nothing - all at once'. Neither of them use any formal dance notation in their choreography. 'Muscle memory', as Chris says. 'Most of my structure is worked out in private in front of a mirror then put together in rehearsal. The complete sequence sometimes flows out in a couple of days - sometimes takes weeks'.

'Vertigo took weeks': Mary Jane.

Mirrors. . .Mirrors. Chris comments: 'Yes, well we do tend to get narcissistic, quite vain about our bodies. It's an objective obsession, it has to be. Twelve hours a day, sometimes longer, stretching, pulling, freeing up channels of energy. An hour's warm-up before each performance, then after the show it's back home to wash your jockstraps'.

We talk of light and sound: the ability to light effectively and sparingly, the need for live sound to match live rhythms the grey technical areas within the group. The fact is recognised. Money again. Administratively they are now okay. A manager (Sarah Hancock) has joined the team and taken on the bookings and public relations side. A definite step forward.

It's now back to the worshipping. Mary Jane leading, Kilda looking concerned.. .'Around 2, 3, 4. left 2,3,4.' Kilda getting it - both fusing together. Their bodies are beautiful - almost achingly so. Demure, provocative, snip-snap at the same time. Chris re-appears. '.. .Debbie: you went, hip, left right, di di, swish, swish'. Chris wrinkles up his nose - a habit? A sweat-removing habit probably. Debbie slips. Comes down hard on the floor. Rubs her bottom. Grins. An engagement comes in over the phone for Wednesday morning. A huddle as they all discuss it. Chris says he'll work out the programme that evening; something called a 'bump dance'. The occasional mention of a pas de deux. Pas de deux! Shades again of old ghosts.

HISTORY OF LIMBS COMPANY

1977
May: 'Chris Jannides and Friends' give their first performance (Lunchtime) at the Maidment Arts Centre, Auckland University.
June: Mary Jane O'Reilly joins the group. Limbs comes into being.
August: Perform NZ Students Arts Festival, Wellington.

1978
January: Tour the Coromandel Peninsular with the group Ratz Theatrix.
March: Become affiliated to the Auckland Students Association. Acquire Grafton Arts Centre as their new home. Season at Theatre Corporate.
June: Grant of $1000 from Northern Regional Arts Council.
July: A North Island main centres tour.
August through October: Season at the Maidment Arts Centre. Combine with the band Spats and the actors Ian Watkins and Derek Payne for a two hour pub variety show. Also at the Shoreline Cabaret in Auckland. Schools performances in and around Auckland.

Originally published in Art New Zealand 11 Spring 1978