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Thursday, February 24, 2022

GROOVE AT THE FRINGE - The Professio(nah)ls by the Sincere Muckabouts / NZ Fringe Festival 2022

NZ Fringe Festival 2022 The Professio(nah)ls Creatives Caspar Ilschner and Otto Kosok, with Music by Martin Greshoff, Design by Hollie Cohen, and Co-Produced by Monique Gilmour and Isaac Kirkwood. Te Auaha, Dixon Street, Te Aro. From 18 Feb 2022 to 23 Feb 2022 

The PROFESSIO(NAH)LS is the brainchild of recent graduates from Toi Whakaari and the New Zealand School of Dance, especially Otto Kosok and Caspar Ilschner who have teamed up on stage with composer Martin Greshoff to create a vibrant and absurdist take on the old adage ‘stop mucking about and get a job!’ 

The Professio(nah)ls combines choreographer Caspar and Otto’s curiosity for relevant topics with their shared sense (or rather non-sense) of humour. As a result of this, the two have assumed ‘Sincere Muckabouts’ as their company name. The work was created at Toi Pōneke Arts Centre over a three-week-long development and saw its debut last May at Little Andromeda Theatre in Christchurch. 

The premise revolves around two dancers (Kosok and Ilschner) who are obviously fish well out of their waters. They must nervously navigate the alien world of the corporate office. In their choreography they demonstrate deftly the awkwardness of their new environment led by Greshoff’s very clever retro digital soundtrack. 

As a team, they all come across as charming, a bit wet behind the ears and a tad buffoonish. And that’s how this company, Sincere Muckabouts manage to smash up the mundane and challenge what it means to be always busy doing ‘busy’, being ‘flat out’, and bonkers concepts like meetings about meetings, the pointlessness of filing files and all other stuff we take for granted in office culture. Oddly, in these Covid days, we almost miss the office. 

It seems a bit of a nostalgia trip to return to this, when getting stuck in the elevator, losing a stapler, a jammed photocopier or being late to clock in due to a train strike actually mattered. Designer, Hollie Cohen and producers Monique Gilmour and Issac Kirkwood have creating a brilliantly coherent narrative and a perfectly wonderful interactive set that will literally be destroyed and re-made in front of your eyes. 

The show opens on a set of three cubicles, all lined with paper – like the kind a printer spews out all day. The walls of the dividers are lines with that bleached cheap newsprint that comes in a large roll and we like to write our mind maps and brainstorms on. Each desk has computer and a phone, similar to the kind you’d find in a mid-90’s ‘Dilbert-ville’ open plan office. Two young newbies arrive, nervous and spooked by this alien environment. It’s very different from the classrooms, dorm rooms and lecture halls they are used to. Like many of us on our first day, they struggle to navigate. 

Of course, the computers don’t work. So, our duo follow the blue ethernet snake along behind a wall of white file boxes to a huge tangled web of cables. Their first dance piece is a short slapstick wrestle with the ‘web’. It sets up the comedy brilliantly, and we all can relate to this scene. We’ve all been there. Intermittently, Greshoff’s keyboard and computer emits various symphonic blathers constructed of synth chords, desk phone ring tones, fax screaming and internet dial-up blips. Anyone who worked in a 90’s office would clearly remember. Think Kraftwerk and Eno with a smattering of humour by The Devine Comedy (remember their song ‘Office Politics’?). 

In my favourite, scene Greshoff, who until now been noodling around in his own cubicle, stands up and approaches the other two. Like an auditor he prods and poke, scribbling on his clipboard, checking and assessing. One by one the players show off their ‘office skills’ – stapling, typing, shredding, etc. The tasks become more and more ridiculous, morphing into a completely unexpected peacock display of breakdance moves. The piece moves from brown-nosing to showing off – awkward newbies become the ‘lads about town’. 

Another well executed moment is when Kosok gives a painfully self-conscious ‘presentation’. We all know how this goes. Bob from accounts has come to tell us about the sales predictions – or some other such tediousness. This ‘Bob’ blunders through the whole thing, waving around meaningless sales figures, fumbling with names (he refers to the CEO as ‘executed’), mumbling and blah-blah-ing his way through the entire thing. 

Platitudes, equipment glitches, unreadable spreadsheets, acronyms, and all the other pointless clichés we endure through during tedious office meetings. As the show moves on, the mood changes and the two workers become rivals. They fight, then clown about becoming more and more chaotic and crazy. They eventually destroy their office – the fragile paper walls are torn, balled up and shredded. The boxes, stacked like bricks at the back of the stage are smashed. Out of a briefcase comes suit clothes. The twosome use these to build an effigy of their boss - A guy to be burned, I wonder. An act of ridicule and fun. There is a climatic moment when this whole world explodes. In the aftermath the two walk amongst the rubble like survivors of a devastating earthquake. This is the only piece in the show I didn’t quite understand. Perhaps this is a corporate stock crash, literally. Like the fate of real companies, this is an empire that’s is destroyed, literally torn up – on paper and in person. 

But the devastation doesn’t last. They rebuild the box wall, this time in front of the stage while a short black and white movie is projected over the the construction. Roger Waters would be proud (or sue!). Once again, we get the absurdist. Like an old Jaques Tati film, it’s played back at double speed, an image of a man working with what looks like a human sized puppet. He’s trying to pose it and manipulate the body into the required shapes. I wondered if this was a reference to corporate grooming and institutionalism. 

Until now the dance aspects of the work had been limited. But now they start to flourish. The action is physical and fluid. Two bodies write in competition and in unison. This is like the two newbies, interns forced to be rivals, being both buddies and competitors, vying for that job dangled like an unreachable carrot in front of them. 

Overall, I loved this mix of dance, performance and comedy because it spoke tome at a level I could really understand. I’ve been to those meetings. I’ve been that newbie on my first day. Hell, I’ve even crawled under a thousand desks trying to find the right port to plug that damn cable into. They really got it. The show connected with the audience, who all got it too. 

Special mention for the use of the projector, literally as a lighting tool at times creating white cells to divide the cubicles and create washes of colour, gobo effects and, of course that manic movie.

This was a confident, clever work using a simple, straight forward theme. Well executed. It deserves to be seen again. Sadly, our Red-Light setting limited the audience to an exclusive number. I wish I could have taken my children, my partner and my colleagues at the office I work at. Perhaps some came with an expectation of more dance – more choreography, in the traditional and conventional sense. They saw movement and narrative. It was different. But ask yourself this – do we not plan and arrange our professional selves, wear make up and costumes, and hide our real person from the theatre of the corporate? We too, are performers, we dance to the tune of a boardroom, shareholders and managers. Just not as well as these Sincere Muckabouts.

CoffeeBar Kid

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