Blackbird Ensemble: Björk All Is Full Of Love, Auckland NZ, 2017

Blackbird Ensemble: Björk All Is Full Of Love
9th November 2017
Q Theatre, Auckland, New Zealand.

Review by Sarah Kidd. Photography by Matt Henry Mendonca.

Blackbird Ensemble perform Björk: All Is Full Of Love at Q Theatre, Auckland New Zealand, 2017. Image by Matt Henry Photography.

In a darkened theatre an exquisitely formed world, bathed in white is laid out bare before the audience. Carefully arranged instruments glint in the low lighting, catching reflections like falling stars from the fairy lights embellishing the harpsichord to the left of the stage.

A petite woman, dressed in the colour of snow, tiny crumpled angels wings arching out from her back moves quickly and soundlessly across the room before nestling herself between the aforementioned harpsichord and utterly charming miniature harp. One by one, dressed in white, each musician moves into place, each with a completely distinctive aspect to their attire; some bearing architectural shapes while others are adorned with netting and feathers. The work of costume designer Elizabeth Whiting a masterpiece in its own right.

The Blackbird Ensemble have arrived.

Lead by musical director and accomplished musician Claire Cowan, what is to follow is ninety minutes of wondrous and thoroughly stirring music. While Björk may not be everybody’s cup of tea in the musical world it cannot be denied that she has composed some astounding pieces of music during her long and rather illustrious career; pieces that The Blackbird Ensemble under Cowan’s expertise have taken and arranged for the purpose of live theatre in great minute detail. Indeed you do not even have to be a familiar with Björks work to enjoy this production – as it is presented in such a way that you often forget that you are listening to the work of just one artist.

Beginning the night with the wonderfully hypnotic ‘Bachelorette’ from Björks 1997 album entitled Homogenic and it is Jessie Cassin – one of four guest performers tonight – that has the unenviable task of delivering the soaring vocals that bring this song to life; however she does so with such conviction that the entire audience sat in stunned silence for a few moments before erupting in applause.

Yet even with her remarkable execution of what is arguably a vocally challenging song Cassin could not eclipse the inevitable star of the show; Anna Coddington whose magnificently emotionally charged version of ‘Hyperballad’ – a favourite amongst many a Björk aficionado – caused an almost audible collective shivering of spines. This is a song that speaks of loyalty and a willingness to push all things aside for the love of one’s life and Coddington captured its essence perfectly as she deftly twirled about the small white square that represented centre stage in her starched white linen dress, casting beguiling silhouettes across the walls.

Throughout the sixteen song set each of the guest artists would take turns to deliver another track; up and coming artist TEEKS providing a completely different spin on songs such as ‘Stonemilker’ and ‘Virus’, his soulful voice while not always quite hitting the mark in some places working beautifully during the duet ‘I’ve Seen It All’.

Completing the guest list tonight is Australian singer Sarah Belkner who is adorned in a dress filled with plastic oversized eggs; illuminated on one side by tiny purple lights it is a clever take on the infamous swan dress that Björk wore to the 2001 73rd Academy Awards. Belkner adds idiosyncratic character to the show with her often playful vocal abilities on songs such as ‘Venus as a Boy’ and ‘Isobel’ her presentation of each song captivating in every sense of the word.

Throughout all of this of course are ten musicians who never leave the stage once throughout the ninety minute performance – each one a single thread in an intricately woven tapestry. An outstanding violin solo from Charmian Keay during the intro to ‘Wanderlust’ and the detailed saxophone playing from Callum Passells akin to waxen gold highlights. But what really set this production apart was the use of some of the most intriguing ‘musical instruments’ that an audience has ever had the pleasure of being exposed to. A brightly coloured umbrella being opened and closed offered a subtle brushed undertone, while dampened fingers gliding across the tops of crystal wine glasses provided an ethereal aesthetic. Stolen moments on a typewriter were cleverly looped while a foil packet of Kit Kat mini bars and a gaffa taped whistle became the instruments of choice for both Coddington and Belkner. Each one of these tiny elements when stitched together created something so other worldly that you could not help but be swept up and carried away with it; a flawless pairing of both aural and visual aspects.

Cowan is to be commended on her clever selection of songs – rather than go for the glaringly obvious Björk classics such as ‘It’s oh so Quiet’ – she takes more obscure songs and seasons them with just a sprinkling of well-known singles. All sense of time was lost as the production moved into the last few songs, Coddington once again stealing the show as she delivered a powerful rendition of ‘Desired Constellations’ – the understated graphics that had been illuminating and shifting across the ensemble now casting bold pictures of the milky way behind her. Finishing on ‘All is full of Love’ – the title track of the evening itself – and you are left wanting more, but alas there are no encores.

Moving and cleverly articulated – this unique piece of musical theatre is a must see.

Were you there at Q Theatre for this beautiful reimagining of some magnificent Björk classics? Or have you seen The Blackbird Ensemble perform live some other time? Tell us about it in the comments below!

Setlist:
  1. Bachelorette
  2. Hyperballad
  3. Venus As A Boy
  4. Joga
  5. Wanderlust
  6. I’ve Seen It All
  7. Stonemilker
  8. Isobel
  9. Hidden Place
  10. Unravel
  11. Virus
  12. Human Behaviour
  13. Desired Constellation
  14. Army Of Me
  15. Pluto
  16. All Is Full Of Love

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