Art Gallery of South Australia
11 September 2020.
The audience has to traverse a dimly-lit gallery filled with prints by French expressionist painter, Georges Rouault, before entering the performance space for Michelle Ryan’s latest work for Restless, Seeing Through Darkness. This is no accident, for these very works from his Miserere series inspired the piece, which Ryan was commissioned to make by the Gallery back in 2019. Rouault, who designed Balanchine’s Biblical ballet The Prodigal Son for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, was an intensely religious painter. His early training as a glass artist is evident in the black contouring of the human figures he depicts, reminding one somewhat of lead lighting.
The prints are stylistically uniform, with bucolically rounded human forms in black, grey and brown tones highlighted with white, and depict scenes of a mostly sombre nature. Titles such as ‘Alone, in this life of pitfalls and malice’ (1922), and ‘He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth’ (1923), portray scenes of suffering, solitude and dejection. A satirical note can be detected in ‘The society lady fancies she has a reserved seat for heaven’ (1922), and a moment of tenderness in ‘To love would be so sweet’ (1923), but overall the mood is one of darkness.
And it is into a darkened arena we eventually walk, the maximum ten audience members per performance being directed to socially-distanced chairs placed around the circular performance space. Stringed instruments are playing, and as the light level increases five dancers can be seen lying in foetal positions on the carpeted floor. Slowly they raise themselves to hands and knees, and then to a standing huddle, leaning into each other as a purple down spot illuminates their faces. Dressed in black pants and dresses with exposed arms and for the men, torsos, the bodies of the dancers echo the rounded, vulnerable softness of Rouault’s images.
As the music, composed and performed by Hilary Kleinig and Emily Tulloch, changes to plucked strings, dancers Jianna Georgiou and Alexis Luke perform a tender duet. Expansive upper body movements, in which arms encircle the torsos of self and other, are interspersed with smaller gestural hand movements across the face, lifts morph into rolls across the ground, and a sense of intimacy and trust is established. A twitchy duet for two male dancers in which they manipulate each other’s bodies is much less friendly, and the ensuing extended ensemble section features much work in and out of the floor, as well as backwards and forwards travel, with further development of the motif of fine hand gestures alternating with larger upper body movements. The emotional colouration shifts almost imperceptibly from agitation and aggression to dejection to a sense of community.
Geoff Cobham’ marvellous lighting, until now largely subdued, adds another dimension to the work. Cobham deploys two lights traveling on a semi-circular track around the front of the stage area to cast shadows of the dancers on the walls of the space. The use of LED lights casts multi-coloured overlapping shadows, creating a joyous, almost childlike feeling of wonder. The dancers make a series of tableaux vivants, standing side on or obliquely to the audience, separate yet connected though hands and body tilts. Finally, after some fast-paced circling, they return to the floor and the lighting dims to its earlier monochrome.
Seeing through Darkness is a moving response to Rouault’s somewhat despairing vision, echoing it at times but also transcending it to find beauty and brightness in the human predicament. It has to be said that never have the Restless dancers looked so good: on this occasion performers Kathryn Adams, Alexis Luke, Jianna Georgiou, Michael Noble, Michael Hoddle and Charlie Wilkins performed with a level of technical accomplishment and sense of ensemble that is truly impressive. Indeed, the accomplishments of the company under Ryan’s direction are so astonishing that the de-funding of the company by the Australia Council earlier this year simply beggars belief, and demands re-consideration.
- MAGGIE TONKIN