Live Action Relay by Sue Healey
Live-streamed, Liveworks Festival of Experimental Art
Live Action Relay, an experimental work from choreographer and filmmaker Sue Healey, breaks new ground for both the creator and viewer. Performed, shot and broadcast live, this captivating short dance work swaps the theatre for the rocky outcrops of Sydney’s coastline. With flyover drones and Steadicams in hand, Healey offers a clever response to the current limits on live performance. But more than this, the work probes something stranger – a peculiar marriage of the digital and natural; of order and chaos.
Healey is perhaps best known for her intimate moving portraiture, where bodies and personalities are steadily revealed through carefully framed imagery. Similar ideas of solo portraiture underpin this new work, as we encounter three dancers and a musician in apparent isolation. But the real-time editing and grandness of the coastal landscape – complete with crashing waves and gusty breezes – offers a thrilling immediacy to the dancing on screen.
As if birthing from the depths of the Pacific, the first dancer we meet is Billy Keohavong as he clambers over the rocks, tossing aside loose pebbles with efficient curiosity. His crisp white jumpsuit, better suited to a lab than the sea, sits starkly against the blue-brown horizon. Ben Walsh’s live-mixed score of crackled harp strings and the clattering of rocks heralds the alien’s arrival.
We soon meet two others (Allie Graham and Raghav Handa) in the same white jumpsuits, each on their own journey through the barren terrain. Graham slinks across the uneven surface with luscious deep lunges and nimble footwork. Somewhere nearby Handa stands powerfully atop a rocky outcrop just metres above the breaking waves, his arms outstretched as if conducting the tides.
The imagery is vast, captured beautifully by the drones orbiting high overhead (drone cinematography by Ken Butti). Each dancer appears isolated and insignificant, like miniature figurines in a sci-fi diorama. But our bird’s eye view is also what links them as they each confront the wildness of the windswept shore.
Intimate close-ups juxtapose these big images. We see Graham melting sensuously into a naturally formed hammock and later splashing her face in a shallow rockpool. Keohavong balances a perfectly round pebble on his equally spherical skull, and Handa leaps over rocks at great speed with childlike abandon. These very human portraits establish a visceral empathy: we want to experience these things too, despite being thousands of kilometres away.
Dualities of scale and tone appear throughout the work, sharply revealed in the final scene when the choreography becomes most ordered. The three dancers assemble on an open sandbank for a sequence of outstretched lunges and geometric shapes, all while physically separated by four bundles of red poles. The enforced regulation of bodies amid nature’s untamed chaos is a familiar scene.
Before long, the unison gives way to a phrase of "partnered" dancing using the poles, rather than flesh, as contact points. Continuously pivoting and unfolding, the trio disconnects and reattaches in different arrangements, eventually surrendering to more open and free improvisation. In a cheeky finale, the dancers use the poles to spell "LIVE" in the sand: a prescient reminder of the current global moment.
Healey seems acutely aware of the conditions from which this work emerges. It’s an ambitious and technically demanding feat for any filmmaker, and a few ill-timed calls on the live editing detracted from the overall professionalism. But the liveness of the performance was palpable and cut through the flatness that often plagues pre-recorded dance. In both form and substance, Live Action Relay offers something strange but exciting; a futuristic intimacy that might be here to stay as we wake from our slumber of isolation.
– RHYS RYAN