• ADT performing 'South'. Photo: Daniel Boud.
    ADT performing 'South'. Photo: Daniel Boud.

Dunstan Playhouse Adelaide, 12 September

ADT’s new double bill, "North/South", has been a long time in the making. When Garry Stewart had the idea of a program devoted to the impact of global warming on the polar regions back in 2014, he embarked on a search for a choreographer from the Artic region with whom to collaborate. This led him to Tromso, in the far north of Norway, to see Frozen Songs by Norwegian choreographer Ina Christel Johannessen, the artistic director of zero visibility corp. Johannessen’s piece was based on her residency at the Global Seed Bank on the remote island of Svalbard in the Arctic circle, where she had seen the effects of climate change first hand, and she was keen to collaborate on another work on the global crisis.

Her contribution to the program, North, is set at a bus stop in the Arctic Circle where the locals wait for a bus that never comes. As the audience filters in, a dancer clad in a hooded fur costume suggestive of that of the indigenous inhabitants of the region is already sheltering in the bus stop, somewhat bizarrely cooking food on a small gas burner. The bus stop’s graffitied glass panes are smashed and it contains mounds of trash. Snow falls continuously. A solitary streetlight sheds light on this desolate but striking scene. Eight other dancers drift in, clad in an assortment of coats, thermals and hiking boots.

The ensuing action sees characters thinly sketched out with relationships between them oscillating between conflict and cooperation. A woman shimmies up the light pole; an agitated madman darts about flinging his arms in the air and muttering; a barefooted woman is swept up in a lyrical duet with one of the men; another couple’s duet reeks of coercion and control, the man jerking the woman’s head around and covering her eyes. After forty long minutes it all ends with one of the men collapsed on the ground being administered CPR. While the premise of the work is intriguing and full of potential, North needs further development; the characters and their relationships are under-cooked and the absence of a discernible plot makes it difficult to care about them.

Jana Castillo, Kimball Wong, Matte Roffe, Zoe Wozniak, Daniel Jaber, Zoe Dunwoodie, Christopher Miills in 'North'. Photo: Daniel Boud.
Jana Castillo, Kimball Wong, Matte Roffe, Zoe Wozniak, Daniel Jaber, Zoe Dunwoodie, Christopher Miills in 'North'. Photo: Daniel Boud.

Garry Stewart’s South, on the other hand, is utterly compelling. The epic 1912-13 Antarctic expedition of Australian explorer Douglas Mawson as recounted in his classic memoir, Home of the Blizzard, provides a powerful plotline out of which Stewart crafts a highly theatrical narrative. A propulsive score by Brendan Woithe, combined with Damien Copper’s white and blue lighting and designer Wendy Todd’s moveable white cubes, create an abstract rendition of the merciless polar landscape.

From the opening scene of a solitary explorer astride a promontory — the blizzard howling around him conveyed by dry ice and strobe lighting — through scenes depicting the tribulations of the explorers as they battle the elements and deal with disaster, I was on the edge of my seat. The movement vocabulary eschews Stewart’s usual hyper-virtuosity, and is largely comprised of staccato movements of the upper body to convey the physical effort of climbing over boulders, heaving oneself out of crevasses and pulling sleds. Boulders, plateaus, mountains and so forth are created by the nine dancers using the large white cubes, setting up harrowing scenes such as that in which the explorer Ninnis falls to his death in a crevasse (in real life dragging the food sleds and most of the dogs with him). The relationship that develops between the survivors — Mawson, played with sensitivity by Harrison Elliott, and Xavier Mertz, played brilliantly by Daniel Jaber — as Mertz becomes deranged and dies from the effects of eating the Huskies’ livers, and Mawson tries to care for him, has real emotional heft. No one is likely to forget the ending in which the naked Mawson confronts his plight, the projected text from his memoir adding a mythic resonance to the scene.

In sum, this is an uneven double bill; while North could do with some reworking, South is one of the most memorable and exciting theatrical works in recent memory.

Maggie Tonkin

Pictured top is 'South', Harrison Elliott is centre.

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