Heath Ledger Theatre, State Theatre Centre of Western Australia, 15 May
Co-created by Co3 Artistic Director Raewyn Hill and Co3 Associate Artist and Nyoongar man Mark Howett, The Line is performed by Andrew Searle, Katherine Gurr and Whadjuk Nyoongar man Ian Wilkes. The three dancers were outstanding, mastering complex, bold choreography that demands stamina, versatility and acumen. Set to a superb score by Eden Mulholland, the work’s minimalist, ambient stage settings (designed by Hill and Howett), evocative 1930s-style costume designs (Hill), and skilful lighting (Howett), produce fifty taut, tense, tightly-packed minutes of dance.
A Welcome to Country from Darryl Kickett opened proceedings. Kickett also spoke movingly of the power of performance in growing relationships, and how traditional performance and dance has served Nyoongar culture for thousands of years.
Through intense and edgy contemporary dance, The Line is a figurative, visceral response to a shameful period in West Australian history. From 1927 until 1954, prohibited areas for Aboriginal people were declared and policed in parts of the State. Aboriginal people were considered to have committed an offence if they came within a boundary of approximately five square kilometres within the City of Perth after 6pm, unless they could show they were in “lawful” employment. And, apparent in the staging, are traces of the White City Amusement Park on the Perth foreshore, which provided – for the “poorest sections of the community”– swings, canned music and dancing, and was popular with Perth’s Indigenous people as well as the white population before it was closed down in 1929.
Mulholland and classical accordionist James Crabb performed Mulholland’s score live, with variety and virtuosity. With instruments set on either side of the auditorium in front of the audience, the musicians cross in front of the stage occasionally and, at times, join the dancers on stage. Mulholland says he wants his score to “be life-affirming and play against the darkness of the subject matter,” and it is one of the production's strengths, incorporating accordion, piano, guitar, percussion, synthesizer and also Mulholland’s haunting falsetto voice.
Seven swings are suspended from the fly bars over a smoky stage, and these are incorporated into the choreography and seem to offer respite. The three performers – Katherine Gurr in a floral-patterned, oblique-hemmed dress, and Andrew Searle and Ian Wilkes in trousers, jackets and waist-coats – launch into lively swing dancing, which soon degenerates as the dance becomes jagged, out of kilter and relentless, and the dancers grapple and fight each other, with suggestions of conflicted romance and strained, uneasy relationships.
In stark detail, a lengthy monologue (brilliantly delivered by Wilkes) names all of the many street boundary lines of the prohibited area. After this, only a few single words “You” and “Jacky Jack” are spoken – or rather shouted, in a hostile manner – until the work’s apogee. The movement language used is fractured, disjointed, unnatural and disturbing, effectively reflecting distress and repercussion. Skilfully conceived slow-motion sequences were expertly performed. And Wilkes’s final solo – which incorporated traditional dance and language, and gestures – was powerful and compelling, reaching across years of racial discrimination and injustice to connect with a contemporary audience.