Australian Dance Theatre
Her Majesty’s Theatre, Adelaide. Reviewed March 12
UNFOLDING and S/WORDS
Lewis Major Productions
Space Theatre. Reviewed March 13.
As noted last week, this year’s Covid-driven programming for the Adelaide Festival has resulted in a larger than usual local component to the dance program, thus revealing the strength of Adelaide’s dance sector. Restless Dance Theatre’s Guttered, which opened the Festival and was reviewed last week, had a sold-out season, and both works shown on the closing weekend and reviewed here, Australian Dance Theatre’s Supernature and Lewis Major’s double bill, Unfolding and S/WORDS, drew strong houses and tremendous audience responses. One hopes there is a lesson here for future programming.
Supernature is a further installment in Garry Stewart’s Nature Series, which includes The Beginning of Nature (2016) which explored the rhythms and cycles of the natural world, and South (2019), which depicted the doomed Antarctic expedition of Australian explorer Douglas Mawson, as well as works in other media such as film and photography. As is his usual practice, in creating Supernature Stewart has worked with a dramaturg, in this case British dramaturg Lou Cope, as well as with his long-term collaborators composer Brendan Woithe, lighting designer Damien Cooper and Designer Wendy Todd. Together they have created a densely detailed and potent theatrical depiction of human enmeshment in the natural world.
The work opens with a thunderous bang as the lights go out. Dim lighting reveals a pulsating grey mass toward the back of the misty stage, surrounded by prostrate human forms. The set, designed by Stewart and Todd in conjunction with the RMIT industrial design department, plunges us into an indeterminate world: large pod-like structures hang down, elongated tubes stretch from the floor to the flies and gentle chimes sound as the sea urchin-like mass throbs and heaves. It seems as if we are at the bottom of the ocean when the human forms start to move, their arms undulating and torsos rippling up and down as if drifting with a current. However, the movement morphs into the robotic as the dancers, clad in black body suits with tubular arms and red face paint, rise to their feet.
The eight dancers form a mechanistic mass, disrupted by the entrance of a figure (James Vu Anh Pham) in black breastplate, which introduces a lengthy section in which the ensemble transforms into a sequence of organic forms mimicking in turn antennae, centipedes, rabbits and crabs. Battle scenes evoke the aggressive colonies of the insect kingdom, and a spider’s web, created out of purple strings, powerfully evokes the terror of predation
This early part of the work is ingeniously choreographed and conceptually tight, but later scenes could be refined further. A lengthy section in which a naked couple caressing each other are pulled about on a giant lily pad while the others dancers rub themselves voluptuously against the tubular structures, suggesting sexuality and procreation, would be more effective if pared back. However, the ending of the work, with three dancers bathed in red stringy gloop, is visually arresting. The ADT dancers are magnificent throughout, brilliantly manifesting animal, vegetable, insectoid and humanoid characteristics—sometimes simultaneously—through movement. In sum, this is an epic, highly theatrical work with enormous potential, but I believe its final form is yet to be found.
Lighting has been an intrinsic part of contemporary dance from the earliest experiments of Lois Fuller and Marth Graham, and in Robe-born choreographer Lewis Major’s double bill, Unfolding and S/WORDS, it plays a pivotal role. Major has recently returned to Adelaide after six years in Europe, and a range of European influences can be detected in his work, although he is clearly developing a voice all his own.
The use of lighting in Unfolding reminded me of Michael Hull’s lighting for Aakash Odedra’s triple bill,Rising, in that Fausto Brusamolino’s brilliant lighting—billed as ‘3D polynomial animations’ in the program—is as important to the work as Major’s choreography. A tableau of four dancers, clad in black crops and pants, is swept by a beam of light sweeping from side to side, their classical port de bras and deportment creating elegant images as the light catches them momentarily.
James Peter Brown’s soundscape segues from piano to gentle electronic beeping to loud thrumming, as the movement morphs from gentle leaning and touching to faster pace duet work, the dancers’ bodies coiling around each other with urgency. A female dancer walk through beams of intersecting light, before being joined by another: their naked torsos are later bathed in golden star bursts reminiscent of Gustave Klimt’s paintings, albeit with added phosphorescence. This is an exquisite work, a perfect fusion of design, light and movement.
S/WORDS features a larger ensemble of 12 performers, a diverse bunch dressed in street clothes. The opening scene of the group seated at a trestle table in a space lined with portable seating, squabbling and drinking while scratchy ’30s music plays, immediately calls to mind Pina Bausch, whilst the later frantic scenes of an evolving communal ritual are reminiscent of Hofesh Shechter’s Grand Finale.
That said, Major has his own style. His manipulation of projected words and envelopes, signifying the power of political rhetoric, as a man swirling the white flags of surrender enters and exits, and groups come together initially in hope and later in violence, resonates strongly with contemporary political conflicts sweeping the world from Syria and Belarus to Myanmar. Initial hope, expressed in high energy folkloric dance moves—perhaps Irish or Scottish—drinking games and romance, give way to apocalyptic scenes of despair and violence.
This double bill is both varied and impressive, and augurs well for Major’s development as a choreographer. Future Festival artistic directors take note: home grown work deserves to be programmed on its own merit!
- MAGGIE TONKIN