REVIEW: Sydney Festival 2024 (part 2)

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Everest Theatre, Seymour Centre
Reviewed January 20

GöteborgsOperans Danskompani

Roslyn Packer Theatre
Reviewed January 23

Mutiara is a well-researched piece of dance theatre that seeks to shed light on the way both Malay workers and First Peoples of the Kimberley were exploited for profit in Broome’s pearl industry. The four performers have shared Malay heritage, including Dalisa Pigram of Broome (who is co-artistic director of Marrugeku alongside dramaturg Rachel Swain), and Singaporeans Zee Zunnur and Soultari Amin Farid. The final cast member is an ex-pearl diver from Broome himself, Ahmat Bin Fadal, and the program recognises Mutiara as a joint effort with credit for concept and choreography shared equally between the four of them. Ahmat Bin Fadal takes additional credit for pearl diving history, Malay cultural advisor and silat (a type of martial arts rooted in the Malay Archipelago) training. Languages spoken onstage alongside English include Yawuru (Pigram), Malay and Arabic (Bin Fadal).

Marrugeku's 'Mutiara'. Photo by Michaal Jalaru-Torres.
Marrugeku's 'Mutiara'. Photo by Michaal Jalaru-Torres.

The work combines dance, storytelling, historical audio recordings and projections of black and white photos, but at its centre is the minimalist but evocative set designed by Abdul Rahman-Abdullah. A heap of pearl shells downstage is a small reminder of the middens that can be found all over Australia’s coastline while also remaining an interactive source of pearl shells – hand held props that can be deposited or removed by the cast throughout this work. Meanwhile the ropes that start off hanging from the ceiling in a solid cluster are later spread into layers that collectively could be a forest of seaweed, or, individually, a diver’s lifeline to the surface while undertaking the dangerous work of collecting pearls.

The cast of four brought a diverse range of skills and abilities to the piece. From a dance perspective Zee Zunnur was the most physically articulate and technically skilled, but I also enjoyed Soultari Amin Farid’s “fan” dance. With large pearl shells held in place of fans this particular scene seemed to mock the Western stereotype of the meek and obliging Asiatic female simply by being performed by a male dancer. Mutiara will be performed next at the Perth Festival from February 9-12 .

GöteborgsOperans Danskompani visited Sydney for this year’s Festival from Sweden with a double bill of works - Skid choreographed by Damien Jalet, and Saaba choreographed by Sharon Eyal. Each work is approximately 45 minutes in length. Skid is defined and shaped largely by its set, because instead of performing on the flat ground or a moderately raked stage (which slopes upwards, away from the audience) this cast of 17 dancers perform on an enormous white platform with an exaggerated tilt (34 degrees according to the program) that sees it reaching up towards the ceiling. This angle heightens the effort and struggle of the dancers to either get up the slope or resist skidding down it too quickly, but they are assisted in this endeavour by thin rubber soled socks/shoes that give them extra grip.

The electronic music score (composed by Christian Fennesz with addititional music by Marihiko Hara) was grand, lush and loud, which it needed to be in order to mask the squeaking sounds of those aforementioned rubber soles. This composition had the additional benefit of heroizing each dancers’ struggle as if it was a metaphor for life itself and Joakim Brink’s clever lighting design emphasised this by mimicking the passage of the sun over the course of a day but condensing it into minutes. In this way we could see the dancers’ shadows shift directions gradually as “day after day” passed by.

'Skid', performed by Goteburg Dance Company. Photo by Victor Frankowski.
'Skid', performed by Goteburg Dance Company. Photo by Victor Frankowski.

Skid feels profound and philosophical. No one dancer seems able to stay on the slope for more than a few minutes, and as they appear, traverse the slope, and then disappear before coming round again, it’s like seeing generation after generation tread the paths of their ancestors. There is choreographic variety in the way they traverse the slope but the end result is always the same.

If this metaphor was not clear enough for some viewers, it was made more obvious by the final scene in which one dancer (here performed by Benjamin Behrens) falls into a semi-transparent mesh sack in which he remains suspended, pushing and straining against that which contains him until he is “reborn” naked and has to begin the slow journey up the slope again.

Sharon Eyal’s Saaba is quite different in style to Skid, but similar in the way dancers of both genders are similarly costumed and in many of the steps. For the most part they do not seem to have been cast in specifically male or female roles but to inhabit a gender-neutral space. This was evident in the way the choreography for the whole cast mixed subtle, delicate shapes with bold, staccato moves. In some ways her quirky choreography seems to pit an outlying individual against the unity and dominance of the ensemble but look closer and you will see that even when the dancers are doing the same steps in time with each other there are always subtle differences between them.

Sharon Eyal’s choreography has a trance-like quality which is driven by the beat of DJ Ori Lichtik’s club-like music. Of the 13 dancers in this cast, Miguel Duarte seemed to best encapsulate Eyal’s choreography. The dancers are on demi-pointe for much of this work and in some ways appear to be quite constrained by what can seem like repetitive, stilted, heavily-stylised movements, but Duarte remained fluid, expansive and expressive with a relaxed dynamism throughout the whole work.

Dressed in flesh coloured lace unitards of various shades (by Maria Grazia Chiuri for the House of Dior) the dancers looked simultaneously revealed and flattered by the finest delicately patterned fabrics that money can buy. In Saaba’s final section, lighting designer Alon Cohen’s shift from low placed lighting in the wings to overhead red, and then white lights, bathed the dancers in a warm pink glow which was a beautiful note on which to end a double bill of excellent contemporary dance.


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