• Christopher Mills, Kimball Wong, Matte Roffe, Gabrielle Nankivell, Harrison Elliott, Rowan Rossi (c) Chris Herzfeld
    Christopher Mills, Kimball Wong, Matte Roffe, Gabrielle Nankivell, Harrison Elliott, Rowan Rossi (c) Chris Herzfeld

Australian Dance Theatre, The Beginning of Nature
Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide, July 11 & 14

The opening night of Garry Stewart’s powerful new work for Australian Dance Theatre, The Beginning of Nature, was blacked out nine minutes before the end, allegedly because a rat chewed through an electrical wire. The Australian Ballet’s performance of The Sleeping Beauty in the adjacent Festival Theatre suffered the same fate, leading to a chaotic exodus of audience members from both theatres in the dark. Luckily—since the season was sold out—I was subsequently able to secure tickets to the final performance to see the ending.

The Beginning of Nature had its first outing at Womadelaide in 2016, but has been developed considerably since then. This is a monumental work, both in conception and execution. Featuring an enormous black ring, suspended from the flies, which shapes the light into a cone, Damien Cooper’s lighting is moody and mysterious. The surging, throbbing score by long-time Stewart collaborator Brendan Woithe feeds live music through electronic loops, creating a powerful and at times haunting soundscape. The Zephyr Quartet (Belinda Gelhert, violin; Emily Tulloch, violin; Jason Thomas, viola; Hilary Kleinig, cello) and singers, Heru Pinkasova and Karen Cummings, are seated at the back of the stage behind a gauze throughout. The libretto is sung in Kaurna, the indigenous language of the Adelaide Plains, which until recently was extinct, but has been revived with the aid of nineteenth century documentation by two German missionaries. In the program notes, Stewart states that he decided to use Kaurna because it has been spoken on this continent for something like 60,000 years, as compared to 230 years for English, and he acknowledges the input of Jack Bucksin, Kaurna language and culture consultant.

Harrison Elliott, Thomas Fonua (c) Chris Herzfeld
Each dancer carries two stones, which they manipulate and exchange in ingenious ways. Pictured: Harrison Elliott, Thomas Fonua. Photo: Chris Herzfeld.

The Beginning of Nature is based on the rhythms of nature, and also on the indivisibility of man from nature, an idea that is central to all Aboriginal cultures, including Kaurna. These ideas infuse the work on many levels. The dancers form patterns resembling flocks of birds and herds of animals; they manipulate sticks into naturally-occurring shapes, such as wings, and human shapes, such as wigwams; they behave in animalistic ways, biting each other and engaging in mating rituals. At times they become one many-legged creature; at others, they mimic sprouting seeds. Several sections clearly reflect natural forces: wind, darkness and light, the ebb and flow of tides. Other sections are more abstract, such as the opening section in which each dancer carries two stones, which they manipulate and exchange in ingenious ways, suggesting a totemic relation to rock.

Thomas Fonua (c) Chris Herzfeld
Thomas Fonua is magisterial. Photo: Chris Herzfeld

ADT’s nine dancers, costumed by Davis Browne in knee-length green tunics that amplify the flow of movement, are magnificent. Much of the movement is trademark Stewart, featuring supremely athletic tumbling, but the work also contains passages of simple movement which, to my mind, are more effective; the passages in which luminescent green saplings are spun and swung, and carried in glorious circular runs, are unforgettable. Ensemble sections are interspersed with many solos. In swirling green skirt and bare chest, the muscular Thomas Fonua is magisterial; a tattoo-chested Matte Roffe is wonderfully sinuous and Kimball Wong’s long solo at the end is almost super-human in its athleticism. Jana Castillo, Gabrielle Nankivell and Zoe Dunwoodie are commanding presences throughout.

Having seen it twice in a week, I can attest that this is a work that will reward repeated viewing; indeed, I anticipate it will be an huge success for the company.

Maggie Tonkin

The Beginning of Nature is touring to Renmark, Hobart, Darwin, Alice Springs and Mandurah through July and August.

Pictured top: Christopher Mills, Kimball Wong, Matte Roffe, Gabrielle Nankivell, Harrison Elliott and Rowan Rossi. Photo: Chris Herzfeld.

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