Reviewed November 9
Australasian Dance Collective (ADC) has again pushed the envelope with its latest work Halcyon – a complex and subversive exploration of the classic films of the 1940s via the medium of contemporary dance. Choreographer and director Jack Lister was inspired by the film noir style and the possibility of a nexus between the dramatic tensions and aesthetic of those films and contemporary dance. Together with a team of interdisciplinary collaborators, including the ADC artists, he has created a work that steers clear of contemporary dance’s usual mix of abstraction and metaphor. Instead, in a none too subtle nod to the era, Halcyon is packed with cinematic and dramatic references that are both absurdist and entertaining.
Halcyon has been styled as an immersive promenade experience, to dissolve the hierarchy between performer and audience. In the empty shell of the Powerhouse Theatre two large staging islands were elevated to chest height on stilts to – as I learned later – allow the audience free navigation in and around the action. However, on opening night, by and large the audience remained stationary around the space – those in front somewhat compromising the view of those behind. Standing for 75 minutes can challenge even the most ardent audience member, and this one, nursing an ankle injury, finally had to join others sitting on the periphery, where the view of the live action was all but obliterated. The final 30 minutes were therefore spent in a holding pattern of alternate sitting and standing. The caveat to this review, consequently, is that it’s based on a sadly limited view of the performance.
Halcyon comprises a series of scenes where the ADC dancers – Harrison Elliot, Lilly King, Taiga Kita-Leong, Jack Lister, Siobhan Lynch, Gabrielle Nankivell, and Lily Potger – each inhabit a different archetypal film noir character. Lynch, as the nightclub/jazz singer, opens (and closes) the show with haunting song, as a long bank of spotlights rises overhead, penetrating the gloom of the haze-filled space.
The storyline is a twist on the classic whodunnit, where the body appears at the work’s end – Nankivell’s femme fatale character (looking very Gilda-like) succumbing within the already drawn chalk marks. Both Nankivell and Elliot (as the Sam Spade character) gave strong performances. Their duet of tumbling lifts at the end of an extended reference to the famous, "here’s looking at you kid" scene from Casablanca was a highlight.
Lilly King, as the corset-clad showgirl, also captivated with her outrageous, over-the-top posturing, and seemed to interact most with the audience.
The interdisciplinary collaboration between live and digital performance is a strong focus of the work. Scenes are simultaneously filmed with footage projected in real time on the industrial brickwork of the expansive back wall. Lister, as the film director, was in the thick of the action, filming in real time. This was seen to best advantage where the mobster character (Potger) is dealing cards – the movement of her hands carefully choreographed and filmed from above, translating to mesmerising on-screen visuals, accompanied by a menacing, throbbing soundscape (Louis Frere-Harvey and Mick Trevisan)
Ryan Renshaw, responsible for the overall film and visual design, also produced extraordinary images, some wildly abstracted, and others clearly relating to the theme; early in the work kaleidoscopic overhead images of dancers, à la Busby Berkeley, were projected on the wall behind the action. Recognisable quotes from films were also projected, or formed part of the soundscape as spoken text, adding to the complexity of the work.
The traditional 1940s Hollywood costume designs (by Zoe Griffiths) of monochromatic tones also married well with Christine Felmingham’s almost black and white film noir referenced lighting design.
Halcyon comes to a well-rounded conclusion: six dancers together performing a tap styled finale: the bank of blazing spotlights lowering, and Nankivell sinking between the chalk marks on floor to a distorted version of the 1926 classic song, Baby Face.
The individual elements of Halcyon, as I was able to view them, were cleverly conceived and engaging. However, being unable to appreciate the work as it unfolded from beginning to end makes it difficult to comment on its overall cohesiveness. Hopefully, as it was a short season, ADC will revisit Halcyon again, along with a rethink of its promenade format, perhaps.
– DENISE RICHARDSON