Heath Ledger Theatre, WA State Theatre Centre
Architect of the Invisible is a wonderfully complex choric work from dance-maker Raewyn Hill featuring twenty-three dancers weaving, pulsing, shaking and rising together, before scattering in coils and lines to come together again. The piece takes its theme from Dante’s epic poem The Divine Comedy (1321). The performance is divided into three acts, leading us from the ground based, flopping and spasming movements of Hell, to the sweeping, inter-cutting intermediate stage of Purgatory, and then to flowing and ascending planes of Heaven itself. The result is an exultant humanistic performance.
The first part of Iain Grandage’s music was more ambient, Gothic and electronic than usual for him—and, perhaps unsurprisingly, not unlike that of Hill’s other frequent collaborator Eden Mulholland. Grandage however echoed the choreography as we approached Heaven, moving to more tonal, classical material, in which repeated instrumental lines dominated, as with Philip Glass or Steve Reich.
Choreographically, the piece begins with something similar to contemporary European tanz theater like Ballet C de la B, or even Japanese and Australian butoh. Animal metaphors and shapes abounded. A recurrent pose was of dancers slightly crouched and hunched, legs apart, arms curved ape-like at the side of the body, while the head jerked out in short bursts, the dancers’ eyes glazed or confused. Movements connecting into the ground continued into the second act, where the dancers often adopted a position side-on to the audience, partially kneeling with one foot forward, torso and arms sweeping in a curve to take the energy from the floor and move the body forward again.
In act three, these more grounded positions largely disappeared. To paraphrase Susan Leigh Foster’s description of Isadora Duncan, here Hill’s dancers strove to act as a “conduit” from earth to the heavens, with the chest often “uplifted and prominent, and arms opened up and out towards” the aether above. Coming out of act two, the principal recurrent gesture became dancers massing together in stepped groupings and lifting one of their number partially upright into the air before the figure was dropped horizontal and carried through space. These ritualistic lifts seemed like airy baptisms.
The dancers’ complex massings and weavings occurred on a set by Tyler Hill, composed of ten steps rising in a gentle arc towards the back. This added to the drama of spiritual struggle and ascent. There were therefore echoes of such spiritually probing classics from the modernist canon as those from opera master Richard Wagner, choreographers Isadora Duncan and Hanya Holm, or designer Adolphe Appia—the latter’s sets for Wagner and others featuring different levels linked by epic flights of stairs.
Hill’s elegant blend of the familiar and the novel extended the costumes she designed, which began with the animalistic dancers stripped to brown-toned briefs, before they, in a rather Christian progression, started to cover up in act two, here donning a white shirt, there a pair of green slacks. By act three they were fully dressed in simply styled items each of a single colour. Like Bill Viola in his famous video The Greeting (1995), based as it was on Pontormo’s The Visitation (1528), Hill’s use of colour evoked religious art produced in the years following Dante during the Italian Renaissance, further grounding the performance’s spiritual logic in European Christian models of suffering and redemption.
Further extending Hill’s diverse choreographic influences, the Heavenly cohort performed abstracted snatches from Renaissance courtly dances including hand-holding circling. Recent events however had myself remembering the 2016 collaboration between Strut Dance in Perth and Israeli company Batsheva, which included an extraordinary spinning dance inspired by ecstatic Hasidim worship. Palestinians have circle dances too, as do other peoples. Could they, like those onstage, be dancing together soon? I fear not. Architect of the Invisible is a superb addition to Hill’s repertoire. Its scale means we are unlikely to see it again. But I do not share Hill’s or Dante’s faith in the oneness of humanity enabling us to transcend history and conflict. Rather than feeling lifted up, I responded most to the dancers of act one, who may be divided within and from each other, but seemed responsive to the riven particularities and histories of the grounds they moved upon.
– JONATHAN W. MARSHALL