Review: North/South

The onset of climate change inspires a thought-provoking Australian Dance Theatre two-parter from Garry Stewary and Norwegian choreographer Ina Christel Johannessen.

When he was thinking about a dance piece on climate change and the north and south poles, Australian Dance Theatre director Garry Stewart looked for a choreographer from the northern hemisphere. A theatre director pointed him to Ina Christel Johannessen, a Norwegian choreographer, who had been artist in residence at the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, which houses the world’s biggest seed collection in a built on a remote island halfway between Norway and the North Pole. Stewart’s South had had its first development early last year, and in North he wanted a work which contrasted with his own. The result is a fascinating and thought-provoking double bill.

The set for Johannesssen’s North has a glass bus shelter downstage right, the glass broken, and a light pole upstage left, against which a couple sometimes lean or stand near. Snow is lightly falling on the shelter as a man (Kimball Wong) comes in wearing a big eskimo hood and gloves, sits down and starts cooking a sausage in a frying pan. Others wander in, casually dressed, one in an overcoat; another in a suit alternates slow walking with fast turning leaps. They gather in a group downstage left, but turn and run upstage right, then back again. Some pair off, and as the work develops, one relationship, at first intimate and loving, suddenly becomes cruel and violent, the man bending the woman over backwards; it then returns to gentleness, a pattern repeated several times with growing intensity.

Australian Dance Theatre's Christopher Mills, Jana Castillo, Zoë Dunwoodie, and Harrison Elliott perform North (Photo: Daniel Boud)
Australian Dance Theatre’s Christopher Mills, Jana Castillo, Zoë Dunwoodie, and Harrison Elliott perform North (Photo: Daniel Boud)

Other relationships develop, expressed through lyrical duets for Wong and Zoe Wozniak, marking her debut in a featured role, and Rowan Rossi and Jana Castillo.

These contrast with the growing tension in the ensemble around them which culminates in Wong, who has been lying in the shelter covering himself in newspapers, suddenly begins throwing them out the side window. Some dancers have by now removed part of their clothes – Matt Roffe leaving only his pants on. He dives into the pile of papers, rises, falls, and crawls a few metres before collapsing. The others gather round him, trying but failing to revive him as one of the men climbs the lamp post and extinguishes the light.

North is about pressures on relationships. The subject of Stewart’s South is Sir Douglas Mawson’s polar exploration in 1912-13 on which his companions, Xavier Mertz and Belgrave Ninnis both died. The set is a series of nine large white boxes, which are moved about as needed by the cast of nine. The striking opening has Harrison Elliott as Mawson centrestage jerkily moving as in a poorly projected silent film. He is joined in similar movement by Daniel Jaber (Mertz) and Christopher Mills (Ninnis) but as the remaining cast gradually enters the movement becomes fluent .

Stewart has once again produced a new, innovative work, the cubes almost becoming characters in themselves and Mawson a charismatic leader but also an Everyman figure contending with change. Pushed and turned around the cubes become hills to be climbed, a wall to hide behind, turned around with one side open they become confinements for the cast. And what as cast this is! The same nine splendid dancers as in North but with a completely different choreographic style and with the added responsibility of moving the boxes.

Matte Roffe, Zoë Dunwoodie, Christopher Mills, Kimball Wong, Rowan Rossi, Harrison Elliott and Daniel Jaber (Photo: Daniel Boud)
Matte Roffe, Zoë Dunwoodie, Christopher Mills, Kimball Wong, Rowan Rossi, Harrison Elliott and Daniel Jaber perform South (Photo: Daniel Boud)

Both works are skilfully lit by Damien Cooper, who more than once brings handheld lights onto the otherwise dark stage in South, shining them in the audience’s eyes so that Elliott is in silhouette. Effective too is his bathing only parts of the stage in light so that the dancers emerge from the wings in darkness.

Wendy Todd’s costumes are the same as one another though slightly varied in colour: tight dark trousers, tunics with white or light-coloured vests and cummerbunds. At the end, Elliott gradually discards his clothes, and is left naked, curled up on one box, centrestage, until he climbs down and stands, partly covered in black paint, as the light dims.

It makes a powerful conclusion to South, which has become gradually darker as it has developed. Like North, it makes a less than happy statement about the future of humankind.

Australian Dance Theatre: North/South
Dunstan Playhouse
11-14 August

 

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