Chunky Move Studios, Melbourne
November 9, 2018

Through hazy darkness shaped only by sharp vectors of light, two bodies in beige chiffon jumpsuits appear. One (choreographer and dancer Lauren Langlois) hovers in the background with slightly bent knees, suspended in the thick, inky air. Her counterpart, dancer James Vu Ahn Pham, creeps through the vertical beams of light with an unnatural gait and shrunken neck.

The dancers, like the black void they occupy, are alien and undefined. This is Nether – a small-scale journey of sci-fi contemporary dance, and the first half of a double bill in Chunky Move’s annual commissioning program for emerging choreographers, Next Move 11.

Lauren Langlois and James Vu Ahn Pham in Ether. Photograph © Pippa Samaya

One could say Langlois and Pham are humanoids – clearly human in form but not in movement. From peculiar, creature-like walking to frantic shuffling on hands and knees, the two subjects appear no more familiar with their surroundings than we do as the audience. The choreography oscillates between abstract explorations of tension and release, and exaggerated gestures that border on the absurd.

Pervading the entire work is a strong sense of urgency, largely driven by the incremental shifts in Alisdair Macindoe’s electronic score. Thunderous sub-bass, distortion, beeping, and a sampling of heavy rainfall all contribute to a rich sonic offering that mostly complements (but is sometimes left to carry) the dramatic tension of the work.

As the viewer, we are very much on the outside; like scientists watching their specimens respond to stimuli. Only once do the two dancers clearly engage the audience, in a moment of up-close and direct, albeit flickering, eye contact. It’s brief but enough for us to connect with the alien figures on an emotional level, not just kinaesthetic. These are humans after all!

More moments like this would have drawn the viewer deeper into the work, which at times struggled to direct the audience’s focus. That aside, Langlois succeeds in creating an unusual and unique movement vocabulary that takes advantage of her and Pham’s highly articulate bodies.

Joel Bray in Dharawungara. Photograph © Pippa Samaya

Radically different in tone and topic is the second work of the evening, Dharawungara. As creator and performer Joel Bray explains in his casual opening address, the work’s title refers to a rite of passage for young Indigenous boys transitioning into adulthood. Having never partaken in one, Bray explains that his research into the ceremony led him to uncover an uncanny and tragic connection: his great-great-grandfather’s own dharawungara was the subject of a famous white anthropologist’s recordings. Also detailed is the horrific brutality suffered by Bray’s ancestor and his community.

In light of these discoveries, Bray declares his need to undergo his own dharawungara and decides to recreate the ceremony onstage. With deftly handled humour (gold foil and a smoke machine are the substitutes for a campfire, and purple Dulux paint replaces ochre), the dancer reimagines what his ancestor’s ceremony would have been like. Bray’s powerful body references the cockatoo’s flapping wings and the small stature of the echidna, before quickly morphing into more abstract representations of the ritual.

Accompanying the work is a sublime soundscape mixed live on stage by sound artist Naretha Williams. Bird calls and crackling fire give way to driving drum lines and pulsating waves of sound. The sonic layers accumulate towards the proverbial climax, as Bray seems to strip back his own, very different, layers.

What began as a contained embodiment of an ancient ritual in a small circle, quickly encompasses the entire stage and the objects thereon. Dozens of bunches of black balloons, orange plastic sheeting and falling glitter all reference, to varying degrees of literality, Bray’s own unique and complex passage into adulthood.
On one level, the work is a deeply personal statement about identity and personhood; Bray (re)writing a part of his story that has ultimately been denied by colonising forces. But it’s far from selfish. As the work develops, Bray also seems to embody the trauma of generations past; channelling, recalling and imagining the suffering of his ancestors. His body attempts to service this duality: the site of a personal reckoning and also a vessel for intergenerational trauma.

An accomplished dancer, Bray also delivers long passages of text with disarming honesty and charm, ensuring the emotional weight of the work hits, but doesn’t destroy, its target. And while some ideas felt like they could have been milked further for their dramatic worth, the work as a whole largely succeeds in making its point. There is ample talent on display here and Bray’s creative voice is deserving of attention.

Next Move 11 runs at the Chunky Move Studios until November 17


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