As the pandemic drags on toward the end of a second year, all things, it seems, come back to COVID. When Dancenorth’s RED was conceived a year prior to the pandemic, the urgent concern driving creators Amber Haines and Kyle Page was shrinking biodiversity, symbolised by the prospect of humans’ red hair gene potentially dying (pardon the pun) out.
Now, its depiction of a flame-haired couple, whom we observe like a scientific study under glass as they gradually suffocate, takes on an even more potent resonance, with the encompassing set-piece of a clear bubble mirroring the tortured existence of many forced to live in isolation – either literally or figuratively – under the restrictive rules driven by COVID.
What starts as a languorous exploration evolves into expansive displays of strength and speed, before – as the bubble slowly deflates and the walls begin closing in – these movements take on an increasingly urgent and desperate quality in an effort to break out of the stifling confines in order to survive.
For the viewer, the 45-minute journey plays out as an unsettlingly visceral voyeuristic experience, like a car crash you’re powerless to turn away from.
While Artistic Director Page and Associate-AD Haines have a penchant for cerebral concepts, they process those into choreography that registers as grounded and organic – therefore belying its virtuosity.
Despite the broad scale and scope of RED’s theme and impact, the movement is incredibly detailed, nuanced and articulated, requiring exceptional strength and control.
At times its quality is also raw and extreme, hitting the floor with thuds and whacks and expulsions of air that are echoed in Alisdair Macindoe’s composition/sound design.
The risk is real – originating dancer Sara Black suffered an injury in the development period (her involvement honoured by contributing vocals). Accentuating company dancers Nelson Earl and Marlo Benjamin’s manes, a marathon sequence of head-rolls and head-bangs outdid anything I’ve seen in a mosh pit – and as staggeringly impressive as it was, I couldn’t help worrying… (You know you’re getting old when that’s your reaction rather than how cool it would be to do it.)
I’m not giving anything away by saying the ending is inevitable; having stripped-off in the final frantic throes of trying to escape their fate, the couple end up united, shrink-wrapped in a plastic tomb.
After previewing in Dancenorth’s home of Townsville in May, RED did get to make its world premiere at Melbourne’s ill-fated Rising festival, but it was forced to close after the production’s opening night. Its original cast members Georgia Rudd and James O’Hara then remained stranded in New Zealand.
Watching Earl and Benjamin though, you would think RED was made for them. Both are award-winning performers with exceptional facility and command. On top of this, Earl is a natural redhead; with this group constituting only one to two percent of the world’s population, being that and a brilliant dancer makes him a rare bird indeed.
After a half-century of dormancy, reviving this warehouse at Hamilton as a venue provides an ideal edgy and unique context for the production. The igloo-like inflatable set (created in consultation with David Cross) sits between two audience banks. We can see through the bubble to the opposite side before the performance formally begins, then that view is replaced by elongated reflections of the artists. The picture and mood are completed by Niklas Pajanti’s lighting design and Harriet Oxley’s neutral costumes. While the structure appears striking in its simplicity, I have no doubt the process of setting it up and timing its collapse is much more challenging.
RED is a quintessential festival work, and Brisbane is very fortunate to be able to present its Queensland premiere (or demiere as Macindoe quipped) as planned, so I hope audiences will respond with reciprocal appreciation for this opportunity to see provocative world-class art that makes one think and feel.