in bed with a mortal engine

keith gallasch: chunky move’s mortal engine

Antony Hamilton, Mortal Engine

Antony Hamilton, Mortal Engine

AT ITS IMPRESSIVE 2008 SYDNEY FESTIVAL PREMIERE, CHUNKY MOVE’S MORTAL ENGINE, A QUICKFIRE, HI-TECH BLEND OF BRIEF INTIMACIES, SPECTACULAR DISPLAY, PALPABLE THREAT AND A METAPHYSICAL SHE’LL-BE-RIGHT CODA, WAS OUT TO SEDUCE ME. AS I WROTE AT THE TIME, WHILE ATTRACTED I WASN’T QUITE SURE WHAT THE SHOW ADDED UP TO WITH ITS DIALECTICAL INTERPLAY OF COUPLE DRAMAS AND BEAUTIFULLY VIOLENT IMAGES EVOCATIVE OF THE ORIGIN OF SPECIES. DANCE MASSIVE OFFERED THE OPPORTUNITY FOR A SECOND TRYST AND A POSSIBLE CONSUMMATION.

The experience turned out to be familiar, but it always amazes how much more you see the second time around, let alone how much you’ve forgotten of a first encounter. Well prepared for the speed of the courtship and the enveloping technological embrace, I found time opening out, and images clearer and more sustained. The male-female couple theme was more pervasive than I had recalled, and the motif of fingers reaching out to touch more far-reaching—a kind of God and Adam image out of Michelangelo but transposed affectingly and understatedly to an entirely human-animal realm.

The first image of Mortal Engine is a Big Bang; not a premature ejaculation, but a bright light pulsing a universe into being, one of unfamiliar geometries and pre-human rules. The light focuses again to a small circle in which we see fingers, stretching, reaching. But there is nothing to touch. The light expands, the hand dances from an elbow, an arm from a shoulder, until a whole primal female body is revealed, soon to battle with organic forces and shadow selves in a series of disturbing encounters. This is the very dark side of Mortal Engine, attractive for its artistry—the remarkable creation of shadow beings, the spores that flood out of a body and pour, rattling, back into it—but consumingly nightmarish. Keep your distance.

But what does Mortal Engine think about relationships? The male-female couple theme plays out in dance passages on the tilted stage-cum-screen and on a forward section of it which rises to the vertical to provide a recurrent ‘aerial’ image of a couple in bed. The first bed encounter reveals a female dancer. A hand reaches to her from the dark and she is immediately ‘electrified’, lightning-like lines flickering across and around her body. The male owner of the hand enters, holds the woman and ‘earths’ her, dissipating the electricity. He rests on her, perhaps asleep. She draws herself up and over him and exits. This touch has been powerful, dangerous and unresolved.

Soon, another couple appears, but at the top of the screen-stage. He’s beneath her; he’s a shadow figure. She looms above him and gestures with an open palm; he replies with the same. They become one: she’s face-up, stretched out over him, but every time he moves a limb outwards, she sharply curtails and contains the move with her arms and legs. Touch here yields oppression. (A positive variation on this writhing image appears in Mortal Engine’s final scene.) The couple pull apart as the screen flares into vivid white. He’s pure shadow. They reach out with fingers across the distance, move together, embrace, each with one hand free from which fingers curl and extend behind backs. They separate, leaving behind their discrete shadows. A first intimacy has been achieved, but again provisionally.

The next ‘bed’ scene reveals a couple holding hands but angling away from each other to a sound like an earthquake. There is no sign of emotion, either in expression or movement, but the straining rumble suggests massive stress, countered by our amusement at the odd singular shapes that the sleeping couple restlessly make. Here is unconscious intimacy with dark undertones. A neat grid of angled blue lines fills a later ‘bed’ scene, a couple on one side, someone alone on the far side. As they move in their sleep, they fragment the lines about them. One of the couple leaves, another couple forms, lines break and re-form.

As Mortal Engine moves to its conclusion, a couple bathed in a warm golden glow reach out fingertip to fingertip and entwine in a deep, intimate embrace. But they too separate as he leaves. A rich green laser light plays through smoke, over the woman and into the audience, making us one with the stage action. She pushes at the laser walls and then sinks to the floor, as if overwhelmed by the sheer weight of evolutionary development and the stressed couple. Eventually, a silhouetted male appears over the top of the screen-stage, shapes the cosmic laser tunnel to a point of stability, and moves to and lifts the woman. They become one, like the multi-limbed, finger dancing goddess Kali, both creator and destroyer, and then stand, swaying sideways in opposite directions, together and apart.

It’s an aetherial, dreamy resolution in a world far away from much of Mortal Engine’s nightmarish intensity, and of a different technological aesthetic, but it has a thematic consistency of which I’d been only partly aware. Seated to the side at the Sydney Opera House, I had been denied a full view of the action in the final scene. This time I met a more nuanced Mortal Engine, found time to register subtleties of character, rhythm, and enjoyed the fine, seductive moves, if still wary of a dark psyche.

It’s International Women’s Day today, and I’ve had another thought about Mortal Engine. What do its various gender attributions add up to (the first human, a woman; the man electrifying the woman; the woman restraining the man; the man ‘saves’ the woman in the final scene)? These are perhaps not questions to be asked in bed.

Chunky Move, Mortal Engine, direction, choreography Gideon Obarzanek, performers Kristy Ayre, Sara Black, Amber Haines, Antony Hamilton, Marnie Palomares, Lee Serle, James Shannon, Adam Synnott, Charmene Yap, interactive system design Frieder Weiss, laser & sound art Robin Fox, composer Ben Frost, set design Richard Dinnen, Gideon Obarzanek, lighting design Damien Cooper, costume designer Paula Levis; Malthouse Theatre, Melbourne, Mar 4-8; Dance Massive, Mar 3-15

8 March 2009
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