Jude Walton’s subtle excavation

Philipa Rothfield

Jude Walton’s Drill Hall Project 2017 is a site-specific performance based on feelings of absence: the absence of men in a time of war, and more generally, the absence of the past in the now. It is posed from the point of view of the women left behind, and from the spectator’s perspective, on times gone by.

This is made possible through enlisting the use of a building that hearkens back to 1937—between two World Wars. Melbourne’s Drill Hall was home to the 6th battalion of the Royal Melbourne Regiment. Its strategically central location would have been ideal for revolutionary takeover. As it turns out, this never happened. The Drill Hall sits quietly in the heart of Melbourne, a Tardis barely noticed. To enter this art deco space is to feel its white walls, polished floor and geometric mouldings as silent witnesses to the past.

A brass quartet angles towards the back of this large room, broken up by a number of female figures in retro dresses who enter and exit throughout. Jo White comes forward, working her way through a plain, repetitive phrase of simple gestures, diagonals, spirals and shifts of weight. She is joined by another dancer, Michaela Pegum, who echoes her established movement pattern. The habitual lull brought about through repetitive motion is interrupted by a plethora of small metal balls rolled across the floor. The noise of their rolling is amplified, suggesting the approach of war planes overhead. The balls introduce an element of danger and instability, of metal versus flesh. The women enter the space to ‘sweep’ the balls, using wooden planks to great acoustic effect.

The delayed entrance of the music strikes a bittersweet note, the pathos of the past perhaps. The resonance of brass instruments is more than musical, flavouring thought with emotion. A large light box is pushed across the floor, offering a further sense of duration, the circulation of memories augmented by the period costumes worn throughout. The two dancers and two performers (Beth and Sarah Rudledge) engage in a series of actions, movement-based, spatial, and with the metal balls. They express a quiet dedication to each task.

Two striking solos by a third dancer, Sally Grage-Moore, interrupt the quiet flow of events. Her face is concealed both times, by a flowered head-covering and later a balaclava. This is at odds with her neo-classical dance palette according to which she rehearses a series of poses: elegant, cross-lateral diagonals, pointed legs, long body. Apart from the mystery of her hidden face, she could be modelling a dated version of 1930s femininity. The cracks in this ideal are revealed as two women perform a series of falls, supporting each other amid grief and loss.

Walton’s choreography has that quality of the once-removed, suggestive yet spacious, allowing for a range of interpretations within a carefully constructed field. It’s elegant, pared back and enhanced by Kym Dillon’s music, a deconstructed and reconstructed set of variations on “Waltzing Matilda.” The Drill Hall Project 2017 ends with a recognisable rendition, evoking the past, yet making room for our own felt perspective.

The Drill Hall Project 2017, choreography, direction Jude Walton in collaboration with dancers Michaela Pegum, Jo White, Sally Grage-Moore, performers Beth Rudledge, Sarah Rudledge, composer, conductor Kym Dillon, scenography, design Beth Arnold; The Drill Hall, Melbourne, 29, 30 April

16 May 2017