Dancenorth delivers an intensely moving, lithe and at times visceral short work with Tectonic, touching on place, history, nature, colonialism, industrialisation, climate change and rising sea levels, on a site that underpins the premise spectacularly.

Tectonic is presented in two parts. In the second, a traditional song and dance cycle by the Urab Dancers from tiny, slowly sinking Poruma Island in the Torres Strait introduces us to the friendly people at the heart of this increasingly universal story of impending catastrophe and potential displacement. Their presence, part of an ongoing collaboration with Dancenorth, renders Tectonic personal. Ancient patternings of rhythm and gesture echo back and forth between the two parts of the event.

Townsville’s unique beach site slopes down to the water, overlooking the Coral Sea and Magnetic Island. 180 colour-coded fitballs are uniformly half buried in the sand to form an enormous grid delineating the performance area. Dramatic side lighting constantly changing the visual sense of depth and colour, the resonant soundtrack and a tropical night sky with a slight wind moving the palm fronds, all collude ethereally to focus the senses on the dance.

At first, a figure in shimmering black and green, suggestive of elemental forces, stands near the tideline, her back to the action, imposing even at a distance. As the other six dancers, in loose flesh-coloured trousers and tops, enter the grid of balls, it becomes clear that there is a relationship between the far figure and the others, a kind of orchestration occurring via her gestures. At first this appears synergistic, the dancers bouncing on and flipping from the fitballs.

As the figure (an imperious Samantha Hines) edges closer in barely perceptible increments, the mood darkens. Suggestions of fear, aggression, exploitation and sickness appear and the dark figure now seems invasive and polluting, a harbinger of industrialisation. Sand runs through the dancers’ fingers like time running out. They frantically bound across the fitballs, dive-bombing into the ground and rising up to repeat.

Tectonic, Dancenorth, photo Amber Haines

The central figure begins to remotely and remorselessly lift and drop the others, allowing them to almost stand before a flick of her hand fells them, onto their backs, splayed over the balls, gradually moving them all the way back to the shoreline. Once on the far side of the grid, they strip and slowly disappear into the water and darkness.

The work includes an outstanding duo by Ashley McLellan and Jenni Large, which is so close, intense, despairing and evocative of death that I’m anxious for the children nearby in the audience. The Dancenorth ensemble is fearless and expressive, and I see no flagging of energy between a show early in the run, and one at the end. The unhappy conclusion of the first half of the show is tempered by the cultural vitality presented by Urab Dancers in the second half. They continue to dance and sing even though the sea has advanced 30 metres in a decade to literally lap at the back doors of their homes. Their spirit suggests that if we act as a global village, we can work to reverse the havoc wrought by rampant industrialisation, everywhere.

The public flocked to (and in some cases, stumbled upon) the free show’s twice-nightly sessions and milled along the foreshore, children on shoulders, smartphones recording the moment for social media. Dancenorth Artistic Director and Tectonic choreographer Kyle Page has taken public accessibility for contemporary dance to a new level, with a diverse audience of some 7,000 people engaging with the work on the Strand during its week-long run, part of the biennial sculpture project Strand Ephemera and coinciding with The Australian Festival of Chamber Music.

Dancenorth, Tectonic, choreographer Kyle Page, dancers Harrison Hall, Mason Kelly, Jenni Large, Ashley McLellan, Georgia Rudd, Samantha Hines, Jack Ziesing, Urab Dancers of Poruma Island, costumes Andrew Treloar, sound design Alisdair Macindoe, lighting design Tom Wright; The Strand, Townsville, 29 July-5 Aug

Top image credit: Tectonic, Dancenorth, photo Amber Haines

Dancenorth’s Tomorrow Makers is a deftly curated opportunity offered by Artistic Director Kyle Page to his Townsville ensemble to stretch their choreographic muscle. The program of five short works performed by five dancers included one by guest choreographer Paea Leach, a performer with Melbourne’s Chunky Move. None of the pieces demanded a single reading; all were deliberately open to interpretation, and the sense of freedom was palpable. “We are being supported to experiment and we might fail,” reads a collective program note from the choreographers.

 

Paea Leach, Body Like a Neon Sign

Leach’s Body Like a Neon Sign with its red lighting and initially stormy soundtrack (Flume: An Anthology of Noise and Electronic Music, Vol 3 by Fred Szymanski) produces a sense of impending disaster. Despite the large cubic space of the venue, the action is focused to the point of claustrophobia at times. Ashley McLellan, Georgia Rudd and Harrison Hall, dressed simply in androgynous black T-shirts and rusty jeans, relay anxiety as they cluster and stack themselves in co-supported shapes, open-mouthed and struggling to breathe—as though being gassed. Crying like curlews, they open the space in a cohesive trio, repeating turns and elegant extensions before clasping together again, like supplicants. They begin running, seemingly in panic, but the music changes and the heavy mood lifts. They pull their T-shirts over their heads, strip them off and don crowns of flowers and streamers. The warm lighting now suggests a summer festival sunset, but the lyrical, folksy sweetness of a Martha Wainwright song is playfully deceptive and short-lived as the chorus of “Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole” hits, just before the dancers meander offstage.

In her program note Leach writes, “For this work I drew from my current masters degree research into embodiment… the fact that we are multiple; holding, negotiating and provoking hugely divergent energies, states and presences within frameworks of form, lineage, our own personal embodied history and, of course, in relation to the larger (and aching) world.”

The work strongly suggested to me, in its first phase, an indeterminate suffering—a tone of despair and deep confusion permeating the global ether. The second phase seemed initially to embody denial, a flower child ‘turn on, tune in, drop out’ response, but the song choice simultaneously undercuts the love-in with a robust and defiant ‘Fuck you!’ Leach worked my emotions across an unexpectedly broad spectrum. Dancer Ashley McLellan’s capacity to convey vulnerability through eyes and face as well as body was a decided asset to the immediacy and intensity of Leach’s creation.

 

Harrison Hall, Psycho: Act IV

McLellan also shone in Harrison Hall’s Psycho: Act IV, this time because of her exceptional physical precision and steely control of facial expression. Psycho is a vicarous journey into rave culture and, like a good dance party, builds slowly to controlled frenzy. Hall, McLellan, and Rudd were joined by Mason Kelly and Jenni Large under blue light, all wearing variations of white commercialised sports gear. The disconnected dancers each repeat their own set of gestures robotically and expressionlessly as the tempo increases, and just when the work is on the edge of becoming tedious, they suddenly create a series of crisp formations, smashing out perfectly synchronised semaphore while the bass pumps and the beat reverberates.

Changed positions during sudden brief blackouts keep the eye moving as does vintage footage of a horse seen onscreen galloping on a treadmill and again later in negative. The team marches forward, standing front and then side-on before commencing a series of high-kneed marching formations with sports shoes squeaking in time on the tarkett—an unnerving display of human dressage.

If achieving a bright rhythmic allure, Hall’s creation was coldly compelling, invoking a profoundly uneasy sense of contemporary alienation. Delivering the formidable precision and high energy demanded was a credit to the dancers; each, with gaze turned inward, appearing to not even notice one another.

 

Mason Kelly, Georgia Rudd, Together Indecision

Mason Kelly and Georgia Rudd’s Together Indecision starts with the duo so entwined and writhing as they move through the space that it’s difficult to know where one body ends and the other begins. Separating to charge towards one another and collide and reconnect, the work suggests something of the universal vagaries of relating.

 

Ashley McLellan, Free Dive

Ashley McLellan’s austere Free Dive, comprising solos by Hall and Kelly, is danced in silence, to focus attention entirely on the possibilities contained within movement, from minute detail to the full body.

 

Jenni Large, Baby Heaven Love Voice

Jenni Large’s Baby Heaven Love Voice features Kelly, Rudd, McLellan and Hall, wearing incongruous clothing, in a very likeable work with an unlikely soundtrack (Foreigner’s soft rock anthem, “I Want to Know What Love Is”). Between each repeated sequence the dancers swap items of their clothing, strip to black undies and, finally, each dressed entirely in another’s outfit, they invade and serenade the audience.

Tomorrow Makers was not flawless, but bold and absolutely pinging with potential. Kyle Page’s investigative rigour and insatiable curiosity have set the tone at Dancenorth, and supporting his dancers to take creative risks in these diverse works is a gift to the future of dance.

Dancenorth, Tomorrow Makers, direction, choreography Paea Leach, Jenni Large, Ashley McLellan, Georgia Rudd, Mason Kelly, Harrison Hall, dancers, Harrison Hall, Mason Kelly, Jenni Large, Ashley McLellan, Georgia Rudd; lighting design Thomas Roach; Townsville Civic Theatre, 4-6 May