The mutable body: Thomas E S Kelly and Fishhook at PACT

Keith Gallasch

Two works presented by Sydney’s PACT in its Afterglow series — the organisation’s principal program of works from emerging artists — offer distinctive visions. Thomas E S Kelly’s Shifting > Shapes is a contemporary dance theatre exploration of the drama of shape-shifting in Aboriginal culture, and Fishhook’s FEMMENACE is a contemporary performance work in which women face fears that are embodied in disturbing stage imagery.


Karul Projects, Shifting > Shapes

Choreographer Thomas E S Kelly takes a multifaceted approach to the subject of shape-shifting commencing with a mockumentary in which he interviews a trio of people who reveal that they have other selves — fish, cat and gorilla. Intermittently funny, the video conjures everyday fantasies of transformation and then moves on to something more serious: a solo dance performance imbued, at first impressionistically and then quite specifically, with Dreamtime shape-shifting.

The first stage of NAISDA-trained Taree Sansbury‘s performance is relatively abstract, drawing on but not mimicking traditional Aboriginal dance. Holding her centre of gravity low, she articulates her hands sharply at the wrists, steps firmly and becomes recurrently animal-like — but not literally —whether crouching, moving on all fours or dragging herself across harshly lit terrain. Kelly’s soundtrack evokes desert — a bell, clanging metal, a hollow distant wind — but with urban beats, amplifying the sense of an ancient culture’s timelessness.

Taree Sansbury, Shifting > Shapes, PACT, photo Carla Zimbler

With pronounced spinning and stamping (to an emphatic drumming), a sense of determination in the movement emerges, but oscillating with bouts of involuntarism — the body freezing or arms flicking forward. Hands now and then flutter over the heart, evoking depth of feeling in what looks like incipient, compulsive transformation, the body low, elbows reaching out, a finger drawing a snaking line in the dust. A voiceover tells a Dreamtime story of Dirawong, a totem lizard, protecting its people from the Rainbow Serpent and in the process becoming a headland. In a final phase, Sansbury stands still before us, struggling to name herself and succumbing to forces that recall the push and pull and trajectories of the earlier dance — crawling, rolling, arms thrusting, the body locked — but now as if possessed, while eerie electronic birdsong underlines her otherness. Finally, Sansbury utters calm acceptance of her shape-shifting being.

Sansbury’s shape-shifting performance, made in collaboration with Kelly, is earthed, fluent, tautly controlled and convincingly driven. Shifting > Shapes is another fascinating work from Thomas E S Kelly, the maker of (MIS)CONCEIVE (seen in Next Wave 2016) in which Sansbury also appeared and, like it, exudes relentless energy which can at times blur the clarity of the choreography, as it did in Shifting > Shape’s overlong centrepiece. Next to the rest of the work, the introductory mockumentary seems an odd fit, tonally and conceptually, but, strongly danced, Shifting > Shapes has the makings of an economically expressed and even more powerful work.


Cath McNamara, FEMMENACE, PACT, photo Carla Zimbler


Three long illuminated poles dance in the dark. Light flares, No Doubt’s “Just a girl” blasts forth and a trio of young female performers advance on the audience before roosting in an upstage scaffolding tower. This opening assertiveness of sexuality in Fishook’s FEMMENACE is immediately put to the test in a string of quickfire exchanges that recall post’s laterally logical way with words. Each, between Cheryn Frost and Cath McNamara, is speculative — What would I do if trapped by an Uber driver, was followed on the way home, attacked at home? Crash the car, scream…? — and complicated with the repetition in each of “What if it was a woman?” “What if there was a gun?” “A gun changes the whole situation.” The first menace faced by women in FEMMENACE is essentially male and the conversation, even though delivered drolly, is a kind of panic control, subsequently played out by the trio leaping about on the scaffolding.

Menace is not felt in Tahlee Kiandra Leeson’s langorous recital of an erotically witty account of a teenage sexual encounter in which personal euphemisms dominate — pinecones for breasts, lunchbox for knickers — followed by regret that “I was too much in the moment to see how he touched my body. Jesus Christ, my cunt hurts.” This time an aura of sexual pleasure is followed by greater threats.

Cath McNamara, Cheryn Frost, Tahlee Kiandra Leeson, FEMMENACE, PACT, photo Carla Zimbler

In the work’s major scene, Frost in a totally consuming HAZCHEM outfit adjusts and breaks down the scaffolding. Leeson is locked in a black bag from which she eventually struggles barely free, swathed in black and aglow with tiny lights while a voiceover reflects anxiously on love — “we fit together and fall apart.” McNamara appears modelling a glittering, sexy bridal outfit, adorned at crotch level with a sparkling, mysterious sculptural extension. In stark contrast, from bride to mother, she returns in a pyjama top, heavily pregnant, squats downstage and proceeds to pull out innards of cloth while slowly backing up, leaving a dark trail. The combination of sustained images of, I’m guessing here, suffocating love, fear of pregnancy and a singing HAZCHEM worker cleaning up in its wake made for a grim if not altogether cogent spectacle. The menaces evoked are multiple — including relationships and women’s own bodies — transcending the work’s opening bluntness and evoking a more complex womanhood.

FEMMENACE is a raw work from an emerging ensemble (the trio are recent University of Wollongong graduates) capable of creating striking images and delivering idiosyncratic writing. Once Fishhook achieve greater clarity in their image-making and tauter structural cogency, FEMMENACE will become more than a recollection of vividly provocative moments from bold performers.

PACT, Afterglow: Karul Projects, Shifting > Shapes, choreographer, composer Thomas E S Kelly, collaborator, performer Taree Sansbury, lighting designer Gigi Gregory; Fishhook, FEMMENACE, creator, performer Cheryn Frost, co-creators, performers Cath McNamara, Tahlee Kiandra Leeson, lighting designer Gigi Gregory, sound design Stephen Kendrick; PACT Theatre, Sydney, 22-25 Nov

Here are brief profiles of the emerging artists appearing in Shifting > Shapes and FEMMENACE.

Thomas E S Kelly, a Bundjalung and Wiradjuri man of Queensland and New South Wales, studied at NAISDA Dance College, graduating in 2012, and went on to work in dance, theatre, puppetry and as a choreographer ([MIS]CONCEIVE and 1770: A Tale Not Often Told with Founding Modern Australia) and composer. He appeared in Vicki Van Hout’s Long Grass and Les Festivités Lubrifier and Shaun Parker & Company’s Am I.

Taree Sansbury, a Kaurna, Narungga and Ngarrindjeri woman from South Australia is NAISDA Dance College graduate who performed in Force Majeure’s two-year Culminate/Cultivate program, undertook an internship with Australian Dance Theatre in 2014, appeared in Vicki Van Hout’s Long Grass, Victoria Hunt’s Tangi Wai: a cry of water, Martin Del Amo’s Champions, Thomas E S Kelly’s [MIS]CONCEIVE and Branch Nebula’s Snake Sessions for the Artlands Festival in Dubbo, NSW.

Fishhook’s members met while studying at the University of Wollongong and developed a partnership for devising experimental theatre, prizing physicality in performance given backgrounds variously in gymnastics, contemporary dance, ballet, and BodyWeather.

Cheryn Frost, a Yuwaalaraay woman and lead-artist on FEMMENACE graduated in 2015 with a Bachelor of Performance (Acting) from UOW, co-devised, co-wrote and performed Smut & Half Truths (2016 Melbourne Fringe Festival), collaborated on and performed in PACT Collective’s iDNA (2016), and wrote and performed Confessional in PACT’s Salon #2: Possible abilities (2017).

Catherine McNamara has a Bachelor of Performance (Acting) from UOW and Communications and Media (Journalism) degrees, studied ballet and contemporary dance for many years, recently trained in BodyWeather, collaborated on and performed in ERTH’s Prehistoric Aquarium and was a dancer/company member of Victoria Hunt’s Tangi Wai: the cry of water.

Tahlee Kiandra Leeson has a Bachelor of Performance (Acting) degree from UOW, performed in young Australian playwright Ava Caruso’s The History of the World From Now (Adelaide Fringe Festival 2016), collaborated with Bonnie Cowan on Two Marbelous Girls, a performance action at the Ultimo Community Centre, and recently appeared in re:group performance collective’s Route Dash Niner Part II.

Top image credit: Taree Sansbury, Shifting > Shapes, PACT, photo Carla Zimbler

5 December 2017