the return of the super-marionette

jana perkovic: chunky move’s mortal engine

Charmene Yap, Mortal Engine

Charmene Yap, Mortal Engine

Charmene Yap, Mortal Engine


Whereas Chunky Move’s Glow (2005) was a chamber work, a 26-minute technological bonbon for a small audience, never losing the softness implied in the title, Mortal Engine looks and feels closer to a high-concept rock concert. A series of infra-red cameras surround the set, filming the dance from various angles, and feeding the information into a set of computers. The movement triggers light projections and sound effects, which also, at different points in the performance, respond to one another, liberated from the presence of the dancer. The result is a complex creature of stage multimedia, generated in real time.

On a steeply tilted stage, a circle of light, an egg, grows and multiplies, jitters with multiplicity, until a body, Charmene Yap, is wished into being. Dressed in a tiny, skin-coloured leotard, her body is nonetheless never feminised, remains the every-body that the female dancer so often is on stage, and mutates, and grows, and morphs, always a bulb of light until setting the entire stage alight. Parasitically, a cluster of five dancers, a polymorphy of purple darkness, assimilates her into an organic, but never quite human, mass. In pitch black, the raked stage is the only source of light for most of the time. The penumbra refracts our view of the dancing body, until we cannot make out human form in the geometric shapes it assumes and breaks, resembling now an insect, now bacteria. James Shannon’s solo (performed on other nights by Antony Hamilton) is another mollusc-like dance of bare life emerging out of the stage mathematics. In other moments—and Mortal Engine plays out like a series of tableaux rather than one fluid sequence—it draws on our terror of contagion, subconsciousness gone haywire, loss of individuality, loneliness.

Kristy Ayre and Adam Synnott’s duets insert a semblance of human relationship back into this otherworldly world of multiplying cells and evolutionary dead-ends, in contrast to the simple biochemistry that surrounds them—encounter, attraction, devouring of bodies. As a fragment of the stage lifts into an upright screen of television snow, their restless sleep is presented to us as if they were laboratory specimens, two vertical bodies on a butcher’s board, turning to and away from each other, physical contact cut short and reconnected. There is a tenuous line drawn here between our wild subconscious and the biochemical Darwinism that our bodies perhaps still remember (in cancerous growth, in radiated mutations); between the primordial terror of the world outside the womb, and the mad jouissance of evolutionary freedom.

Choreographically, Gideon Obarzanek explores every aspect of boundary anxiety as abject forms appear before us: a female body turning into an insect, bodies merging into grotesque multi-limbed evolutionary mistakes, writhing mass organisms growing out of group choreographies, the body attaching to a machine. This is a masculine, if not boyish, choreography. There can be no sexual tension without individual consciousness, and for most of Mortal Engine the dancers are formless hybrids, the duets entangled symbioses, mergers rather than dialogues. When finally, in the latter half of the show, James Shannon and Charmene Yap discover sexuality in a small, physically humble encounter, a long duet of hands and extended fingers, it reverbrates with astonishing intensity. By the time they embrace, Yap’s body naked except for tiny briefs, it is a breathtaking, electric moment of intimacy.

Yet the constant threat of technology remains the menacing undertone of the performance. The human body, presumably the centre of the show and seemingly orchestrating the effects with movement, is less important than this set-up might suggest. It completely disappears for long sequences of son reacting to lumiere, or vice versa. The grand finale, despite the presence of dancers, is a one-gadget-show of a green laser beam bouquet turned on the audience, cutting through smoke, and creating a mesmering illusion of being sometimes in a tunnel or a maze, sometimes floating between death and rebirth, sometimes flying over clouds. It effectively liberates the technology from the iron cage of the flat screen, immersing the audience in the stage going-ons, and painting laser images on the auditorium like a canvas. The performance assumes the aura of occultism, a demonic spectacle.

Mortal Engine is an extended metonymy, its own subject: a mad man-machine merger. It is both grotesque and almost unbearably optimistic, an ode to technology akin to UK choreographer Wayne McGregor’s work with Random Dance. In McGregor’s Entity, another mainstage hit of recent times, and another computer-generated, albeit more cerebral choreography, the same type of asexual, plain-costumed bodies danced their friendly duets without romantic undertones, gender stripped particles in the wide cosmos, struggling to assume a sense of singular self in a universe governed by cold laws of science. In Mortal Engine, the question of hybrid consciousness is not even posed: the psychotic, over-mediated, techno-body is celebrated as an end in itself. Even when frightening, it nevertheless shines bright.

There is no pause for question in Mortal Engine, and no space for error. In our high-speed, over-mediated world it is easy to love Mortal Engine: it poses no threat to the order of things. It doesn’t aim for rebellion, merely extends the spectacle.

It is telling that Mortal Engine would have its hometown premiere in the same year that we’re celebrating 100 years of the Futurist Manifesto. Marinetti’s proto-fascist call to give ourselves to the Unknown in glee, to embrace the velocity and momentum of machines and overcome the dusty limits of history, resounds loudly in Chunky Move’s latest creation. This is an important dance work, absolutely pushing at technological boundaries. It hammers its point so incessantly, with such futurist negligence for understatement, that one feels beaten, rather than elevated, by its display of technological might.

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 2-15

7 March 2009