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Flash Review 2, 4-3: Shadows of our Forgotten Ancestors
With TasDance, Weir & Adams Essay a Troubling Past

By Chloe Smethurst
Copyright 2003 Chloe Smethurst

LAUNCESTON, Tasmania -- In a season inspired by history but expressed in a very modern form, TasDance last week presented two new works at the Earl Arts Centre. The pieces, by Phillip Adams and Natalie Weir, were both born of the same seed of inspiration. Some time ago, author Carmel Bird approached the company with an image, Alfred Ducote's 1832 lithograph "E-Migration, or A Flight of Fair Game," which evokes the journey of a boat full of single women bound for the colony of Van Dieman's Land, as Tasmania was called in Colonial times. Bird researched the story and found that 200 women from various London institutions were given free passage to Hobart-town, the capitol now known as Hobart, on board the 'Princess Royal' in the hopes of providing the male-dominated colony with wives and servants. Unfortunately, on their arrival in Hobart, many of the women were deemed 'contaminated' or 'bad' and were sent into the streets to fend for themselves.

Weir's contribution, "Fair Game," is grounded in classical technique, and yet on this contemporary based company becomes an impressive and successful hybrid of the two. Weir seems to have taken the plight of the women on board the Princess Royal to heart, and has created a work full of emotion and struggle.

The opening scene sees three women, Trisha Dunn, Lisa Griffiths and Tania Tabacchi, standing in the center of a boat's hull which is rocking from side to side. Ingeniously crafted by Greg Clarke, the skeletal hull becomes an integral part of the work. This literal beginning is carried on in various degrees throughout the piece, as Weir takes the story of the women as her main point of reference. Climbing on the rocking frame, reaching through its ribs and pulling back, being flung from side to side, the dancers enact a stylized sea journey. All too soon it seems, the men enter the space and begin to claw at the women, again a literal interpretation of the lithograph. One by one, the women are claimed and carried off by the male cast, Jason Northam, Craig Bary and Malcolm McMillan.

It is here where we begin to see the relationship between all the collaborators on this work. Clarke's ship is pulled in half and stood on its end to reveal two halves of a bird cage, while Sarah Curro walks on stage, violin in hand, to play live some of the elements of Hope Csutoros's score. The combination of live music, a versatile and effective set, brilliant lighting by Joe Mercurio and Weir's emotive, passionate choreography is a potent mix and makes for excellent viewing.

The skills of the dancers are put to their fullest use in the body of the work, where intimate and often violent duets are interspersed with haunting images of the women trapped in relationships that were most likely forced upon them. The image of Griffiths being clutched and pulled at by three men as they tear off her dress and proceed to abuse her is one that was handled with such poignancy it will likely linger for a long time in the minds of many who saw it.

Adams's "Doubting Lakes Edge" is a complete contrast to the Weir's creation in almost every way. Where "Fair Game" was almost literal, Adam's work is clouded in obscurity. Where Weir's choreographic relationship to the music was quite strong, Adams uses his score as a backdrop to the action rather than pinning the choreography to the musical elements. He has created a piece that is not easily digested, but rather needs to be dissected and mulled over to be fully appreciated.

In commissioning this work, TasDance artistic director Annie Greig has created a huge challenge for Tasmanian audiences who are not often exposed to such obliquely abstract and, one might even say, cryptic, modern dance works. The choreographer used multiple props which, without further explanation, were almost unfathomable; the music shifted from heavy metal to ambient pop; and the dance veered stylistically between elements of folk dance, contact improvisation, and stripped-down post-modernism. All of these fragments combined to create a dense web of images and ideas for the audience to decipher, wherein lay the challenge.

Of course, some parts of the work were more easily read than others. In one section which seems to depict the moral corruption that underlies the whole story evoked in the lithograph, the cast, joined for this work by Joanne White, indulge in partnered floor work suggestive of sexual relationships. Again Adams complicates the images by pairing same sex couples and developing other ideas in the background.

There were two sections in 'Doubting' that resonated strongly with the story of the Princess Royal and her cargo, and thus were easier to comprehend. The first was the opening scene, subtitled 'The Crossing.' In silence, four women, dressed in corsets, suspenders and stiletto heels, give an hilarious and yet touching version of life on board the ship. Their disorientated, fractured movements and clunking heels convey a strong impression of the difficult journey and displacement upon arrival that some of these women must have encountered.

The other section which works particularly well involves two of the cast being tucked and tied into bright red sleeping bags. The ensuing movement is again on the borderline between hilarity and tenderness, a concept that Adams seems to be working with. There is something ridiculous in the way the bagged couple is manipulated around the stage, and yet their expressions and demeanor remain absolutely calm and serene, which leads one to believe that there may be something underlying the humor of the situation. In his program notes, Adams proposed to give us a "contemporary reflection" of the subject matter, and in this section I believe he succeeds. Here again the cryptic clues come together to suggest that the choreographer is making a comment about the way the people of the colony were manipulated, and perhaps the evident calmness and passivity reflects his idea that the women would have experienced a sense of 'weird isolation.'

Altogether, these two works provide an exploration of the many different issues that are raised by studying the plight of these women, while also displaying the multiple talents of the company and its collaborators. The contrast between the choreographers' styles and modes of working is also fascinating to watch; one would be hard pressed to find two such different and original takes on the same source material anywhere else.

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