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Review 2, 4-3: Shadows of our Forgotten Ancestors
With TasDance, Weir & Adams Essay a Troubling Past
By Chloe Smethurst
Copyright 2003 Chloe Smethurst
-- 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.
"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
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
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