Review by Lisa Lanzi
Rewards For The Tribe has already had quite the journey. Commissioned by Warwick Arts Centre and Coventry UK City of Culture (and supported by Australian public and private grants), it premiered in May 2022 at Melbourne’s RISING festival then toured to the UK prior to opening in Adelaide at The Odeon, home to Australian Dance Theatre where Anthony Hamilton was once a company member.
Concept, direction & choreography is by Hamilton, Artistic Director of Chunky Move since December 2018. He is an awarded choreographer and passionate about melding choreography, sound and visual design - something I too seek to explore. In this first collaboration with Adelaide’s Restless Dance Theatre (founded by Sally Chance in 1991) Hamilton works with both disabled and able-bodied dancers. Since its foundation Restless has been a leader in the arena of dance and disability and has garnered huge recognition for the quality of their work.
There are many visual art allusions within this work alongside structured choreography, improvisation, and humour. Hamilton cites Da Vinci's Vitruvian Man as one of the purist symbols of the physical ideal and also references Mondrian’s later colour block works celebrating harmony of form. To my mind there was a style relationship to Bauhaus artist Oskar Schlemmer and his performance art such as Das Triadische Ballet (The Triadic Ballet) based on order, law and precise structure. There is also an echo in this production of absurdist Dada or Weimar era performance styles.
It is interesting to note that Hamilton speaks of the eternal search for perfection in our ‘wonky world’: “…but we live in an imperfect world full of unpredictability and wonky angles”. The consideration posed: “is there such a thing as utopia by design?” I found difficult to reconcile within the work as a whole and felt it lost its way somewhat. I did not completely grasp the symbolism of chaos and celebration of “misshapen reality” juxtaposed beside an acknowledgement of pure form and the concepts of divine geometry. I was also uncomfortable seeing disability as a device to “… get beyond this geometry of perfection” - whether that choice was a conscious or unconscious one.
While there were joyful and affecting moments within Rewards For The Tribe, I perceived many lost opportunities to better blend two companies’ styles and merge the technique and expression of the disabled and able-bodied dancers. On occasion, the talent and skills of Chunky Move’s Cody Lavery and Benjamin Hancock were set up to shine technically while the Restless dancers were left to amorphous, idiosyncratic improvisation at the edges. There was not the development that could have occurred to showcase the ensemble in a more equitable way.
I do not seek to detract from the enormous accomplishment of Restless’ Jianna Georgiou, Michael Hodyl and Charlie Wilkins, both in this work and others I have witnessed. They are phenomenal performers, skilled, capable and engaging. The three were obviously stretched physically by the overly long work and seemed to tire some by the end, while still giving their utmost. They each contributed some exquisite and profound solo work but also shone when the full ensemble truly came together.
Design by Jonathon Oxlade was inherent to the choreography with its primary coloured geometric objects, some that could easily have been at home in a Kindergym session. The objects were moved, pounced upon, stacked, rearranged and flung by the company, the most successful iterations being the assemblage tableaux that traversed time and space with bodies arranged intuitively upon the objects. All manner of images surfaced in this joyful section with many giggles from the audience. Drapes hung upstage also provided some surreal moments where the cast were manipulating them, or when the suspended curtain became a scene marker.
Some objects, like the larger-than-life soft cube outline, contained embedded microphones that were used by cast members either vocally or bodily to create amplified sound. This was an excellent apparatus to explore but possibly an entire work could be made solely with just this shape/design/sound exploration. Aurally and musically, Aviva Endean’s sound design also recalls Bauhaus and Dada performance endeavours. It was creative, quirky and discordant and seemed to exist apart from the choreography at times. Elsewhere it was strident and slightly annoying, or minimal and in the background. Lighting Designer Jenny Hector provided relevant and fun lighting although I was alarmed by some very bright states and strobe use (without prior warning) as many disabled folks I know would have been physically or emotionally uncomfortable in the presence of such.
In her opening night post-show address, Restless Artistic Director Michelle Ryan spoke of her hatred of tokenism where disabled performers are concerned. Fortunately, this is now being addressed by forward-thinking companies across the world, yet sadly, it is still not enough.
Rewards From The Tribe was a creative and exciting collaborative experiment but does not quite live up to the hype. I would like to see further refinement because, while the artists’ contributions are not token, I fear the lightheartedness overtook meaning.