Review By Lisa Lanzi
Dancers are sometimes compared to elite athletes but in truth they are well beyond that categorization. Elite athletes of the sporting variety do not possess the complexities of strength and virtuosity in tandem with flexibility that dancers attain and continue to master in addition to the required performance artistry that is demanded. The dancers of Australian Dance Theatre are excellent examples of such physical and artistic synergy. Their training is rigorous and varied including classical ballet and contemporary dance techniques through to gymnastics, ashtanga yoga, breakdance and martial arts, or whatever is needed to suit the latest creation. Supernature premiering at the 2021 Adelaide Festival certainly gives the performers many opportunities to showcase their remarkable abilities.
Multi-award winning artistic director Garry Stewart’s tenure has been notable for its breadth of experimentation and collaborations with figures such as English theatre director Nigel Jamieson, French Canadian roboticist Louis Philippe Demers, visual artist Thomas Buchanan, Paris-based video engineer Thomas Pachoud and New York based photographer Lois Greenfield. Stewart has also made work for international dance companies and for screen. At the end of this year he will step down from the Artistic Director’s position after twenty two years in the role.
Supernature, co-commissioned with the assistance of the Art Gallery of South Australia for the 2020 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art, is the third in a trilogy of works dealing with humanity’s complex relationship to the natural world following The Beginning of Nature (with its filmic offshoot, The Circadian Cycle) and South. The work is epic in scope and manifestation however overlong and somewhat derivative, or perhaps paying homage to other great choreographers. There is a written distillation of Garry Stewart’s vision for Supernature on the ADT website and that intellectual exposition is clearly represented, if not entirely cohesive in choreographic terms
Action, sound and curtain-rise synchronise in a wash of volume and awe. The design revealed is by Stewart and Adelaide designer Wendy Todd - a cavernous, misty and curtained space with human figures and sculptural elements giving the sense of a primordial past, or perhaps our symbiotic future. In this very long opening sequence, the dancers arms are elongated with fabric as they hug the ground and writhe, there is a large pulsing amoeba/anemone/succulent-like mound and suspended cocoon/seed pod shapes overhead. The layered music and soundscape is strident, with an ambient, threatening feel eventually morphing into tribal rhythms, the movement reflecting this. Lighting by Damien Cooper always complements the atmosphere on stage and contributes much to the design wonder of the work.
Gradually, the view of the space enlarges as the curtaining parts further and the dancers’ appearance evolves. The costuming hints at beetle-like carapaces and the dancers hands are blackened and faces daubed which is used to great effect in various movement sequences. For example, one dancer with many strategically placed hands mutates into a creature with elongated spine sinuously growing and swaying, a human evolving into ‘other’. A number of times, in addition to the group’s manipulation of one dancers’ body, anatomical skeletal parts emerge and are held close, the dancer moving with the bony extensions. As the scene shifts onstage, the music and sound created by Brendan Woithe ebbs and flows, sometimes with multi-channel effects surrounding the audience and conjuring the varied life of this world we observe. Additionally, the bass and reverb of the sound could often be felt in the audience’s bodies, such was the range of Woithe’s work, another feature of the overall experience of Supernature.
Many images are created with the dancers’ bodies blending to become kinetic sculptures or creatures of the insect variety. Solo bodies inhabit the space as well moving in ways which most humans of our experience do not, the audience fixated and awed by the sheer athleticism. Other images are created when dancers move with and are connected by stretch fabric bands, reminiscent of a ‘cat’s cradle’ game or even Alwin Nikolais’ 1955 work Tensile Involvement. The tightly constructed abstract bodily groupings that occur also bring to mind the work of American company Pilobolus who aim to “test the limits of human physicality”. On occasion, other cultural references are brought to mind: Movies like Cocoon and Alien or other dystopian themed films, perhaps a Jules Verne novel, perhaps a David Attenborough documentary sans any narration.
Supernature is part performance art, part installation, part experiment and episodic, more like a collection of moving images. There are many hand-held props in use, some of which are curious or confusing, hinting at references that are not fully explored. There is some nudity scattered within the work and although aesthetically stunning I questioned the relevance of within the whole. The finale with viscous red liquid falling on three bodies and slow curtain drop - notions of bloody birth or rebirth perhaps - is captivating as an event or art work in itself but, again, I question the context.
The ADT journey under Stewart’s direction is a milestone in Australian dance history and continues the vital legacy begun by Elizabeth Cameron Dalman. In Supernature, it is the dancers who shine with their phenomenal commitment to the work, their execution of the choreographic ideas and sheer power. They are supreme performers, the ‘dance’ extending to their contorted facial expressions, every fingertip and foot gesture plus their energetic intention and presence.