Review By Lisa Lanzi
The Long Walk is a site-specific dance work on film set in Robe South Australia, about four hours from Adelaide. The aim was to stream the entire piece online using real-time drone recording, performers and musician in situ, with Healy and collaborators editing the footage, also in real time. Sadly, stormy conditions made the whole exercise rather unsafe to realise in its intended format, however we were able to view a version performed and filmed just a few days earlier.
Sue Healey was inspired to create The Long Walk on Robe’s rugged coast after learning the story of Chinese miners arriving in the 1850s. Braving the long sea journey, the travellers chose to land at this isolated location (home to only two hundred people at the time) in an effort to thwart the strictures of the Victorian Government’s Chinese Immigration Act enforced after the discovery of gold near Ballarat in 1851. Landing in Guichen Bay (named Ances des Albatross by the explorer Nicholas Baudin in 1802 but revised after his death) they then walked overland for some 400 kilometres to reach the goldfields. New South Wales forced similar edicts after a major race riot at Lambing Flat in 1860–61, coincidently the inspiration for The Demon, another OzAsia 2022 performance.
One of Australia’s revered performers, an installation artist, choreographer, and film-maker, New Zealand-born Healey has attracted both national and international acclaim and was recipient of the Australia Council Award for Dance in 2021. Her dance on film work is central to her practice these days but the possibilities of the moving image have always held a fascination for Healey.
The Long Walk had its origins in historic fact but celebrates human relationships with, and within, the environment, and also focuses the viewer variously on minutiae (such as a small rock or shard of ceramic) and the panoramic, courtesy of the flexibility of drone capabilities. As the work unfolded on screen I pondered the wild nature of the Robe landscape and how alien it must have seemed to the early travellers. The scenes of the film traverse sand, limestone, water, manmade paths, cliffs, and sky, sometimes with Robe’s famous red and white obelisk in the background. The dancers move through and upon these different surfaces in trousers and Tangzhuang jackets, all in bold imperial red.
Healey’s performers include Kimball Wong, Julian Renlong Wong, Ko Yamada, Tayla Hoadley, and Queenie Wu. These extraordinary movers are filmed solo, in small groups and in a group of five, with land-based camera and drone. The terrain they dance on is challenging but offers opportunities that an in-theatre production has no chance of realizing. Moving from water to sand, Kimball Wong uses his body to inscribe sweeping ground markings; Queenie Wu serenely poses as the wind tosses her hair and her delicate, exquisite hand movements reveal shell and shard. Three dancers negotiate a pathway, the angle of the capture making their forward motion seem onerous yet resolute with the live percussive accompaniment providing the soundtrack of their trudging progress. Filmed from above, a duet takes place on a cratered limestone sand pan, the texture and ferocity of the surface a feature, the smallness of the human element a distinction.
The number and complexity of scenes in this film should be experienced rather than recounted and each terrain element adds a separate visceral layer to the choreography, movement, and accompaniment. I was reminded of Merce Cunningham’s “fact of movement” notion - that the legitimacy and interest of an artwork can spring from the very medium of the Art, rather than from any message or idea being conveyed. Each visual, movement, and aural sequence in The Long Walk is a small treasure in itself and a viewer may easily form an emotional reaction to any aspect of the artistry, or the combined effects, whether or not the feeling is based on the inspiration for the whole. One impactful scene toward the end sees the five dancers on hard, sandy ground, the angle of daylight and drone lens rendering their horizontal shadows far larger that the small red points that are the actual humans. Each dancer holds two slim red poles and as they execute the choreographed patterns, sometimes manipulating the poles to the ground or holding them aloft, illusion and design morph in remarkable ways. In a final ritualistic act, the poles are placed flat to render the Chinese symbol for gold (金) and the dancers move off screen.
Collaborating with Sue Healey since 2017, Ken Butti is the Drone Cinematographer & Operator.
In this instance, as Butti thrillingly pilots the drone, in consultation with Healey, the
choreographer uses her editing skills to craft the dance work. The other integral artist is renown composer and percussionist Ben Walsh. His input (as well as possibly a pre-recorded score?) is to respond live to the images he views on a monitor as the dance progresses. Settled in one place, we have vision of Walsh as he uses constructed plus found natural objects to provide the soundtrack, like rocks, sand and wood, as well as his own vocals and prodigious drumming skills.
Film offers a different take on human movement and choreography allowing an consummate artist like Healey to expand creative boundaries and progress both dance and cinematic art. Using the filmic genre allows the audience wildly different views, both intimate and remote, hyper-real and abstracted, than what is possible within the confines of a theatre.