Review: Worldhood (And: On the fallibility of being a critic)

by Jane

Worldhood. Photo Chris Herzfeld Camlight Productions 2011

This review was originally published at Australian Stage Online

Darkness. Silence. Through the dim, white. A large blank page, several meters high by nearly the stage wide. In front, sits the stage. Empty.

Enter visual artist Thom Buchanan. To the white, he brings fast and furious strokes of charcoal. The theatre fills with the scratch and scrape of charcoal against paper, the breath of Buchanan, amplified, echoing around and around the space. The page fills with vertical lines, Buchanan swiftly crafting a forced perspective, the audience finding themselves peering down a city street.

As Buchanan draws he ducks and rises, his whole body mimicking the geometry of his hand and the charcoal he draws with.

Dancer Tara Soh walks on to the stage, watching with intent the rapid creation of a black backdrop, as she begins to follow Buchanan. As he drops, she drops. As he shifts up, right, down, right, left, she shifts up, right, down, right, left.

As she moves out of this holding pattern, Soh continues to create patterns and forms in response to the heightening intensity of sound, as the strike of charcoal and the sharpness of breath continues to intensify in the space. Her body moves in sharp lines and angles.

Other dancers begin to join and fill the space, their bodies too moving and bending with sharp cracks along lines, moving angles and moving planes. Hands grab, arms interlock, bodies in a mass move across the space.

The sound of Buchanan drops away, and as if the voice over to a documentary, we are told about the history of marks, of the precursors to image. Of angles, of composition, of the eventual discovery of how to create a perception of depth on a two dimensional plane.

And that’s just the first fifteen minutes.

Garry Stewart’s Worldhood is a collaboration between the Australian Dance Theatre, Buchanan, and third year dance students of the Adelaide College of the Arts. Stewart’s choreography (supplemented by choreography byLarissa McGowan, the ADT company members and AC Arts students) is in conversation with Buchanan’sdrawings and Huey Benjamin’s composition, all playing with finding sharp angles in the dancers bodies, as they interact along the tension held in these planes.

Mark Pennington’s lighting, in strong, parallel shafts of light, or discrete boxes around the space, adds an intensity to the choreography, and in particular to Buchanan’s drawings. Shadows of projections sit on the canvas so it isn’t always obvious where the line between light and coal exists, until the lighting suddenly changes, and you realise the image you were looking at wasn’t the physical image that exists at all.

Fervor is also brought through Benjamin’s composition and the sound design, moving from the amplification ofBuchanan’s breath, though to more mechanised and steady reflections of the angles and beats in the dancers’ bodies. The sound encapsulates the space, but never dominates, so while the composition is heard and felt throughout the theatre, it is heard alongside the movement of feet across the stage, the thwack as a body is thrown through the space.

After the high energy and physicality of much of the piece, all these elements are pared right down for the final moments. Dancers sit and watch as two bodies move in, and out, and through, and around each other. Under the gentle sounds of stings, in half-light, their underwear-clad bodies entwine, as a thin layer of charcoal moves between their skins, smoothing out and across their bodies. Then darkness. Silence.

Australian Dance Theatre, TAFE SA College of the Arts and Adelaide Festival Centre present Worldhood by Garry Stewart.  Conceived and directed by Garry Stewart, artistic collaborator – visual artist Thom Buchanan, choreographed by Garry Stewart, ADT, AC Arts Dancers and Larissa McGowan, composer Huey Benjamin, lighting designer Mark Pennington, set design by Wendy Todd and Garry Stewart, costume design by Wendy Todd.  Performed by Thom Buchanan, Australian Dance Theatre dancers, and Adelaide College of the Arts dancers.  Her Majesty’s Theatre.  Season closed.

And some more personal reflections on the act of writing about Worldhood

This review was harder to write than most.  I came out of the production just thinking I had no idea about what to say or how to say it; so much so that I bought tickets for another performance.  If I hadn’t been comped tickets for Australian Stage, I doubt I would have written about it at all.  Yet, even after the second performance, I came out largely speechless.  But not because I overwhelmed by the power of the work – because I wasn’t, to be frank – but because I just literally did not know how to take what was on that stage and create words about it.

As I sat, struggling to write, struggling to figure out where to begin, into my head popped the opening lines of the James Lapine / Stephen Sondheim musical Sunday in the Park With George:

A blank page or canvas.
The challenge: bring order to the whole.
Through design,
And harmony.

And, strangely enough, these lines gave me the framework (both literally into structure, and metaphorically into ideas) to be able to write about Stewart’s work.  Even as a critic, who mentally breaks down a show into its components in order to write about them, it’s easy to forget about the starting point: a blank page or canvas.  And that can be a literal canvas, it can be a black box, it can be a word document.  It was this idea that Stewart did start with his stage as near empty, before the performance was built up and around on it, and the realisation that my work starts from a piece of blank paper, too, that made me more clearly understand and see what Worldhood was.

Was I entirely successful in writing my review?  I don’t really think so.  Is this something I’m supposed to publicly admit?  Yes?  No?  I don’t know?  I think it’s probably important for me to be able to say “I wish I could have done a better job writing about this”, because I know there are so many aspects of the production, and my feelings towards it (which I’m still looking for the words for) which I didn’t do justice to.  And maybe by putting it out there, admitting my fallibility as a critic, next time it will be easier.