Dance Review: SAVAGE of Australian Dance Theatre

At first, however, the view is deliberately impaired. We enter the theater with dry ice blurring the air and rows of LED lights streaming across the proscenium arch, creating a scrim between audience and performer.

As we take our seats, the action is already unfolding on stage, as if tonight’s performance is less of a one-off than something that is constantly going on around us. A single dancer moves fluidly behind the light fabric, sometimes seated, hand-tracing patterns across the floor, sometimes standing to watch the audience with a stern gaze, her movements so sluggish, so subtle we hardly notice them until we stop our chatter and watch.

The lights go out. When they reappear, the LED banks are swung open to the audience like a door is thrown open. What is revealed is the genius work of set designer and Worimi man Dean Cross. Two woven wire fences, reminiscent of those used in prisons, detention centers and schools, are used as backdrops and props throughout the performance. Sometimes they herd the dancers together in a very small space, sometimes they separate one from the group, sometimes they push white plastic chairs in a confronting row towards the audience like advancing troops.

The chairs themselves serve many purposes, not least as a further nod to state institutions. They are stacked in an ivory tower, which a dancer climbs to face the audience. They are cumbersomely scattered across the stage, impeding the dancers’ movement. They are arranged in a circle pointing inward. They pile high in a mountain of shiny white plastic.

The dancers expertly maneuver and interact with these props, all the more impressive considering nine of them are Flinders University dance students. Riley understands the importance of involving the next generation in any project so that the learning that arises is carried into the future. His skillful choreography blends the students’ movements with the more experienced ADT dancers, making them an almost seamless group.

Designer Matthew Adey’s lighting continues to impress. An imposing grid of fluorescent strip lighting is raised and lowered, ignited and flickered to evoke the cold, aloof atmosphere of institutional systems or the screaming insanity these places can invoke.

The music, composed by Jaadwa man James Howard, is equally fabulous. Addictive dance club beats give way to edgy electronic soundscapes overlaid with police sirens, jet planes, insidious whispers and water trickling from a leaky gutter.

The dancers react closely to this visual and acoustic world, their movements one with the fluctuating rhythms. A fistfight duet is flawlessly executed against a pulsating electronic background, the slo-mo punches, swings and roughhouse tumbles as elegant as classical ballet. A dancer in a suit performs a wonderful, energetic solo that fuses aggressive poses and powerful poses with John Travolta-style disco moves and body-popping. In an ensemble piece, a lone dancer in the center of a circle is approached by another dancer, then a second and a third, who attempt to make physical contact despite his attempts to shake them off. As more and more dancers join in, he eventually succumbs, allowing his eyes to be covered and his limbs immobilized.

Plastic chairs serve many purposes in ADT’s SAVAGE. Photo: Sam Roberts

During the performance, the dancers occasionally pause to stare bluntly at the audience. Her challenging gaze demands that we pause, think, question. What are we told, what do we believe and how much of it is true? Aren’t we all prisoners in a system that fights for its livelihood at the expense of humanity and truth?

The finale leaves us with the image of a lone dancer bravely making his way through a mountain of stacked chairs. Others wait behind him, some draw closer as if to follow the path he has made. It’s an image that resonates with quiet power and a shimmering sense of hope.

As the newly appointed Artistic Director of ADT, Riley is the only First Nations director of a non-First Nations art society in Australia.

“People look to ADT in relation to what’s happening in contemporary dance in Australia and we (can) lead in that direction.” says Riley.

Hopefully his appointment is the first of many steps that will bring us closer to the proper recognition and representation of First Nations knowledge and skills in arts businesses across Australia. WILD testifies to the power and beauty that can arise from it.

WILD is being shown at the Dunstan Playhouse, Kaurna Country through Sunday September 25th.

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