CHUNKY MOVE – Mortal Engine
The Melbourne production of Chunky Move’s Mortal Engine received an acclaiming and enthusiast welcome on its opening night in Melbourne this Thursday. This integrally and intimately collaborative work premiered at the Sydney International Arts festival in 2008 and has subsequently traveled to Edinburgh and Groningen, a small but deeply cultured Dutch university city, garnering accolades and prizes in transit.
Mortal Engine is a phenomenal work that transfixed the audience and left them energized and ecstatic. Imagine a large stage tipped up slanting from back to front at 30 degrees able to be set glowing in digital blue-white or cast into abject blackness. Against the void the work opens with vast light loops pulsating in a harmonic diminuendo series. A solitary dancer moves down and over the floor, her body enveloped like a white shadow- a digitally created penumbra to her form. The mind is dazzled at the visual and technical achievement- precision choreography overlaid with animated light projection-but before the technique can be resolved a group of dancers entwined and seething propel themselves across the space, menacing like a malevolent amoeba in a counterpointed deep black envelop as if to consume the white light they pursue.
Black and white, single and group, separation and union invite overt metaphor as choreographer and director Obarzanek explains “As a development from the original solo GLOW, Mortal Engine looks at relationships, connection and disconnection, isolation and togetherness, in a state of continual flux. Conflicts between the self and shadowy other… Duets are seen as both couples and as singular selves struggling to escape inner darkness – mortality, sexuality, desire.”
But there is far more at work here. The realization of Mortal Engine points to large-current fusions in high end digital fine art, club space mass experience music-scapes/ lightshow, advances in computer interactivity and avant-garde music. And the visual realization depends on some presumably complex software created by engineer Frieder Weiss. As best as I can discern, Weiss’ system must detect and digitally define instantaneously the dancers movements in space allowing accurate overlay of Robin Fox’s lightscape envelops and cueing composer Ben Frost’s score. There must have been many, many iterations and development works for Fox to create his light/shadow envelopes. At times the overlay time staggered silhouettes, like a Futurist painting, or pulsed and vibrated at the edges. Fox sends vast electrified spikes of light radiating from the dancers bodies or carves out black voids in the small of their backs. And while it is not apparent on a first hearing, Frost’s score apparently uses the dancers’ physical position to uniquely cue sound sequences so that no performance can be identical.
At times the intense light spaces seem to completely subsume the dancers, converting their bodies onto curved topologies emerging from pools of blackness. Light effects like these play oddly with human scale. In one scene a large flap opens creating a vertical wall presenting two figures adhering to it, as the enveloping soundscape (just a little reminiscent of cracks and scrapes in science fiction alien monster convention) intensifies.
In the closing sequences the space is flooded with theatre-smoke allowing the green lasers to cut marbled sheets of light into the darkness. I found the way the dancers were able to push and shape the contours and boundaries of the laser fields both visually captivating but also intensely humanizing- as if the human form in the end could successfully transcend the sinister technologies that, through their blind impress, act to diminish. Besides the sheer spectacle these overt and subliminal metaphors give the work an unusual gravitas.
The short season finished on Sunday but those who missed the performance can view and hear a 6min compilation of this truly exciting work of art on the Chunky Move website where you will also find individual profiles of the astonishingly able dance performers.
Also of note: ultra-minimal costume designs by Paula Levis; Damien Cooper’s Lighting design and the starkly effective set co-designed by Obarzanek and Richard Dinnen and multimedia engineering by Nick Roux.
Chunky Move and Malthouse theatre present Mortal Engine
Gideon Obarzanek, Direction and choreography
Frieder Weiss, Interactive system design
Robin Fox, Laser and sound artist
Ben Frost, Composer