Dance review: And the earth will swallow them whole, Perth Festival

An eerie, multi-instrumental soundtrack accompanies the ensemble's descent into subterranean earth.

As an exploration of the dark depths and fragile limits of our world, director and choreographer Rachel Arianne Ogle’s latest work (presented at Perth Festival) is a revelation, and a strong example of what slow-burn cross-artform collaboration can achieve.

And the earth will swallow them whole is an immersive performance that feels more fluid mise-en-scene than contemporary dance. The creative team features three composers (Luke Smiles, Gabriella Smart and Alisdair Macindoe), six dancers (Linton Aberle, Imanuel Dado, Storm Helmore, Bethany Reece, Tyrone Earl Lraé Robinson and Zee Zunner), one lighting designer (Bosco Shaw), and a set designer (Bruce McKinven), all of whom (alongside Ogle), seem equally committed to, and invested in this unique two act experience.

That said, the director’s voice, and her central conception for the work – to examine subterranean landscapes and ideas of earthly rituals and impermanence – are strongly felt throughout. There is ample evidence of the artist’s polished and resolute vision in this, her most ambitious work to date.

From our vantage point, perched high above the stage overlooking it on three sides, we first see pianist and composer Gabriella Smart approach a grand piano positioned centrally down below. As mist swirls around her feet she starts to play one of Beethoven’s most famous solo piano works – his Sonata No. 14 in C-sharp Minor, Op. 27, No. 2, (widely known as his Moonlight Sonata). It’s a beautiful and brooding entrée to the strange landscapes that will soon unfold.

Composer Luke Smiles sits next to Smart for the work’s duration, where he manipulates her smooth piano tones from his digital audio desk. Smiles, Smart and sound artist Alisdair Macindoe worked together for months to create the work’s score.

Located in different cities and in periodic lockdowns over that time, they relied on technology to exchange tracks and create the final effects. Their combined efforts bring a vehemence and grandeur to the space. From a series of thunderous rumblings to intense electronic beats, the sound envelops us and guides the dancers’ movements as they spin, slide and release.

Read: Exhibition review: Vivienne Binns, MUMA

And the dancers… As ominous creatures emerging from the earth’s core, they are mesmerising and masterful in their suspensions and formations. If only we were given a greater chance to see them move! Their group work reveals Ogle’s rhythmic patterns and expert timing, as they cycle through centrifugal spirals and grasp towards each other.

The other major impressions in the work are through lighting and set. The lighting is stunning, and its various states of blacks, blues, reds and yellow-whites are perhaps the strongest element of the piece. Lighting designer Bosco Shaw must have felt his dreams had come true with the scope of this project, and his choices have delivered in spades.

The set – by Bruce McKinven – is also a complete gift in the first act. Featuring a giant silk sheet, it builds oceans of movement in voluminous ways. This feature is also entirely responsible for the magical moment that closes act one. To call it breathtaking is clichéd, but that’s honestly how it felt to me.

A similar, yet more subtle magic also surfaces in moments when epic forces of our planet (the Earth) slide up against ideas of ancient substances beneath our feet (the earth). Are we born from those layers and destined to return there? These questions show-up in many different ways in scenes that draw us closer to things beyond our conscious selves.

This work is slow moving – no doubt too slow-moving for some. It’s also confronting, discomforting, quietly moving and intensely beautiful. Overall, it’s a refined and well-delivered achievement.

And the earth will swallow them whole presented by Rachel Arianne Ogle and Perth Festival
State Theatre Centre of WA, Studio Underground

Producers: Rachel Arianne Ogle and Sam Fox
Composers: Luke Smiles, Gabriella Smart and Alisdair Macindoe
Production Manager: Mark Haslam
Costume Technician: Sheridan Savage

Lighting Designer: Bosco Shaw
Set Designer: Bruce McKinven
Performers: Linton Aberle, Imanuel Dado, Storm Helmore, Bethany Reece, Tyrone Earl Lraé Robinson and Zee Zunner

And the earth will swallow them whole was performed from 10-14 February.

ArtsHub's Arts Feature Writer Jo Pickup is based in Perth. An arts writer and manager, she has worked as a journalist and broadcaster for media such as the ABC, RTRFM and The West Australian newspaper, contributing media content and commentary on art, culture and design. She has also worked for arts organisations such as Fremantle Arts Centre, STRUT dance, and the Aboriginal Arts Centre Hub of WA, as well as being a sessional arts lecturer at The Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA).