Dance review: CEASE/FIRE, C Shed, Fremantle, WA

A dance work which sharpens our eyes to difficult themes of war and its consequences, choreographed by May Greenberg and Zee Zunnur.

For many of us, it’s hard to ignore the bleak state of the world at this moment. Aside from the impending sense of environmental collapse, we are also dealing with multiple wars and grappling with the senseless acts that accompany armed conflicts.

CEASE/FIRE is a performance work that sharpens our eyes to these difficult themes of war and its consequences, and serves as a poetic mediation on what is unfortunately a timeless subject, but one that has particular potency in our world today.

Choreographed by WA-based dance-makers May Greenberg and Zee Zunnur, with dramaturgy by Geordie Crawley, sound score by Felicity Groom, and costume design by Rhiana Katz (all WA-based), this work is an impressive full-length debut for artists Greenberg and Zunnur that firmly establishes their place within WA’s thriving independent dance scene.

Commissioned by Fremantle Biennale and in line with the festival’s focus on site-responsive works, the production reads partly as a poetic ode to its surroundings at one of Fremantle’s epic wharfie warehouses – a space still imbued with its maritime and military past.

As we sit in this darkened cavernous space, the first thing that strikes our eyes is that the stage in front of us seems to extend forever without end. It’s shadowy and empty, but there is someone far away in the smoky distance holding a tiny spotlight torch that is darting flashes of white light across the foggy expanse between us.

Then, a smooth trumpeted melody breaks the silence and a lone figure appears (dancer Sam Coren). He walks slowly towards us clad in heavy black boots and a thick army trench coat, and we soon see that he has another dancer (Macon Riley) bundled over his shoulder.

Once they emerge downstage, Coren lays Riley down on the ground with gentle care. A fallen comrade? A civilian casualty? It’s hard to say. But when the work’s six other performers join Coren, coming out of the shadows, it’s clear they are all mourning the dead man’s loss.

The poignancy of this moment sets the scene for a work we expect might be filled with memories of wartime grief and tragic human experiences. But as the dancers move through formations and the work’s various chapters unfold, we realise this piece encompasses many more themes – some are devastating, some buoyant, and others almost spiritual.

As these multitudes unfold (and as the trench coats come off to reveal Katz’s brilliantly designed black and white patterned uniforms) the dance shows us various states of human struggle and acts of resistance to violence. Its dancers cascade through duets and breakaway sequences, and we see their anguished emotions rise to the surface, unravel and spill over.

Image: Emma Daisy.

Among its best moments are when the cast moves together as one. In contrast to scenes that reveal bodies in states of disarray, Greenberg and Zunnur also allude to the frightening realities of when human souls turn to steel in times of war, and how human feelings are obliterated when automatons of war emerge in their place.

The lighting states in these scenes (presumably designed by Greenberg and Zunnur as there is no lighting designer credited) play an integral role, and are almost as dynamic as the bodies on stage. At times, it’s impossible to ignore the futility of the violence and mindlessness of wartime destruction. But overall, the piece does not feel like a closed-book lesson on the evils of war. It’s mostly more open-ended and spacious than that (which, in an age when a lot of political art feels suffocating in its messages, is a refreshing change).

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It’s hard to say the work is an enjoyable experience on account of its journeying to some intensely dark places. But there are moments where its lighting, sound and choreography combine to form an amalgam of small intricacies that draw you in, and sometimes sweep you away to other worlds where there is room to ponder other realms.

Overall, CEASE/FIRE shows us how great art can happen when artists are given the space (both physical and creative) to inhabit unexpected places, and the feats they can achieve with those freedoms. This creative team has proven how well they can bring a creaking old maritime warehouse alive to reveal weighty layers of our past, and show us moving bodies of our present.

Choreographers: May Greenberg and Zee Zunnur
Composer: Felicity Groom
Costume Design: Rhiana Katz
Dramaturgy: Geordie Crawley
Dancers: Sam Coren, Campbell Gateley, Georgia Van Gils, Storm Helmore, Nadia Priolo, Macon Riley, Aisha Samat and Zachary Wilson

Presented by Fremantle Biennale for SIGNALS 23 9-12 November 2023.

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).