Dance review: RED, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Visually stunning and beautifully choreographed, Dancenorth's RED packs a powerful and disquieting punch.
Marlo Benjamin and Michael Smith. Photo by David Kelly

RED is no ordinary modern dance work; it sends a strong message about the plight of our world and offers a bleak view of what humans may expect in the future.   

Conceived, directed and choreographed by Dancenorth Associate Artistic Director Amber Haines and Artistic Director and Co-CEO Kyle Page, RED centres on the human race as a potentially endangered species. Its initial premise – that a genetic mutation gave rise to the physical manifestation of humans with red hair – can be seen as an allegory for the human race in general or even for racial types. But the redhead analogy certainly has resonance in this context, offering a sense of reflection and contemplation for the audience as well as an alarming wake-up call for the world. 

RED begins with two artists, red hair flaming, inside a huge plastic bubble, coiled up together on the ground centre stage. The image is stark but impressive and from here we get a full-circle 45-minute glimpse of the arc of their respective and entwined lives together. The opening scenes show images of early life – perhaps corals, sea anemones or flora in the ocean, gently moving together, magically tranquil. 

Slowly the dancers increase their mobility, moving and rolling together, developing into more complex beings, using their limbs, legs, feet, arms and hands in strong, rhythmic patterns. The movements tend towards being mechanical and repetitive as they intertwine their bodies, working fluidly together.

Becoming ever more vigorous and powerful, two distinct human beings emerge, who stand and move separately but also work in unison, clearly at the height of their powers. This section is distinctly fierce, with powerful energetic jumps, frenetic running, dancing and spinning before the beginning of a slow decline where their world collapses, both physically and metaphorically, around them. 

The choreography is beautifully and sensitively crafted by Haines and Page, with a distinctive rhythm to the work. Each section flows seamlessly to the next and produces an overall visual picture that is rich and poetic in feel. 

As the two dancers, Marlo Benjamin and Michael Smith are exemplary, giving strong, joyous and heart-felt performances that are absorbing to watch. Their physicality and their interactions with each other are both astonishingly well-realised and spell-binding. 

The costumes designed by Harriet Oxley work well. Wearing flesh-coloured, loose-fitting tops and trousers that blend well with their red curly hair, gives the characters a striking appearance.  

David Cross’ inflatable set design consists of a huge transparent plastic shell, which is clearly strong, but at the same time relatively elastic as it takes a lot of punishment. Presenting an allegory for a contracting world, the dancers work within this shell, eventually running out of air. Interacting with the structure, they variously attempt to fight it and get out of it, but to no avail. It is a brilliant design, very well-used and absolutely intrinsic to the aims of this work. 

Alisdair Macindoe’s well thought-through composition and design, alongside Ellen Arkbro’s carefully crafted music, assists in delivering a powerful work. An ethereal, other-worldly score, at times offering a jarring musical palette of sounds, creates the danger that the characters face. Sara Black’s overriding vocals, with their distinct metallic sonority, add to the finality of the drama. The lighting design by Niklas Pajanti creates an atmosphere that is both comforting inside the bubble, but fraught with danger too. It is well-realised. 

Under the artistic leadership of Haines and Page over the last nine years, Dancenorth has made a point in its work of focusing attention on the state of the world in which we live. Taking their responsibilities as artists seriously, the company has raised many concerns about how humans interrelate with the natural world. Through the medium of their dance practice, they hope to share and disseminate important messages that perhaps do not have adequate resonance in our daily lives. 

Haines and Page have said: ‘RED is born of a love of nature and an acute awareness that we are not separate to the natural world, but truly connected and interdependent. It is at once an ode and a stark warning, for what we do to the natural environment we also do to ourselves.’ 

Read: Exhibition review: Melbourne Now, NGV Australia

RED is certainly a sobering analysis of our current world, channelled through a contemporary dance work that is riveting, compelling and at times deeply uncomfortable to watch. Being non-verbal makes the message even more powerful, communicating vividly and visually its unsettling, dystopian worldview that we dismiss at our peril.  RED is certainly a work that should not be missed.     

RED presented by QPAC 
by Dancenorth Australia

Playhouse Theatre, QPAC, Brisbane

Concept, Direction and Choreography: Amber Haines and Kyle Page 
Dancers:  Marlo Benjamin and Michael Smith 
Composition/Sound Design: Alisdair Macindoe
Music: Ellen Arkbro
Vocals: Sara Black
Lighting Design: Niklas Pajanti
Costume Design: Harriet Oxley
Inflatable Set Design: David Cross

Dramaturgy: Gideon Obarzanek 

Tickets: $49-$59

RED will be performing until 1 April 2023. 

Suzannah Conway is ArtsHub's Brisbane-based Arts Feature Writer. Suzannah is an experienced arts administrator, having been CEO of Opera Queensland, the Brisbane Riverfestival and the Centenary of Federation celebrations for Queensland. She has been writing reviews and music articles for over 15 years and regularly reviews classical music, opera and musical theatre in particular for The Australian and Limelight magazine as well as other journals.