Sue Healey’s latest contemporary dance piece, The Long Walk, pays tribute to a fascinating chapter of local history. In the 1850s, thousands of Chinese miners arrived on Australian shores in search of ‘gold and a better life’, landing in Robe in South Australia before making an arduous trek inland. Setting her project on the coast in Robe itself, at the mercy of the elements and natural terrain, to be captured with livestreamed drone footage, Healey has devised an ambitious undertaking of her own.
As it turned out, both the technology and weather refused to cooperate on the day of the performance. We were sadly unable to hear Healey introduce her work live from Robe, and stormy conditions (unsuitable for both dancers and drones) meant we were treated to a pre-recorded version of the piece from a sunnier day. As exciting as a livestreamed performance would have been, these obstacles didn’t mar the enjoyment of this uniquely beautiful piece.
Fast-flying drones provided stunning views of the Limestone Coast for the film’s opening scenes, establishing the natural environment as central to the narrative enacted here. The conversation between dancers and environment came into focus with aerial footage of the performers, all costumed in bold red, leaving graceful imprints as they moved across soft sand or walked in single file along a snaking path.
Close-up camera shots showed them incorporating stones and other found materials into their dance. For the final sequence, viewed from high above, the dancers used thin poles to create different formations: rotating wheels, a straight arrow and, finally, the Chinese character for ‘gold’.
A particular highlight of The Long Walk was the accompanying soundscape by musician and choreographer Ben Walsh. As he appeared on camera alongside the dancers, we watched him explore the percussive potential of the rocks, earth and organic life around him. Twisting and wringing handfuls of dry sticks produced a noise like the crunching of bones, underlining both the dancers’ physicality and the endurance of the first miners.
As a bonus, the main event was followed by a screening of Healey’s 2018 work, Weereewa: Portrait of a Landscape. Developed with the inimitable Elizabeth Cameron Dalman (founder of Australian Dance Theatre) and Dancecology Taiwan, it is an ode to the landscape of Lake George.
Dancers move across vast, flat expanses and through dense forest, finding beauty in crumbling lichen and webs strung with rain droplets. Like The Long Walk, it is an intimate exploration of our interactions with the environment.
In creating these pieces that are inextricably dependent on the places that inspire them, opening herself up to risk, and relinquishing the sense of control afforded by traditional theatre spaces, Healey is rethinking the possibilities of dance. Her work grounds us to time and place, embodying our history, stories and relationship with the natural world.
The Long Walk
Adelaide Festival Centre
Director, Editor and Choreographer: Sue Healey
Composer and Musician: Ben Walsh
Drone Cinematographer and Operator: Ken Butti
Drone Operator: Lee Stevenson
Ground Camera: Darian Woods
Camera Assistant and Photographer: Wendell Teodoro
Dancers: Kimball Wong, Julian Renlong Wong, Kō Yamada, Tayla Hoadley and Queenie Wu
The Long Walk was shown on 23 October as part of OzAsia Festival.