Content warning: this review contains references to the Stolen Generations, trauma and death in custody.
At first, there are only voices. They are quite low, forcing the audience to lean in, to listen. The conversation between them gives the context for what is to come.
NT Dance Company’s The Other Side of Me is the fictionalised story of a First Nations child born in the Northern Territory, removed from his family under government policy, and taken by a white couple to live in a remote hamlet in the UK. There, he struggles with displacement, identity and isolation. He is tormented and angry. Ultimately, he dies in police detention.
Alexander Abbot portrays the youth raised, and imprisoned, in Cornwall. ‘Cheeky’ Chandler Connell, a Wiradjuri and Ngunnawal man, represents the person the youth was meant to be, and the spirit of Country that survives within him. This is one man, portrayed by two. The very different physicality of the two dancers, with their athleticism and strength, adds to this inseparable narrative.
They dance mostly in low, overhead light that shadows their eyes, sometimes almost running out of space on a confined black stage – empty except for two concrete blocks and intermittent projections that emphasise the chaos in this man’s mind. Their prison-orange overalls are given texture and complexity with shading and stencils. The movement is mostly contemporary; when Abbot’s character allows himself to connect with culture and joins Connell in traditional dance, it is emotional, and brief.
Arian Ganambarr-Pearson’s soundscape is evocative. It alternates between supporting and leading the story and mood of the dancers, without ever dominating (although the transitions are jarring in places). Given the fixed set, it cleverly signals the move from one scene to the next. There is childhood laughter and youthful crying, and the music segues easily between classical and contemporary, sorrowful piano and time-counting clapsticks.
But the most striking thing about this work is the connection between the two dancers. It is in Artistic Director Gary Lang’s choreography as the two men move towards and away from each other. It is in the ways they touch, with care and tenderness, and fight, in shared anger and frustration. It is in the ways they look at each other, deeply, emotions clear on their faces.
It is an intimate experience. The dancers are vulnerable, exposed. Sometimes it feels almost uncomfortable to be watching such private moments, and the opening night audience sat still in witness.
Co-creator and writer Dr Laura Fish of Northumbria University says dance offers the medium to communicate the internal torment more effectively and appropriately than English words could. Lang and the dancers have demonstrated that here.
The Other Side of Me is a tough story, powerfully told. The creative team hope to take it to the UK before bringing it back to tour in Australia. The work will resonate with anyone who has experience of displacement, isolation and the attempted erasure of cultural identity, and it will help others to learn the truths of that.
The Other Side of Me
Gary Lang’s NT Dance Company at Darwin Festival
Artistic Director and Choreographer: Gary Lang
Co-creator, Writer and Dramaturg: Dr Laura Fish (Northumbria University)
Co-creator and Dramaturg: Liz Pavey (Northumbria University)
NT Dance Company General Manager: Erica McCallum
Project and Production Manager: Elizabeth Rogers
Cultural Consultant: Josephine Crawshaw
Rehearsal Director: Noelle Shader
Costume Designer: Jennifer Irwin
Lighting Designer: Joe Mercurio
Sound Designer: Arian Ganambarr-Pearson
NT Dance Company Senior Artists: Alexander Abbot, Chandler Connell
Consultant and understudy: Jesse Norris
Studio Theatre, Darwin Entertainment Centre as part of Darwin Festival
9-12 August 2023