Review: Awake, Dancenorth (QLD)

An apt response for the times we live in.

How do we make sense, as individuals, of this strange time we live in? As governments across the world grapple with COVID-19 and attempt to balance health against economics, at home we struggle to extract our own meaning from this unprecedented phenomenon.

The very foundations of how we lived our lives have been rocked, and the endgame is still not clear. As we continue to experience this massive global ”re-set”, the only thing that is clear is that we are going through a process. Just what that process is remains open to conjecture, just as the goalposts continue shifting.

As our customary social interactions are challenged, what this experience has meant is that our social isolation has forced us as individuals into adopting a more contemplative and introspective approach to life and living. How this is going to impact us in the long run is anyone’s guess, but how do the arts respond to this? Which is precisely where Awake sits. 

Ask yourself then: what is a dance company doing at 5am on a Townsville headland overlooking the Coral Sea and Magnetic Island – where there are no dancers? Perhaps this is symbolic? You can extract whatever meaning you may wish, but what then is this thing called Awake, and how could it be an apt response to what we are currently, collectively going through?

It isn’t a dance piece. It isn’t an art installation. It isn’t entertainment. It doesn’t require applause. It does have artistic elements and ultimately it is up to you how you respond.

Think then of the premise. Present yourself on Townsville’s picturesque Strand before 5am for about an hour. Bring your chair or a picnic blanket, and – if you are organised enough (unlike me) – a keep-cup of tea or coffee and witness the dawn breaking.

Under COVID-safe conditions, every audience member is given a headset and you are encouraged to make yourselves comfortable as you look east across a calm Coral Sea. Magnetic Island is off to the left with a layer of cloud just topping its mountains; to the right, the lights of Townsville’s port. Further south the mountains of Cape Cleveland are also covered in a layer of cloud.

It isn’t a dance piece. It isn’t an art installation. It isn’t entertainment. It doesn’t require applause.

Through the headsets the atmospheric music gently begins. Written specifically for this project by Tom Snowdon and Willaris. K, the score is a reflective, almost hypnotic combination of music and early morning birdsong.

On the horizon there are orange streaks in the sky as it begins to light up. The colours change hue and shade every minute as the new day begins and nature’s light show is in full swing. There is the odd spit of rain to add to the sensory perception, while seabirds dodge across the water and glide over our heads, perhaps puzzled by the unusual phenomenon of all these strange humans out so early and sitting motionless on the headland.

On schedule the Magnetic Island ferry glides out of the port while a couple of intrepid kayakers stroke steadily across the water, all to the accompaniment of this gentle and non-intrusive soundtrack that only we can hear.

For 45 minutes, we witness this new day break as we simply sit and think. In our busy lives, how often have we been urged to “take time to smell the roses”? Well hey, this is precisely what is happening, and in a strange way this makes an unspoken comment on what we are currently experiencing.

The experience does not preach. It ultimately says – just “be”. It says – don’t take the beauty and art around you for granted, draw strength from it. Sit. Listen. Observe. Think. Be.

At the end of the 45 minutes, those that were present did not applaud. That would have been an inaccurate response. There was no sense of any need or desire for anyone to summarily grab their gear and depart because there was somewhere else they had to be. Instead, there was a quiet, contemplative dispersal, while some sat still for up to 15 minutes, comfortable in their individual responses to what they had just experienced.

Art does, after all, imitate life – or is it the other way round?

Note: It is impossible to rate this one as it does not sit on any known scale of measurement. Therefore, no star rating.

A Dancenorth presentation in association with Northern Australian Festival of the Arts

Strand Headland, Townsville
Until 31 October 2020

Trevor Keeling
About the Author
Trevor Keeling has been involved in the arts and creative industries for 40 years in Australia, South Africa and Zimbabwe. He has been an actor, theatre director, journalist and critic, publisher, broadcaster, music festival director, event manager and arts administrator. Since coming to Australia in 1991, he appeared in numerous productions in Adelaide, and was Festival Director of the Glenelg Jazz Festival for six years. He was General Manager of Dancenorth in Townsville (2005-2006 and 2011-2014) and for three years was CEO of Mirndiyan Gunana Aboriginal Corporation, which included managing the world-renowned Indigenous Mornington Island Dancers. He has worked in urban, regional and remote environments in Australia and has a particular focus on regional arts and the connection to community.