Review: Dancenorth’s Dust, Brisbane Festival

A powerful piece of contemporary dance that flirts with potentially heavy-handed imagery but never succumbs to the obvious or the banal.
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Photo credit: Dancenorth

The bare stage of the Powerhouse Theatre is bisected by a wall, instantly evoking barriers both physical and ideological – even emotional. Its position constrains the audience’s view – initially only those seated in the centre of the theatre can see the dance in its entirety as it unfolds; others, seated to the left or the right, observe only part of the work, what their position allows them to see – the Facebook bubble in physical form.

Positions, perspectives, power structures, the forces that divide and unite us; as Dancenorth’s Dust unfolds it explores all this and more in a potent, understated work choreographed by the company’s Artistic Director, Kyle Page and Associate Artistic Director Amber Haines.

As the work opens, the dancers are separated by the wall (designed by Liminal Studios’ Peta Heffernan and Elvio Brianese). One woman reclines on the floor on stage right; six dancers stand on stage left on the other side of the wall. All are clad similarly, in loose-fitting translucent garments daubed with streaks of soft colour (designed by Harriet Oxley) through which tattoos and nipples are visible. Only the woman is visible to those seated in the left hand side of the theatre; those seated on the right see only the grouped dancers.

Also at stage left, violinist Jessica Moss (Thee Silver Mt Zion) accompanies a subdued, pre-recorded electronic score by Helpmann Award-winning dancer turned composer Alasdair Macindoe. As the work progresses their music ebbs and flows, mixes and harmonises, first one instrument dominating, then the other in a way which never jars or detracts from the movement on stage.

Photo credit: Dancenorth

Described in the program notes as ‘an investigation into the architecture of inheritance’ inspired by the birth of Haines’ and Page’s son Jasper, Dust starts gently, exploring connection and space through slow gestures: hands weaving through air among the collective of dancers while the solo performer, Ashley McLellan, extends legs and rolls slowly before drawing shadows on the wall.

When the wall turns, opening up the space, a male dancer, Felix Sampson, joins McLellan; their bodies intertwine but never quite embrace – until the wall is dismantled and a fragment of it physically pushes the pair apart.  

As Dust continues the seemingly solid blocks of the wall are shown to be hollow and the dance becomes ritualistic; two women join together in veneration, heads thrown back, knees bent. Divisions emerge. Two dancers half lift, half throw one another, a physical embodiment of both emotional support and abuse, and the push and pull present in all relationships; neither male nor female has the upper hand. Structures are torn down only to rise again in new patterns – a causeway, a city, a new wall, a disquieting memorial. Prone dancers fling themselves up from the floor explosively.

Late in the piece one dancer spins until he is dizzy; a woman dances in the ruins; the mob’s hands close over a face – to silence them, to support them, or to shield the dancer’s eyes from the world around them?

Dust is an exquisite work; a powerful piece of contemporary dance that flirts with potentially heavy-handed imagery but never succumbs to the obvious or the banal. Cohesive and fluid, it integrates movement and design beautifully.

This world premiere season at Brisbane Festival just slightly outstays its welcome and the constant rearranging of blocks late in the piece begins to feel a trifle repetitive, but such faults are minor. Dancenorth are to be applauded: Dust is a richly evocative work that deserves to tour widely.

4 ½ stars ★★★★☆

Dancenorth’s Dust
Artistic Director: Kyle Page
Associate Artistic Director: Amber Haines
Dramaturg: Gideon Obarzanek
Dancers: Jenni Large, Ashley McLellan, Mason Kelly, Georgia Rudd, Felix Sampson, Samantha Hines and Jack Zeising
Composer and Musician: Jessica Moss
Composer and Designer: Alasdair Macindoe
Set Design: Liminal Spaces
Lighting Design: Niklas Pajanti
Costumes: Harriet Oxley

Powerhouse Theatre, Brisbane Powerhouse
19-22 September

Brisbane Festival
8-29 September 2018

The writer travelled to Brisbane as a guest of Brisbane Festival and Brisbane Marketing.

Richard Watts is ArtsHub's National Performing Arts Editor; he also presents the weekly program SmartArts on Three Triple R FM, and serves as the Chair of La Mama Theatre's volunteer Committee of Management. Richard is a life member of the Melbourne Queer Film Festival, and was awarded the status of Melbourne Fringe Living Legend in 2017. In 2020 he was awarded the Sidney Myer Performing Arts Awards' Facilitator's Prize. Most recently, Richard was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Green Room Awards Association in June 2021. Follow him on Twitter: @richardthewatts