Review: It’s the End of the World, But the Dancing is Fine

In a collaboration with Taiwanese First Nations creatives, Negotiating Home x Red Earth explored the environmental crisis we’re currently facing, writes Timmah Ball. Blak Critics is a YIRRAMBOI initiative giving voice to First Nations writers and critics.

In the catalogue essay for Ngarigo artist Peter Waples-Crowe’s exhibition insideOUT, part of this year’s YIRRAMBOI Festival, Nayuka Gorrie writes that we are living ‘in a brief moment of bliss in a colonised city before the entire planet is cooked.’

Elsewhere in this citywide celebration of Blak art and culture, Taiwanese company TAI Body Theatre’s presentation of Red Earth, adapted from the novel of the same name by Taiwanese First Nations writer Ising Suaiyung, captured Gorrie’s words perfectly.

The dance performance, choreographed by TAI founder Watan Tusi, opened in Chunky Move’s main theatre, where we were invited into what looked like an aquatic dream world – but the pristine, green-tinted ocean was littered with rubbish. Dripping with delirious energy in this strange, underwater realm, four bodies moved evocatively across the stage, attempting to negotiate harsher realities.

The dancers occupied this space with both pleasure and confusion. Their brightly painted bodies looked electric and confident, but they regularly became entangled in household litter like milk cartons, chip packets and other plastic scraps. With the faint sound of planes flying overhead, the atmosphere evoked the climate catastrophe we are living through.

The waste we omit is strangling our oceans and aquatic life, but we keep flying over these seas for business or pleasure in a capitalist era, which enables, for many of us, a safe level of distance from the degradation happening below.

While themes of climate change and dystopian speculative fiction are a growing trend in contemporary art, Red Earth presented these urgent issues in an abstract way that felt more contemplative and playful. The non-narrative performance was punctured by tightly choreographed images, which felt like a Sia music video set, to quieter moments where shadow puppetry loomed in the distance, manipulated by torches.

As the stage transformed into another world, the green ocean drained away, replaced by additional rubbish, some soft toys and a doll house. I wondered whether this was a logical extension of the post-apocalyptic climate disaster Red Earth evoked.

Green Room Award–winner Carly Sheppard – a Kurtjar, Wallangamma, Takaluk and Kunjin woman who collaborated with Tusi on Red Earth – then presented her solo work Negotiating Home.

A strikingly minimal piece, the room suddenly fell silent and a strange blob of sleeping bags, laundry and blankets entered the space. If life was struggling to survive amongst the litter in Red Earth, it seemed as if it had disappeared completely now and all that was left was a bundle of dirty clothes strangely personified. The peculiar mass moved slowly, still clinging to its former self as it struggled to make breakfast and other human impulses.

In some respects Negotiating Home sits comfortably in the realm of performance art, as there wasn’t a huge amount of action, but Sheppard thoroughly established an eerie mood. Gradually the rhythmic gestures and slow reveal elevated the durational aspects of the work, ultimately bestowing a narrative arc and a compelling ending that was quite unexpected.

The performance built on the themes of isolation, destruction and finding pleasure within this chaos evident in Red Earth. In some moments it seemed like a darker, more insulated world to the technicolour underwater dream we were first introduced to in TAI Body Theatre’s work, but, like the former performance, there were small glimmers of hope as the large blob of clothing found its human self again, even if it was running late and reliant on a MacBook for connection.

While the two works were aesthetically distinct and intentionally choreographed as separate pieces, they seemed to speak to each other in subtle ways, making the whole experience cohesive. As a double bill the performances seamlessly captured the troubled era we are living in, but with just enough optimism to allow audiences members to leave feeling moved.

Negotiating Home x Red Earth was presented in partnership with Chunky Move, and part of the YIRRAMBOI x Pulima collaboration with Taiwan’s First Nations art festival at YIRRAMBOI Festival 2019.

Image: TAI Body Theatre by Ken Wang