Known as an innovator in the contemporary dance scene, director and choreographer Garry Stewart is fond of challenging expectations. To give you an idea of his vision and reach, his first work for Australian Dance Theatre involved dancers abseiling down the roof of the Sydney Opera House.
Stewart’s strong aesthetic is just as apparent in Supernature, his latest project as artistic director of ADT. Anyone who has witnessed his directorial skills before knows not to expect the norm. Supernature is anything but.
We’re thrown into it from the start. The lights go out with a bang. The audience is plunged into sudden and complete darkness while a thundering soundtrack (Brendan Woithe) shakes the air, reverberating inside skulls.
The curtain rises on a surreal and extraordinary set (designed by Stewart and Wendy Todd, with help from the industrial design team at RMIT university). A giant globular creature pulses and throbs at the back of the stage. At once primordial and futuristic, it could be a sea urchin or an alien life form or the dark beating heart of Earth itself.
Similarly, the set as a whole is suggestive of the ocean floor, an ancient forest or perhaps another planet entirely. Mysterious balloon structures hang down from the gods. Sheer fabric tubes rise from the stage like seaweed or tree trunks. Light falls in folds around them, resembling sunbeams passing through seawater or the dappled canopy of trees.
In a work that aims to blur the lines between human, animal and plant, these ambiguities aren’t accidental. Stewart has long been interested in humanity’s symbiosis with the natural world. The Beginning of Nature was an exploration of nature’s rhythms and how they correlate with similar patterns in our bodies. South, which tracked Mawson’s journey into the harsh conditions of Antarctica, looked at human impact on the environment and vice versa. Supernature completes the trilogy by stepping into a world where the boundaries around everything have fallen away and the ancient past merges with the future.
Music and lighting have big parts to play in the drama. Lighting designer Damien Cooper is instrumental in creating the ethereal, otherworldly vibe with subtle light changes that flick an underwater scene to a primordial rainforest with no need for a set change. Similarly, his signature light flashes, so quick you think you might be blinking, become part of the action in the battle scene, matching Woithe’s bursts of machine-gun fire.
Woithe, who also worked with the ADT on The Beginning of Nature and South, expertly delivers a weird and wonderful soundscape that is perfectly in tune with the action (a pulsing electronic heartbeat becoming a heavy techno backtrack as the creatures on stage start body-popping, for example. Or metallic tinkling dissolving into the static rasp of heavy rainfall as we move into the rainforest).
But inevitably, much of the power of the work comes from Stewart’s ingenuity as a choreographer and the incredible skill of the dancers. Before our eyes, large ensembles metamorphose into weird insect-like creatures that look like they could have been created by Patricia Piccinini. They undulate in chains of DNA or vertebrae. They body-pop in fluid, machine-like unison. They startle as one like rabbits, scuttle like crabs, freeze-frame in battle-scene tableaux.
Wild leaps and scrambles are juxtaposed with flowing Mexican waves of movement, sometimes following the rhythmic pulses of nature, sometimes breaking away, disrupting the pattern with their own rhythm.
However, pushing the envelope on this epic scale brings many challenges and occasionally Stewart’s theatrical bent gets the better of him. At one point a giant flower head is dragged on stage with two dancers writhing together, kama sutra style, at the centre of it. It’s a sequence that seems almost self-parodic, despite the beauty and grace of the dancers’ movements. And although the final sequence – three naked dancers gyrating under a shower of red, vernix-like gloop – is the sort of visual feast that demands a visceral response, it doesn’t quite have the energy or emotional power of the opening and therefore lands as a petite rather than a grande finale.
These small moments aside, this is a work of such ambition and theatre that it stays with you, pulsing in the dark recesses of your body.
After an astonishing 22 years with the company, Stewart is about to depart ADT to pursue new pathways, but what a phenomenal legacy he leaves behind. Supernature seals the reputation of Australian Dance Theatre as a company unafraid of taking risks and determined (in the words of Ezra Pound) to “make it new”.
Supernature is showing at Her Majesty’s Theatre until Sunday, March 14.
Read more Adelaide Festival stories and reviews here.
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This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.