Restless, relentless and intensely rewarding | Seesaw Magazine Review
Descending a steep staircase to the Studio Underground, we are greeted by an eerie flock of black birds, hanging from the roof in a state of suspended animation.
Designed by Japanese sculptural artist Naoko Yoshimoto and made by members of the West Australian community, this installation forms both the entrance and backdrop to Co3 Contemporary Dance’s new work, Archives of Humanity. Incorporating 1001 birds, each accompanied by a story from its maker, the sheer size and richness of this installation is typical of the work as a whole.
Devised, designed and directed by Co3 artistic director Raewyn Hill, Archives of Humanity is a contemporary dance work of scale in every sense. A huge square performance space is covered in a dense layer of sand. The cast includes 21 dancers (including nine secondees from the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts), ranging in age from 17 to 55, all of whom are onstage for the work’s 60 minute duration. The superb musical score, by Hill’s long-time collaborator Eden Mulholland, is richly layered; Vivaldi’s Gloria is sampled, its Baroque grandeur deconstructed and reimagined against contemporary chord progressions and rhythms.
Thematically, too, Archives is tightly packed and layered. Hill names Bill Viola’s 2004 video work The Raft, and the work of the Baroque painter Caravaggio as artistic starting points for a work that meditates on the human condition and the way people respond to crises (not a new theme for Hill, as those who saw 2017’s The Zone will recall).
Suffice to say there’s a lot going on. Though the connection between the installation and the work itself isn’t striking, impressively, the rest of the elements come together as though made for one another, forming a whole that seethes and breathes with a restless and relentless energy.
In homage to The Raft, much of the work has the slow-motion dynamic of the film, intensified by the sand-laden dance floor, which adds extra effort to every footfall. Frequently the dancers coalesce into moving tableaus that are reminiscent of the drama and liveliness of Caravaggio’s paintings, but also of 21st century scenes of unrest. In a series of silent, slow-motion yells, the dancers’ faces and bodies contort with emotion. One memorable moment sees a dancer (Russell Thorpe) shout with such force that the group staggers under its force, before responding in kind.
Interspersing the slow-mo sections are deeply satisfying looping sequences that carve the space with breathing arms and undulating bodies. At other times the movement whirls and eddies, as Mulholland’s score billows to match.
In another section, the repeating call of “cum sancto spiritu”, from the Gloria, is manipulated against a maelstrom of contemporary acoustic and electronic sounds. The dancers form a writhing clump that travels from one corner of the stage in a celestial beam of haze-ridden light (Mark Haslam’s lighting design is another of the work’s strengths). The religious overtones are not lost; exchanges of sand feel reminiscent of church service peace greetings.
In spite of its many highlights, I felt moments of frustration in this work. Perhaps it is intentional, but often the tableaus seemed to slip away just as they’d reached their zenith, before I’d had the chance to fully absorb and appreciate the picture.
With a cast that includes some of Perth’s most acclaimed dancers, I also longed to see more of individuals. At one point Yilin Kong began a deep-hinging solo but too quickly it was enveloped by the masses. At times I caught flashes of a gestural duet between Matthew Morris (a wonderful dancer, not seen in Perth for many years) and Mitchell Harvey but again, these were fleeting.
Nonetheless, there is no question that Archives of Humanity is a powerful and compelling work, and its final breath-taking scene in which the dancers barrel towards the audience in continuous and frenzied waves, had the audience on its feet at curtain call.
At a time when it’s not possible to invite international or even interstate dance companies to perform in WA, it’s a pleasure to see our state contemporary dance company rise to the challenge and produce an international and festival standard work. Densely layered and intensely rewarding, Archives of Humanity is a must-see.