The Paratrooper Project
Phluxus2 Dance Collective
Judith Wright Centre of Contemporary Arts
June 25 to July 4 2015
Reviewed by Ruth Ridgway
Enter the trenches in this immersive new production…
Phluxus2 Dance Collective
The Paratrooper Project is promoted as an immersive experience, and this it certainly delivers. Described in the brief program notes as a dance theatre installation, it is the theatre that dominates.
War and conflict and their effects are the subject. Richard Matthaei, grandfather of Phluxus2’s Artistic Director Nerida Matthaei, was a paratrooper in World War II, and this work was inspired by mementoes he left behind.
The audience stood (or occasionally sat or lay) on the floor of the performance space in the Judith Wright Centre, with white parachutes and webbing suspended above us, sometimes billowing up and down, and covering the performers.
Their layered costumes (Lisa Fa’alafi) are all also white – pants, tunics, shirts, and military-looking coats with wide lapels. This makes the performers stand out amongst the audience, but could also connote ghostliness, death, and the afterlife.
The audience starts out standing huddled in a crowd under a tent-like parachute. Is it going to fall on us? Is there going to be sudden blackout? No, there are performers in there with us, they start speaking, and the parachute lifts.
The creators and performers – dancers Nerida Matthaei, Gareth Belling, Gabriel Comerford, and actor Margi Brown Ash – move through different areas of the performance space, the audience shifting (or being directed to shift) around them.
The sound design (Andrew Mills) includes clinking sounds like dishes or metal in a workshop, waves breaking, and a plaintive fragmentary tune.
Belling and Comerford represent soldiers or fighters, engaging in much violent, grappling movement, frequently crashing with full force onto the floor. They also enact roles of the wounded or dead, the torture victim, and the rescuer.
Matthaei is at first a grief-stricken woman, widowed by war; later, a chilling torturer; and then a rape victim. She and Brown Ash also speak of matters on the domestic front, such as tea and biscuits, and borrowing sugar.
Brown Ash is the dominant, compelling force in this work, her mesmerising authority and the power of her voice unequalled. In a surreal evocation of domesticity, she paces around while knitting and trailing an unravelling ball of wool behind her.
In this she echoes Madame Defarge, from Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities, who incorporated the names of intended guillotine victims in her knitting, and also the Three Fates from Ancient Greek stories, who created and destroyed people’s lives by spinning and cutting thread.
Brown Ash also parodies a Churchillian wartime leader, exhorting and haranguing us; and huddles and flinches as a terrified torture victim.
This is not comfortable escapist theatre.
The audience is instructed, harangued, and physically directed around the space. Brown Ash took people by the hand and led them where they were meant to go, until the rest of us understood we were meant to follow. Others were invited to take part in some of the action.
Brown Ash orates at the end about the idea of war continuing on, and affecting us now. Moving amongst us, she then asks us to remember the dead, and give them a voice. Most of the audience engaged in a very personal way with this, seeming to forget where they were, and becoming totally absorbed in the moment.
This work is gripping and moving, and pulls you into its orbit.
Occasionally, though, the attention lapses when some parts go on a little too long (such as the dancers hurling themselves to the floor over and over at the end).
In Phluxus2’s previous work de-generator, the audience also followed the dancers around the space, but moved out of the way of the action without any guidance.
This current work is a more sophisticated and choreographed development of audience involvement. It is more powerful, covering more dimensions of experience, but also more coercive and controlling for the audience.