WHAT A DIFFERENCE CONTEXT MAKES! IN 2008, SUNSTRUCK FELT LIKE A WORK ABOUT THE DROUGHT— THE THICK, ENDLESS, DUSTY THING EVERYWHERE AROUND US ON THIS OLD ROCK OF A COUNTRY. THIS RAINY BUT APOCALYPTIC YEAR, I HEAR SOMEONE ASK IN THE FOYER, PRE-SHOW: “THIS IS NOT ABOUT CLIMATE CHANGE, IS IT?” I SENSE FUNDING OPPORTUNITIES FOR AN IMMINENT WAVE OF THEATRE AND DANCE, LEAVING US AWASH WITH DRAWING ROOM DRAMAS IN WHICH THE AID-WORKER DAUGHTER INTRODUCES HER BOYFRIEND, A SURVIVOR FROM A SUBMERGED ATOLL, TO HER CLIMATE SCIENTIST FATHER…BUT SUNSTRUCK IS NONE OF THESE.
One of the great benefits of Dance Massive is that it brings some important dance works that may not have received the attention they deserved to a receptive and curious audience. Having been among the relatively few who saw Sunstruck at the 2008 Melbourne International Arts Festival, it is very rewarding to now see it delight a whole new audience.
At the time, I compared it with the paintings of Russell Drysdale, to Camus’ protagonist who kills an Arab, blinded by the sun. The simple geometry of these works was concordant with the simple geometry of Sunstruck: the single source of light, the single circle of chairs for the audience, the black of the two male performers’ clothing. The series of gestures, interlocking (yet seemingly independent) movements that the two performers engage in—the youthfully strong, mannish Nick Sommerville and the older, fluid, catlike Trevor Patrick—build to create a universe of silent masculinity, in which one can only self-express whilst blinded by the sun. At the same time, the heat, the absence of rain, as much as it delivers them into ecstatic abandonment, also appears to strike them down. Or is this just a beginning of something new?
In 2008, I saw a personal journey in Sunstruck, a sort of dictionary or compendium of particularly masculine Australian body language—there was great restraint, silent grief, competitiveness, care and extraordinary liberation of body and emotion which, unsurprisingly, ended in weeping. A great deal of the choreography, indeed, is very close in form to mime—staring at strong light, combing hair, smoking a cigarette. However, this time I saw what Helen Herbertson talks about in her director’s notes—a death, a childbirth, the ecstasy of existence, the heavy load of being alive. It was a journey of a tribe rather than of the individual.
But it is hard to describe Sunstruck, because it is not technically ‘about’ anything—it is an experience, rather than a work of representation. The crucial aspects of the work, though, are also the easiest to overlook: the great dark space, greetings from the artists, receiving a warm drink, sitting in a close circle. The atmosphere it creates—of quiet meditation, but a communal one, not unlike sitting around a campfire—is the container for the experience. If after the show has ended we all remain seated in our chairs, quietly enjoying the tangible community we now are, that would be why. We have seen different things in Sunstruck, but we have all shared a cup of the same tea.
Dance Massive: Sunstruck, concept collaboration Helen Herbertson, Ben Cobham, devisor, director Herbertson, design, light Cobham, performers Trevor Patrick, Nick Sommerville, Arts House, North Melbourne Town Hall, March 14-16; www.dancemassive.com.au
First published on the RealTime website, as a part of RealTime’s critical coverage of Dance Massive 2011. Reprinted in RealTime issue #102 April-May 2011 pg. 12. The 2011 Dance Massive archive can be accessed here.