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Reviews/Dance

Transporting hearts and minds

24 April 2019

Review: Sym Parr, The Presence of Wool ·
Shearing Shed North of Albany, 14 April ·
Review by Maree Dawes ·

Sym Parr has been working with community dance projects and the concept of the shadowy remnants of things – including wool – for over five years. The Presence of Wool is a culmination of both these strands.

From the outset, this work has a time-shifting quality; most audience members arrive by bus, swept from the city through the darkening streets, then country roads, to arrive at a shearing shed in the last of the light. The tea and coffee available for patrons on arrival could have been laid out for shearers past.

The shed is large, distorted by shadows and decorated with repurposed woollen artefacts. Its structures creak as it stirs in the cool wind, augmenting composer James Gentle’s soundscape. Though the work takes place, predominantly, inside the shed, the mind of the viewer is swept with the dancers, through paddocks, trees and pens, over fences into the wool stalls.

A group of dancers, moving in smoky semi-darkness.
Smoke billows through the slats, evocative of fire. Photo: Bob Symons.

The cast consists of professional dancers Rita Bush, Cayleigh Davies and Talitha Maslin, alongside community dancers and local dance students, all of whom perform with noteworthy focus, energy and joy in movement. Exciting changes of pace are heightened, both by the range of experience amongst the dancers and by the choreography, which encompasses mechanical movements, characterisations of 1950’s workers, child-like play, struggle and death.

Dim lighting and an uneven floor ensure that audience members’ senses are on high alert as they make their way through the shed, directed only by flashlights. One scene sees lighting and smoke billowing up through the slats, evocative of a fire. In another, a dancer (Talitha Maslin) flees through the darkness, slamming gates and thumping the corrugated walls – an escaped sheep, the cook on the rampage? At times, the movement of the audience is distracting but it can also been seen as part of an immersive experience.

Three dancers in a shed, they each step one foot forward and spiral towards the front foot, arms held up as if in surrender.
The dancers perform with noteworthy focus, energy and joy in movement. Pictured (L-R): Cayleigh Davies, Talitha Maslin and Rita Bush. Photo: Bob Symons.

The inexorable soundscape has its softer moments, possible reflecting on childhood or pastoral scenes. More often, though, it amplifies the edginess of the performance. The shed is a character in its own right and Gentle’s sound recordings from local sites – including the old woollen mills (foundations laid 1923), voice recordings of people who worked in the mills and snippets of 1950’s pop tunes – are central to the creation of that character.

With little divide between the viewer and viewed, the audience is wrapped in the experience. In the final moments three dancers are silhouetted by hand-held lights, out in the paddocks. Audience members drift in, closer and closer, until suddenly it is over and the doors of the bus open.

On the bus ride home I think about refugees, homelessness, poverty, death camps, animal welfare, childhood games, meaningful work, precious fabric, shedding the unwanted and repurposing. The Presence of Wool is an immersive experience that stimulates heart and mind.

The Presence of Wool had its season in Albany, April 12-14.

Pictured top, from left to right are Rita Underwood, Annette Davis, Jassica Hesford. All photos by Bob Symons.

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