Reviews/Dance/Fringe World Festival

Charging the catwalk with feminism

31 January 2020

Two dance works, (un)written · (un)heard and FEMME, take very different approaches to telling women’s stories, Nina Levy finds.

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Review: 45North and Ellander Productions, (un)written · (un)heard ·
Erin Fowler, FEMME ·
Biology at Girls’ School, 29 January 2020 ·
Review by Nina Levy ·

At a glance, physical theatre works (un)written · (un)heard and FEMME are not an obvious program pairing, but the back-to-back shows are united at Fringe by a catwalk stage and a feminist perspective.

In (un)written · (un)heard, UK-based production company 45North and physical theatre ensemble Ellander Productions take on the true story of Dorothy Lawrence, a 19-year-old British journalist who disguised herself as a man and rode a bicycle to the front line of World War I to write the stories of the soldiers. Instead of being lauded for her bravery, however, she was placed under military arrest and landed up in a psychiatric hospital for most of her life.

Directed by Jessica Rose McVay, (un)written · (un)heard is based on biography but it is not a narrative work. It is composed, instead, of vignettes or fragments that serve to create a sense of person and place and allude to the parts of the story that are missing from the historical record.

Choreographed by performer Iona Kirk, the movement material is often gestural: a driving salute, the furious scratching of words on an invisible page, legs that pump unseen pedals. These repeated motifs, which stand in place of text, are seamlessly woven into choreography that billows and charges along the length of the stage.

It’s beautifully danced with courage and feeling by the cast of three. Cher Nicolette Ho, Iona Kirk and Jordan Ajadi alternate in the lead role, and the transfer of costume and character from one dancer to another is a clever reference to the concept of disguise.

Dinah Mullen’s sound design, too, is a series of fragments, a bittersweet refrain (Arvo Part’s Fratres) interspersed with soundscapes that evoke crowded city streets or the artillery-strewn vista of the front.

It all comes together to create an evocative and compelling whole.

In stark contrast to the subtle poignancy of (un)written · (un)heard, FEMME packs a powerful punch. Choreographed, written and performed by South Australian independent dance artist Erin Fowler, FEMME boldly interrogates ideas about femininity and female sexuality.

Erin Fowler in ‘Femme’. Photo: Chris Herzfeld, Camlight Productions

Initially, that interrogation is not obvious. Fowler is a sexy silhouetted figure, a Cinderella-style party-girl in too-high heels and frock who croons a Disney classic before – incongruously – going into labour, a sultry siren in boots and an LBD, a confetti-strewn bride, a leather-clad dominatrix, an insta-influencer.

So far, so many stereotypes, except that the soundtrack, which is a supercharged disco-driven mash-up, starts to be interspersed with voices – first of children, then of women, and then of men – that pull this seemingly fun work into a dark and chillingly realistic place.

Dark, but never depressing. And that’s credit to Fowler, whose stage presence is compelling, and who leads us to her last hurrah with wit and smarts.

I’ve long hoped to catch this renowned South Australian performer in action. It was worth the wait.

(un)written · (un)heard is on at Girls’ School until 9 February 2020.

FEMME runs at Girls’ School until 7 February 2020.

Pictured top is choreographer/performer Iona Kirk in ‘(un)written · (un)heard’. Photo: Jack Parker Photography

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Author —
Nina Levy

Nina Levy has worked for over a decade as an arts writer and critic. She co-founded Seesaw and has been co-editing the platform since it went live in August 2017. Since July 2016 Nina has also been co-editor of Dance Australia magazine. Nina loves the swings because they take her closer to the sky.

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