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Reviews/Dance/Perth Festival

Captivating crowd control

20 February 2020

Nina Levy’s two-year wait to see Stephanie Lake’s contemporary dance work Colossus was well worth it, she says.

Review: Stephanie Lake Company, Colossus ·
State Theatre Centre Studio, 19 February 2020 ·
Review by Nina Levy ·

Stephanie Lake’s 2018 work, Colossus, is one of those Melbourne dance works that (it seems) all the East coast dance aficionados have been talking about. It’s also one I wasn’t expecting to see West side – after all, it’s independent contemporary dance with a cast of 50.

So, like many in the WA dance community, I was thrilled to see Colossus in this year’s Perth Festival program and eagerly anticipated its WA premiere.

And boy, was it worth the wait.

It is presented in collaboration with the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts and STRUT Dance, and the Perth cast is predominantly last year’s WAAPA graduates and current students, with a handful of independent dancers in the mix. For many, it’s their first professional engagement. What a way to start.

Colossus is about mob mentality, crowd behaviour, large-scale patterns. It is about the power of the collective, but also the role of each individual within it. It’s fitting that all 50 dancers are on stage for the work’s 50-minute entirety. The sheer energy of so many dancing bodies on the contained space of a stage is palpable.

And what excellent use Lake makes of those black-clad bodies. A gesture ripples around a circle, powered by the breath of 50 pairs of lungs. Over meshed light, human waves advance and retreat, leaving behind 50 sculptural bodies that gradually melt to the ground as though another unseen tide has washed them away.

Controlled by signals from a single dancer (a compelling Kimberley Parkin), the dancers are puppets to be pushed and pulled; putty in her hands.

A favourite section sees the dancers arranged in a class photo-style formation and responding with alacrity to disembodied instructions, with comical but faintly disturbing results. When commanded to “grow like a vine”, the shadows of their arms, hands and fingers become a field of gently wafting seaweed

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The mob turns on one of its own (Mitchell Spadaro). Photo: Jess Wyld

In another engaging section, the dancers break into three clumps, each traversing the stage to the united beat of their marching, interspersed with a complex web of calls, hisses and body percussion, until finally they merge and move together as one. As they dissolve into chatter it all seems friendly, until the talk becomes focused on calls of “Me!” and “You!”. Within minutes, the mob has formed and it turns, without warning, on a single quavering dancer (Mitchell Spadaro), the distant sounds of a playground a chilling reminder that persecution can take place anywhere.

Though mass movement is at the heart of the work, there is a strong sense of individuality in it. Lilly King’s opening solo of unfolding limbs is one highlight, as are Kimberley Parkin’s manipulations of both the cast and her own body.

There’s a moment of magnetism in King’s brief duet with Scott Elstermann, as their faces press together, framed by their hands, with Elstermann’s curlicuing solo to the ensemble’s hissing soundscape another standout. And then there’s Alex Kay’s explosive closing solo, in which she somehow seems both out of control and in perfect control.

Mention must be made of composer/sound designer Robin Fox, whose electronic soundscape, mingled with robotic-sounding voiceovers and wordless vocals, is integral to providing both a sense of humanity and the lack thereof. Kudos, too, to lighting designer Bosco Shaw for his crisp lighting states and lively shadows, and to costume designer Harriet Oxley, whose elegant monochrome outfits create a sense of uniformity without subsuming individuality.

The expression “safety in numbers” doesn’t apply here – with all the performers on stage all the time, this work demands absolute concentration from every single dancer, as well as the technical precision required to perform its intricate rhythms and patterns and rapid unison phrases. The Perth cast delivers the goods.

Colossus is utterly captivating and a must-see … but it’s also sold out. If you have a ticket, consider yourself fortunate.

Colossus runs until 23 February 2020.

Pictured top: Responding to disembodied instructions. ‘Colossus’. Photo: Jess Wyld

The dancers are like puppets, pushed and pulled by Kimberley Parkin. Photo: Jess Wyld

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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. Nina was co-editor of Dance Australia magazine from 2016 to 2019. Nina loves the swings because they take her closer to the sky.

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