Though more like a dream than a story, A Blessed Curse has a conclusion that Nina Levy finds powerful and moving.
A Blessed Curse, Brooke Leeder, Maitland Schnaars, Azariah Felton ·
North Worral Park, Fremantle, 11 November 2021 ·
Sitting on a grassy stretch of park sandwiched between road and river, our view is framed by the old Fremantle traffic bridge, beyond which we can see the cranes of Fremantle Harbour, their giraffe necks stretching majestically into sunset’s golden glow.
It feels like we’re seated at the intersection of Country and industry, where the power of the Derbal Yerrigan/Swan River meets the might of Western technology.
And it’s a perfect setting for A Blessed Curse, dance work for the Fremantle Biennale that asks us to consider/reconsider what we think of as “progress”.
The description of the work in the Biennale program focuses on the story of WA chief engineer C.Y. O’Connor, said to have been cursed by Noongar people in response to his destruction of a bidi (limestone bar) used for crossing the mouth of the Derbal Yerrigan and for ceremonial practices.
A Blessed Curse is, however, far more abstract than these notes imply. Created collaboratively by local artists – choreographer Brooke Leeder, Noongar writer/poet/actor Maitland Schnaars and composer Azariah Felton – the work is poetic rather than prosaic. We receive snatches of narrative – about the bilya/river, about the impact of white settlement on the bilya and Noongar culture, about O’Connor’s descent into madness, about what we can draw from all this – in dream-like instalments.
From the opening, in which we are gently invited to participate (if we wish) in a cleansing ritual, this work sees five dancers ripple and float to Felton’s soundscape, which melds soothing string ostinatos with driving, crackling drum rhythms. Interspersing this soundscape is Schnaars’ measured and mellifluous spoken word, delivered in Noongar or English.
The setting sun acts as natural side lighting, gilding the dancers with a golden lining. They dance variously in solos, duets and trios, but my favourites are the ensemble moments, in particular a section in which the dancers traverse the width of the performance area in surge and retreat; an advancing tide of bodies.
Though the movement is abstract, it’s not hard to see the connection between descriptions of the bilya and the liquid movement, beautifully embodied by Gabrielle De Vriese, Scott Elstermann, Natassija Morrow, Brent Rollins and Nathan Turtur. A particularly evocative match is Turtur’s shivering torso as Schnaars describes the “soft smell of fresh oil [that] floats lightly on the breeze”.
Performing in a public space leaves the way open for unplanned interactions, especially with so many sources of traffic, be it human, animal or transport. On opening night three persistent seagulls briefly transformed a solo into a quartet. Most powerfully and poignantly, as Schnaars declared “The march of progress was unstoppable”, a cargo train barrelled over the bridge, a cacophony of colourful containers, followed swiftly by the slick silver of a passenger train.
Though the dream feels more like a nightmare as unstoppable progress marches through land and lives (including O’Connor’s), as the title promises, Schnaars leaves us with a blessing.
A Blessed Curse is sold out, but if you’ve managed to snaffle a ticket, you’re in for a treat (and bring your beanie).
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