An innovative Perth Festival performance work examines the beauty and power of rituals surrounding death, and Rita Clarke is mesmerised.
And The Earth Will Swallow Them Whole, Rachel Arianne Ogle ·
Studio Underground, State Theatre Centre of WA, 12 February 2022 ·
Since 2016 West Australian independent dance artist Rachel Arianne Ogle has been conceiving and fashioning And The Earth Will Swallow Them Whole into a momentous work. In it she aims to “delve deep into the subterranean layers of the earth”.
What she also does is delve into the subterranean layers of the human psyche – the fear, the hesitation, the fragility – as we face the magnitude of our still unfathomable natural world.
Ogle has a strong career covering performance, choreography and education, and Perth Festival showed a level of perspicacity in commissioning this world premiere of And The Earth Will Swallow Them Whole.
The world Ogle presents is grey, dark and mysterious.
The audience sits around three sides, high above an enormous square pit. In its centre, on a dais, sit a grand piano with exposed wires and a separate table containing electronic equipment used, as sound artist and composer Luke Smiles says, to “prepare the piano”.
But first, pianist Gabriella Smart begins to play Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata on the as-yet “unprepared” sonorous instrument. A thick layer of smoke starts to cover the floor, rolling across like a carpet of fog until the dais seems suspended above it.
Smiles will come to add new technology and sounds to the piano in an amazing echoing, bell-sounding, screeching and nuanced composition created by Smiles and Smart with Alisdair Macindoe.
The dais eventually seems to float like a raft to the side of the pit. Six dancers (Linton Aberle, Imanuel Dado, Storm Helmore, Bethany Reece, Tyrone Earl Lraé Robinson, Zee Zunnur), dressed in grey take up the space, holding hands, arms outstretched, often in a square formation like a Roman regiment shielded from the enemy. These humans, however, have only their bodies and their courage.
In fact, leaning over the railings looking down, one could be in a Roman coliseum watching people fighting for their lives. The performers fall on their knees, bend and roll, keeping close to and mindful of each other, and advancing and recoiling from something unknown. At times they are piled up like bodies thrown dispassionately into graves, reminiscent of photographs from war.
Then comes the stunning catalyst of this first half. A huge grey silk sheet rolls across the stage creating billows of soft waves. Imprisoned in the middle is dancer Zee Zunnur.
We watch as she moves around, amazed, then wary as the waves gain in strength and form and slide and encompass her. After many incredibly beautiful minutes – for those watching at least – Zunnur is swallowed by their unstoppable might and splendour.
The second half of the performance opens with Zunnur prostrate in the middle of a circular mound of black torn tissue paper. The other performers – Linton Aberle, Imanuel Dado, Storm Helmore, Bethany Reece and Tyrone Earl Lrae Robinson – sit within the circle and begin the ritual of preparing the body for burial.
Ogle says she wants to give the audience time and space to “reflect on the weight of their own experience”. At first, the time and space she gives us to watch Zunnur’s body being garlanded is difficult to endure. Gradually, however, witnessing the attention given to winding the fingers in the tissue and preparing roses to adorn the hair becomes mesmeric and makes us mindful of loss, the brevity of life, and perhaps the dispassion that our busy and complicated world has wrested upon us.
Many accolades should be given to the creative minds behind And The Earth Will Swallow Them Whole, including the nuanced lighting (Bosco Shaw and Peter Young) and the clever set design and costumes (Bruce McKinven), but most of all to Ogle, who carries credit for the concept, direction and choreography.
She has created something truly innovative and outstanding.
Pictured top: Dancer Zee Zunnur is enveloped in a billowing sheet. Photo: Emma Fishwick
Read a review of And The Earth Will Swallow Them Whole by special guest writer and 2022 WAAPA graduate Zendra Giraudo.
Like what you're reading? Support Seesaw.