A walk on the stranger side

17 July 2022

If you’re a fan of sci-fi/horror, then you’ll recognise some of the tropes in Bobby Russell’s experimental performance work… but you’ll need to tie the threads together yourself, says Nina Levy.

WALK, Bobby Russell ·
The Blue Room Theatre, 17 July 2022 ·

Watching Bobby Russell’s new solo performance work WALK, I got the uneasy feeling that I had stumbled into an episode of Netflix’s Stranger Things.

Timing is everything – I’ve got just one more episode of series 4 left to terrify me – but given that Russell cites 80s sci-fi and 70s horror as inspiration for their work generally, and Stranger Things draws heavily on both these genres, it feels likely that it’s not a coincidence.

Trained in dance, local performance-maker Russell has been experimenting with the interplay of movement and light for some years now. Though it’s not specifically articulated in the publicity notes, WALK appears to be a development of their 2021 short work The Walk (presented at Perth Festival as part of triple bill “MoveMoveMove”), which transported audiences from a world of dreamy pink clouds into an eerie underworld.

This time, however, we spend just a brief moment under those candy-floss clouds before being plunged into a re-imagined version of that underworld. The publicity notes explain that we are journeying inside “Bobby’s mindscape” as they “[learn] to let go of past ghosts [and discover] what it means to be free in their body and walk into their power.” Again, it’s not explicitly stated, but it seems fair to guess that freedom and power is queer, given that Russell has changed their first name and pronouns since The Walk.

If you’re expecting a narrative thread, think again. Together with sound designer Peter McAvan and lighting designer Joe Lui (who were both on The Walk design team), and set and costume designer Opie Robinson, Russell has created an abstract work that has the episodic logic of a dream or a nightmare.

The sci-fi/horror/Stranger Things vibe resonates in McAvan’s electronic echoes and stutters. Lui’s flashes of painfully blinding white light contrasted with softer shafts of blue haze bring to mind the lights of a visiting alien craft, and the shaved-headed, creature-like figure that’s illuminated looks suitably extra-terrestrial.

Don’t expect much dance in the traditional sense either. Though Russell moves with the stealth and assurance of a dancer, much of the choreography in this work is in service of Robinson’s sculptures and costumes. What appears to be a melange of fabric, textured and tinselled, becomes a towering, twitching cloak with a gaping mouth (fans of Stranger Things will be chilled), animated by Russell and by cleverly positioned cables.

A person dressed in a tinsel-fringed jacket and blonde wig sits under a pyramid made of tube lights.
A compelling performer: Bobby Russell in ‘WALK’. Photo: Jed Lyall

Many images and concepts follow. A pyramid of multicoloured light frames a knight-like figure, surrounded by Robinson’s amorphous black blob-like shapes. A thumping bass line and rhythmically flashing lights bring to mind dance clubs. A moment of quiet poetry and arms that stretch skywards morphs into a lip-synching, be-wigged finale, shiny and triumphant.

It’s intriguing but bemusing. Perhaps this is intentional but it feels like there are too many threads packed into this 50-minute piece, especially without a program to elaborate.

Nonetheless, Russell is a compelling performer, supported by a dream-team of designers. In those multiple threads could be multiple new works… I’m keen to see which direction Russell heads next.

WALK continues at The Blue Room Theatre until 30 July.

Pictured top: Bobby Russell in ‘WALK’. Photo: Jed Lyall

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Author —
Nina Levy

Nina Levy has worked as an arts writer and critic since 2007. She co-founded Seesaw and has been co-editing the platform since it went live in August 2017. As a freelancer she has written extensively for The West Australian and Dance Australia magazine, co-editing the latter from 2016 to 2019. Nina loves the swings because they take her closer to the sky.

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