An Aboriginal man, dressed in an animal skin, standing with his arms outstretched
Dance, News, Perth Festival, Reviews

Ambition vs art

Perth Festival review: Ochre Contemporary Dance Company & Daksha Sheth Dance Company, Kwongkan (Sand) ·
Fremantle Arts Centre, 16 February ·
Review by Varnya Bromilow ·

Creating overtly political art is hard. As an artist, how do you strike the balance between missed message and straight-up didacticism? Where does beauty fit into the picture, or should it not matter? Considering the fraught nature of the path, it’s unsurprising that many artists steer clear of broader political messages, irrespective of the depth of their personal convictions.

As a creator, Mark Howett has always dived fearlessly into this fray. As artistic director of WA’s Ochre Contemporary Dance Company he has directed 3.3 (2018), Kaya (2016) and Good Little Soldier (2017). Each of these productions was notable for its deft handling of thorny social issues and for the high calibre of technique and artistry. Whether the topic was Indigenous incarceration (3.3) or PTSD (Good Little Soldier), Howett straddled the line between preachiness and meaning with certainty, creating compelling shows that spoke truth as they engaged. With Kwongkan (Sand) however, that sweet spot is missed. It’s a deeply felt, impassioned treatise about climate change… but it’s also deeply flawed.

Like Kaya before it, Kwongkan is the fruit of a cross-cultural exchange between Ochre and Daksha Sheth Dance Company in Kerala, India. The work began life as a film, which some audience members may have seen preceding 3.3 last year. This first, film version of the work is lushly evocative, signalling an interest in the environment, but lacking the overt political agenda that forms the core of Kwongkan as a dance work. The most effective parts of 2019’s Kwongkan feature sections from the original film as backdrop, with dancers Ian Wilkes, Isha Sharvani and Kate Harman silhouetted in the foreground.

As a former lighting designer, Howett has a terrific eye for the visual and in this way, Kwongkan meets the high bar set by his previous efforts. Unfurling plastic film sheaths Harman, as she leaps across the grassed stage of the Fremantle Arts Centre; a blanket of soft plastics unrolls down an incline; Sharvani shinnies up a silk suspended from one of the eucalypts bordering the stage – there are some wonderful visual elements here but they feel like additions bolted onto what is an unfocused and uncertain narrative.

Kwongkan’s troubles begin with a split narrative focus – we start with climate change and humanity’s destruction of the planet, then we shift suddenly to the Stolen Generation and back again to the climate, this time with an emphasis on plastics. Each of these themes is worthy of a dance work of its own – to combine them all into one hour feels cruelly brief.

There is some truly remarkable filmed footage of the camps Aboriginal children lived in after being torn from their parents. This is complemented by incredible traditional dancing from Wilkes, who is one of the best young dancers at work in Australia. Sharvani and Harman join him in this sequence, one of the only joint sequences that enjoys a synchronicity noticeably elusive elsewhere. The accompanying skit of Wilkes’ forced adherence to Western dress codes is embarrassingly simplistic, seriously underestimating the audience’s capacity for a more nuanced depiction of this abhorrent period of our shared history.

Then, without notice, we are back to the environment. Admittedly, Howett faces a tremendous challenge in creating work about climate change – socio-cultural fatigue. Even the most ardent among us are sinking into a kind of inert despair at the lack of political action on this front. We understand the danger, we make lifestyle changes… but I’m ashamed to admit that I now actively avoid looking at the plastic ocean imagery because it makes me feel so awfully hopeless. There’s no avoidance to be had here – image after image of plastic-choked sea creatures were projected in a sequence that had many in the Fremantle audience in tears. This was followed by the dancers chanting (“we can’t eat money”) and exhorting the audience to join in. But rather than feeling like an uprising, it felt to me like a sad, desperate refrain.

There is no doubting the urgency of the themes tackled here, or the passion of the players. But despite these noble aims and some flashes of brilliance, Kwongkan fails to live up to expectations, both of Howett’s work and of Festival curated fare.

Kwongkan plays Fremantle Arts Centre until February 20.

Pictured top: Ian Wilkes in “Kwongkan”. Photo: Daniel Grant.

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Kwongkan
Calendar, Dance, Performing arts, Perth Festival

Dance: Kwongkan

16 – 20 February @ Fremantle Arts Centre ·
Presented by Ochre Dance & Daksha Sheth Dance ·

Settle in amongst the trees in the gardens of Fremantle Arts Centre and be transported to a world where superhero gods are battling impending environmental and cultural calamities. Indigenous Australian and Indian performers combine traditional and contemporary dance theatre with live music, aerial work and extraordinary visuals in the world premiere Kwongkan.

After their homes, cultures and sacred lands are smashed a group of First People transform into powerful dancing deities who struggle with their godly powers as they attempt to save the planet and their ancient knowledge. These superheroes come to life under extreme conditions in ritual performances fashioned on the god-transformations of southern India. As in many ancient stories and dramas the gods here are fallible and share the greed and self-interest of humanity.

Sheth Dance Company, Kwongkan has been forged over three years of trips to sacred lands in desert Australia and tropical India. Local Noongar dancer, actor and director Ian Wilkes and India’s extraordinary siblings Isha Sharvani and Tao Issaro (the children of dance guru Daksha Sheth) star alongside brilliant young Indigenous dancer Nadia Martich, aerialist and Bollywood actor Ratheesh Rajendram and didgeridoo maestro William Barton.

Arrive early to experience the pre-performance rituals, warm-ups, set preparation, costuming and body painting.

Chairs and picnic blankets are welcome and food and drinks will be available for purchase.

A Perth Festival Co-Commission

Presented in association with Fremantle Arts Centre

More info:
https://www.perthfestival.com.au/event/kwongkan

Pictured: Kwongkan, credit: Mat McHugh

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