When Time Stops

Expressions Dance Company
Brisbane, September 10

IN Greek mythology the river Styx marks the point of no return. On one side is life, and on the other death; the ferryman Charon is the intermediary, transporting souls to the afterlife. Natalie Weir has taken this enduring story as the wellspring of When Time Stops, a new work for Expressions Dance Company that has just premiered at the Brisbane Festival. The central character is a woman who, In Weir’s words, “could be anyone, in her last moment of life’’. That moment is extended and suspended as experiences are relived, in flashes, by the Woman or replayed by others.

When we first see the Woman (Riannon McLean) she is at the point of joining the Ferryman (Thomas Gundry Greenfield) for her final journey. He is seated in a small white boat, back rippling as his arms press and circle in huge, powerful strokes that have a mesmerising but implacable rhythm. Never, one imagines, has the afterlife looked quite so enticing. McLean, so poised and centred, reaches towards him but is interrupted. The stage fills with musicians and other dancers. A life’s flashback begins.

This is a striking and eloquent beginning, much enhanced by Bill Haycock’s cool, elegant design and David Walters’s sympathetic lighting. And how marvellously and unselfconsciously the members of Camerata of St John’s move in and out of the dance, playing Iain Grandage’s new score from memory and doing it very, very proud. Weir’s direction of this aspect of the production is exceptional.

The dancers give every sinew of their being to the work and are captivating. McLean draws the eye even when still and in the background, such is her charisma; there can never be too many opportunities to see Daryl Brandwood; and Gundry Greenfield, whether entering the dance or continuing his endless ferryman labour, is as imposing a presence on stage as I have seen in quite a while.

When it comes to the choreography itself, however, I have significant reservations. Weir relies too much on several relatively obvious ideas – running backwards, slow-motion moves, rolling, leaping – in a way that does little to differentiate stages in the woman’s journey (there are 12 sections). There are several intimations of tenderness but mostly I felt as if I were seeing 17 kinds of sorrow on a loop.

Most troubling for me is a hardness in much of the partnering that borders on violence. There is one section clearly depicting some kind of accident or harm where the use – abuse? – of male strength is dramatically justified. But there were so many times when young women hurled themselves at the men, when they were slung over shoulders and when they were hurled around. The partnering looked very unequal in power and authority. I was also dismayed when women upended themselves on the floor, their floaty skirts naturally dropping down over their heads and shoulders as they extended their legs. I don’t mean to suggest Weir had the intention of making her female dancers look manipulated and anonymous; far from it. But, to me, apart from McLean they looked just that and I found it hard to watch.

That said, When Time Stops has many individual moments of great beauty. Apart from the opening the most satisfying image is of Gundry Greenfield morphing into a man who, in earlier times, rescued the Woman (danced at this point by Elise May) from drowning. The section is overlong, but has clarity of purpose not always so evident elsewhere.(It’s astonishing to learn that Gundry Greenfield did not start formal dance training until he was 21, although his background does include Australian Rules football, so that sort of counts.)

When Time Stops could do with some focusing and tightening. So many new works fail to get the second look they deserve because of time or money constraints, but I hope Weir does have a chance to reconsider some things about When Time Stops because it’s certainly worth it. Undoubtedly a major problem about restaging would be the participation of the number of musicians Grandage requires for his score, and the dance would be immeasurably diminished by the use of recorded music.

Grandage, whose score for Sydney Theatre Company’s The Secret River was greatly admired, describes his music for When Time Stops as having, among other things, elements of minimalism, surrealism and polytonality. That may sound rather dry. In practice there is a great wealth of colour and texture as the orchestration – for strings alone – moves from the group to individual instruments, from the lower strings to the higher, from quite romantic plushness to thrilling astringency. The music appealed greatly on this one hearing and the Camerata of St John’s and their music director, Brendan Joyce, put in a blinder.

When Time Stops continues at the Playhouse, QPAC, until September 14.

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