Powerful, inventive and beautiful, Alison Croggon says that Stephanie Lake’s Colossus is her most exciting work yet
When I walked out of Colossus, my blood was singing with sheer exhilaration. It’s rare to see a work of this scale, with 50 disciplined bodies on one stage, and rarer still to see new work of such epic ambition fully realised. Stephanie Lake’s latest dance, her largest to date, is a triumph.
Colossus is the second commission of Arts Centre Melbourne’s Fringe Take Over! program, and demonstrates what happens when ambition finds resources. In merely an hour, Colossus seems to embrace almost every aspect of human behaviour and feeling, snapping from the sacred to the profane, the individual to the collective, the sinister to the joyous. Every moment feels deeply detailed and thought. And it demonstrates Lake’s acute control of spatial relationships, how she brings a stage alive.
As the audience enters, a circle of 50 bodies is lying prone on the stage, their arms outstretched, all clothed in black. They look like a strange and gorgeous flower, each body a petal. The lights go down and a deep, bass beat – like a heartbeat, perhaps, hugely slowed down and amplified – signals the ripples of movement. The petals begin to move in unison, the circle breathing like some huge organism, limbs moving in and out, heads rising and falling, gestures rippling around the edge in a kind of Mexican wave.
A major principle behind this dance appears to be flocking, the behaviour of animals – birds, fish, even bacteria – in collective motion. Its best known example is perhaps the murmurations of starlings, a movement which generates hypnotic patterns. Flocking is called an emergent behaviour because it arises from simple rules that are followed by individuals: for instance, starlings in flight respond to the movement of the seven closest birds. This permits news of a predator, for instance, to spread through an entire flock in microseconds.
Much of the collective movement in Colossus – which, unlike animal flocking or swarming, is overseen by the central control of the choreographer – seems to be generated in this way. A gesture begins with one dancer, and the next almost instantly reproduces it, and then the next, until the whole chorus is alive with it. But gradually the single organism that greets us begins to disperse into its individual parts.
The first is a sole dancer who stands in the middle of the circle. She seems like a sorceress or a priestess, magically controlling with her gestures the movements of the rest of the dancers. Then she is replaced, or perhaps subsumed, by another dancer. The rest of the chorus by now is standing, and her gestures move them around the space. She dissolves back into the chorus and a duet emerges, then another. And then more complex sub-choruses, evolving out of the general company and then back into it.
The whole expresses the tension and longing between the discrete self and the collective, playing between varying models of authority. At one point there’s a blackout, and we only hear vocalisations from the dancers – a chaos of hissing and groaning that sounds animalistic or even artificial. When the lights snap back up, the dancers are all ranged in disciplined rows, as if for a school photograph, while a voice intones instructions that all the dancers follow – “Make a vine. Fingers. Look Up. Look up further.”
It’s one of many surprises through this witty and inventive performance. Although she has so many dancers, Lake’s pallet is stern – the white stage, the black-clad human body, the dialectic between many and one – and it’s astonishing how much variation she finds within it.
A sinister edge often lurks beneath the collective movement. There is a power and beauty in the chorus work that can turn ugly: once, explicitly so, when a single man is turned on by the screaming crowd, and flung out as a scapegoat. It makes an interesting contrast to the authoritarian sorceress at the beginning.
Some sequences, especially those that echoed militaristic movements, reminded me strongly of Hofesh Shechter’s choreography, which draws on folk dance to make shattering critiques of militarised societies such as Israel: like Schechter, Lake has a dynamic control that winds a terrifying unity out of joyous choruses. But Lake’s work clearly has a completely different genealogy, organically emerging from the logic of this dance.
Lake’s choreography is supported by equally inventive sound and lighting. Robin Fox’s soundscape varies between composed electronic sound to silence to the percussion of the dancers’ bodies – slapping of hands, drumming of feet. The lighting design, by Bosco Shaw, is precise, and often takes advantage of the shadows thrown across the plain, white set.
A fascinating aspect was how the dancers individuated through the duration of the performance. At the beginning, each dancer seemed an identical part of a whole: as the dance progresses, I began to notice differences: different shades of skin, different sexes, differences in height and body frames and hair colour. Harriet Oxley’s costumes are also each subtly various: uniform black top and bottoms variegated into shorts, skirts and pants. I was still noticing new people towards the end of the dance.
Colossus was reportedly 20 years in the making. Maybe, as much as the institutional support that made it possible, a work like this needs two decades to attain this kind of richness and depth, this sense of assuredness. Lake is clearly reaching the height of her powers and I can’t wait to see what happens next.
Colossus, choreographed by Stephanie Lake. Composed by Robin Fox, lighting design by Bosco Shaw, costume design by Harriet Oxley. Performed by Rowan Jobling (intern), Lachlan Hall (intern) and Nikki Tarling (intern), Larissa Anthony, Rebecca Berry, Hannah Billingham, Tamara Bouman, Sarah Bourne, Eloise Brodie, Phaedra Brown, Grace Buchanan, Jazmyn Carter, Dominique Cowden, Molly Davies, Alexandra Dobson, Kayla Douglas, Nicholas Eva, Cheryl Friedrich, Annaleise Gaffney, Sophie Gould, Marni Green, Samuel Hammat, Tiffany Hislop, Surekha Krishnan, Thalia Livingstone, Gabrielle Loveridge, Jennifer Ma, Rachel Mackie, Kaitlin Malone, Kady Mansour, Sarah McCrorie, Nikky Muscat, Vanessa Northcott, Kyle Ramboyong, Hayley Roe, Aimee Schollum, Gabriel Sinclair, Lauren Stanley, Emily Sterry, Michaela Tancheff, Adrien Tucker, Georgia Tuckett , Sophia van Gent, Sophia Rose Walker and Olivia Yeo. Victorian College of the Arts, Transit Dance (Tr.IPP), Stephanie Lake Company, Melbourne Fringe Festival and Arts Centre Melbourne. Fairfax Studio, Arts Centre Melbourne. Until September 30. Bookings
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