An immersive work that tackles our inaction on the climate crisis, What Am I Supposed To Do (WAISTD) is inventive but politically underwhelming, says Robert Reid
Developed as part of the Take Over! Commission, supported by Melbourne Fringe and the Arts Centre, What am I Supposed to Do (WAISTD) is a participatory dance work which critiques Australia’s inaction on climate change.
Choreographed by Sarah Aiken and Rebecca Jensen, WAISTD takes over the whole space of the Fairfax, foyer and all, filling it with so much imagery and movement that it’s possible to take in completely. The six dancers (Aiken, Jensen, Claire Leske, Megan Payne, Alexander Powers and Ngioka Bunda-Heath) guide us in groups through choreographed movement, each group experiencing its own journey, sometimes clashing with other groups, sometimes in our own worlds, all with an environmental theme.
As always with immersive work, I’m on alert from the arrival. Sitting in the foyer waiting as audience gather, I notice the various tells that things are beginning: the people who move about, stopping in strategic places around the foyer, a shade over dressed for a Saturday afternoon, looking around with intent, surveying the room, watching for the signal to start.
Aiken and Jensen climb the stairs and address us. They tell us about the project, and deftly move to teaching us how we will participate by rehearsing our own deaths. With no more instruction than that, the speakers collapse to the ground. The cast who have moved through the room and hidden around us collapse as well, and it’s enough for the adventurous among us to cotton on and join in. The wave of dying spreads until the foyer of the Fairfax is littered with dead bodies. A disturbing image gently achieved in the climate of gun violence in America that panicked the Broadway pedestrians. Rehearsal or no, I think: this is not the way I want to die, waiting for a show in this foyer.
Of course, we already know we’re here to participate. We’ve been prepared by the content warnings posted around the foyer and online, so we are primed to look for opportunities to participate. After a contemplative moment or two of being dead, we’re invited into the theatre. Inside we find our way to the mezzanine where we stand ready to watch. There’s a subtle use of light as a guide: when everything else is dark we go where the light is, without being asked.
The seats of the Fairfax are covered with plastic. In the dark on stage someone is rollerblading. (Genuinely something I’ve never seen before.) I’ve seen this stage from a lot of angles, and many of them are still new for me today.
Once inside, the show begins for real. We’re participants in an abstract ritual of climate change telling, an imagined history of how it will happen. We line up next along the stairs down to the stage and, artfully lit, we pass garbage down from the mezzanine to the stage. Junk passes through our hands like it’s flowing down river. Its seems like it’s mostly things you might find discarded in the Yarra – beer cans, broken branches, a boogie board, umbrellas. Collapsing hand fans. Okay, things are getting weird. Hats. Hats full of apples. Apples on their own. It all collects on stage where a giant crevice is painted.
We are broken into groups, each with its own leader. They do a good job of caring for their audience, guiding us from activity to activity and making sure we’re okay. It’s easy to get left out of the images for someone like me who naturally hangs at the back. It would be easy to drift away entirely, I think, as I notice the moments where I find myself on the outside of my group and have to make my way back in.
But the audience undertakes it all with due reverence. We play along. The audience is happy to become suited business people on rolling office chairs. Some of them wave tree branches at the rest of us. We thrust our apples back at them. The actions we’re directed through, though given weight by the lighting and the sound and the haze, still seem detached or distant, verging on twee.
There’s little opportunity to watch the images of the performance. There’s little meditative time to sit within the performance, and the activities we’re involved in are ritualised and abstracted past meaning. I struggle to be deeply engaged. One can read meaning into these things, but can also switch off and experience the whole just as a kinetic aesthetic. Pretty but empty, because we invest nothing of ourselves.
In the wake of the Climate Strike the day before, and following two days of unseasonable early warmth, the politics of the work is a little underwhelming. Business people battle broken trees. Waving apples at the sky clears threatening clouds. My group actually has to be trees at one point, which I’d have thought was a drama school trope you’d want avoid.
The plastic wrapping covering the seats is ritually rolled up and carried off under lighting that makes the process visually very striking, and the audience is finally guided to take their seats. The six dancers are left on stage alone now, moving through their own choreography while selected audience members read a prepared text. It’s a conversation of sorts, representing international reactions to climate change as a kind of gossip among old friends. It shifts cleverly from instructional text, through confusion into a scene, but it feels increasingly clunky as it goes on. The amateur readings from the audience highlight this clunking.
I think I see a few people from the show afterwards on the street. I’m not at all motivated to approach them, to share my experience. Good immersive work should build communities, instant and fleeting though they may be. I didn’t feel attached to anyone during or after this thing. This was a solitary experience for me. A “join in” dance with easy enough choreography and helpfully low barriers to entry which is commendable. As a whole, though it requires a lot of work on the audience’s part to keep it feeling profound, rather than a bit silly.
What am I supposed to do (WAISTD). Concept, choreography and performance by Sarah Aiken and Rebecca Jensen / Deep Soulful Sweats. Design by Romanie Harper, Sound Design by Andrew Wilson, Lighting Design by Amelia Lever-Davidson. Performed by Claire Leske, Megan Payne, Alexander Powers, Ngioka Bunda-Heath, Sarah Aiken and Rebecca Jensen. Fairfax Studio, Arts Centre Melbourne, as part of Melbourne Fringe. Closed.