‘Kwongkan squanders its moments of power by reaching for a simplistic idea of protest’: Alison Croggon on a Perth Festival dance work that attempts to take on the enormity of climate change
I don’t know a single artist in this era of the anthropocene that doesn’t sometimes wonder whether they’re wasting their time. After all, art solves nothing. Like a tree or a fish, art simply is.
Art won’t save the world. It doesn’t even make us better people. Germany’s extraordinary cultural heritage didn’t prevent it from descending into the murderous horror of Nazism; the men who ran concentration camps listened to Beethoven and Mozart. Why should we spend resources and time on art, when there’s an emergency out there?
Watching Kwongkan, a collaboration between WA company Ochre Contemporary Dance and Daksha Sheth Dance from India, is a bit like watching this dilemma – perhaps it’s not going too far to call it anguish – enacted before your eyes. Conceived and directed by Ochre artistic director Mark Howett, you can’t fault the show’s ambition. It’s an attempt to grapple head on with the defining crisis of our age, climate change.
Given that the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s most recent report is more than 2000 pages long, that’s a tall order for an hour-long dance work with six performers. Given that climate change is only part of the global crisis Kwongkan addresses – it also looks at the cultural destruction of colonialism and plastic pollution in the ocean – it’s perhaps not surprising that Howett and his collaborators ended up with a work that is effectively a howl of protest punctuated by dance.
It made me think of the US poet George Oppen, who abandoned poetry in the 1930s, when the rise of Fascism made him join the Communist Party and become an activist for workers rights (he returned to poetry in the 1950s). He claimed that you could only do one or the other. I’ve always admired, and been rather daunted by, Oppen’s chilly clarity.
Art is always political, if in complex and usually indirect ways (it’s never more political than when it claims it isn’t). But art and political activism, although they are often linked, are not at all the same thing. Although I’m not sure that I agree with Oppen that you can’t do both things, especially when you look at the history of theatre, Kwongkan shows what happens when you confuse them.
Kwongkan is the Nyoongar word for “sand”, an element used for dance ceremonies in both Indigenous Australian and Indian cultures. The program note adds that sand also signifies that, in response to the trashing of our planet, most people are putting their “heads in the sand”. This metaphorical bludgeoning is an uneasy foreshadowing of the problems with Kwongkan, which squanders its moments of power by reaching for a simplistic idea of protest.
The show’s performed on the lawn outside the Fremantle Arts Centre, a former prison that has been transformed into a breathtakingly lovely centre of cultural production in Western Australia. Patrons are invited to turn up early and watch the dancers prepare as dusk gathers, and it feels pretty special to be there.
There’s music playing over the PA and pop-up tents selling wood-fired pizzas and drinks. Right in front of us is an empty stage laid on the ground, and behind that rises a grassed hill dotted with venerable trees. Towards the top of the rise is a huge video screen. Quite a few people are picnicking on the hill, and I wonder if they’re performers in disguise.
The show begins with a huge surge of smoke drifting across the lawn and footage of bushfires on the giant video screen, as people in hi-viz vests and loudhailers evacuate the audience members off the performance area. It’s a dramatic opening that signals an aesthetic intention – a direct, even literal, addressing of its chosen themes.
The opening scenes are the most effective sequences of the evening. Nyoongar dancer Ian Wilkes seemingly emerges out of the ground in a kangaroo skin, performing a traditional dance. He’s a thrilling dancer to watch – a little later he performs a kangaroo that is so evocative you almost see the animal in front of your eyes. He’s joined by Isha Sharvani, who shimmies up a rope suspended from one of the trees and swings out over the lawn in a dramatic aerial act, and Kate Harman, who is carrying a huge length of white gauze that billows out with the wind like a living thing.
At this point I felt the hair go up on my skin: there was something unfiltered about the performance here, a sense of direct connection with the sky and the earth and the surrounding trees, that was all but palpable. The dancers’ presences summoned not only a sense of celebration, but of custodianship: and this in turn reminded me of the role of Indigenous knowledge in preserving the natural world, of the Indigenous water defenders here fighting Adani or the destruction of the Murray Darling river system, or in North Dakota, fighting the DAPL pipeline.
This is, of course, a knowledge system that has been systematically destroyed by colonising nations. Extraordinary footage of kidnapped Aboriginal children doing robotic exercises in mission camps, spliced with images of landscapes being blown up by mining companies, or trees being felled for development, made this connection explicit. But after this impressive opening, the dramaturgy began to crumble, and this opening sense of possibility never quite flowered.
What followed were sequences of inarguably gorgeous dance, clumsily interleaved with ventures into direct political protest that often felt out of place and embarrassing. It’s one thing to march in a street with thousands of other people shouting “No jobs on a dead planet” or other slogans: that can be a empowering gathering of communal voice. On a stage, with a few brave souls from the audience joining in, it felt forced and sad and, ultimately, disempowering.
The spoken confessions of their (our) complicities from cast members – forgetting their keep cups, buying plastic-covered vegetables from the supermarket – are clearly intended to draw attention to the systemic problems behind the destruction of our environment, but paradoxically put responsibility back onto individuals by focusing on individual guilt. Again, it simply felt awkward and obvious and, as an analysis of the overwhelming complexity of the crisis we’re in, manifestly inadequate.
The relationship of the video to the movement was sometimes powerful, as when the dancers walked up the hill towards the screen, silhouetted by the shining images – but at other times it was distracting, pulling focus or merely literalising the dance. A long and distressing video sequence about plastic pollution of the ocean felt that it would be more effective simply to watch as a documentary: here, without context, it can only be shocking images. As with the shift to direct protest, putting the dance and video together in these sequences too often softened the impact of both elements.
There’s a place for agitprop – at its best, it can make amazing performance. But Kwongkan is neither fully agitprop nor dance, and sits uncertainly in the space it makes. Art may make us more conscious of the systems in which we live, but it can only do that by implicating us in its thought, by making us aware of how it moves us. Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt, drawn from Russian critic Viktor Shklovsky’s concept of ostranenie, was intended to shock our perceptions by making the familiar world strange, so that we might see it more clearly, more critically.
Howett instead reaches for the familiar: the strangeness that’s evoked in the dance sequences is domesticated by recognisable protest slogans, or images of our planet’s accelerating apocalypse that we see daily on social media feeds and in news articles. Rather than rousing to action, the effect is numbing and disempowering.
It’s not that art can’t be directly political: of course it can, and it often is. It can send you out of a performance vibrating with political anger and desire, which may in turn spark action elsewhere. This show feels like a brave failure: there’s no doubting the sincerity behind the attempt.
Perhaps there is no way to artistically embrace the interconnected catastrophes of mass extinction, planetary pollution, corporate genocide and climate change: it’s simply too confoundingly, terrifyingly huge to imagine. I don’t know. I sometimes think that, as artists, our job is to be custodians of meanings, to remember and extend the complexities that are erased in this age of brutal simplicities. There are some things only art can do well, and I think that is one of them.
I still believe in the possibilities of art, in its restless, infinitely various search for meaning. As I said a year or so ago:
When meanings are destroyed, I turn to the making of meaning. I look for what will answer my anger and grief. I need to awaken in myself and to see awakened in others the possibilities of laughter, beauty, courage, joy, resistance, delight. I need the resources of imagination and knowledge that art can bring to bear on human experience, in all its complexity and contradiction, in all its fullness. The desire for meaning is embedded in every human being, and too many of us suffer the poverties of its absence.
Kwongkan, created and directed by Mark Howett. Performed and choreographed by Ian Wilkes, Isha Sharvani, Phil Thomson, Nadia Martich, Tao Issaro, Kate Harmann and Mark Howett. Design Dev Issao, composer and associate director Tao Issaro, costumes Mand Marky, video design Michael Carmody, videography Mark Howett and Tao Issaro. Ochre Contemporary Dance and Daksha Sheth Dance, presented by Fremantle Arts Centre and Perth Festival. Until February 20. Bookings
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