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through violence to contemplation

alex ben mayor: balletlab’s axeman lullaby


Axeman Lullaby, BalletLab Axeman Lullaby, BalletLab
photo Jeff Busby
WE ENTER A DEEPLY FOGGED SPACE UPSTAIRS AT THE CHUNKY MOVE STUDIOS. A SPLINTERING THUD REVERBERATES THROUGH THE DARK, THE KIND OF VIBRATION THAT LODGES ITSELF DEEP WITHIN THE CHEST. THERE IS SOMETHING INCREDIBLY UNSETTLING ABOUT A HEAVY AXE SWUNG HARD IN THE BLACKNESS. IT’S NOT SO MUCH FEAR OF PERSONAL INJURY AS INJURY OF THE OTHER. AND THIS IS A FEAR THAT IS HEWN INTO WITH FERVOUR IN CHOREOGRAPHER PHILLIP ADAMS’ LATEST WORK.

Black shadowed sentinels stand in the green gloom of the clearing fog when we finally make out the image of the axeman. Laurence O’Toole, a real World Champion axeman is the Goliath standing at the back of the cavernous studio diligently making woodchips from a barkless hardwood trunk. A deep russet blazes clear across the stage, a reminder of the infernal fury trapped within the heart of the wood. Gumbooted and feathered women beat out a rhythm with planks and offcuts as David Chisholm’s composition works along with the grain, the metronome of the woodchop echoed by piano and violin.

Centrestage is initially dominated by an ultra-cubist arrangement of timber yard offcuts. Decking planks, boards, frame, hardwoods and structural pine form a hard-lined square that the dancers readily demolish and rearrange into a haphazard pile close to the audience. In this juxtaposition of the rigid geometry of machined planks with the trunks of raw timber surrounding the axeman I get a visual parallel of the colonial compulsion to impose order onto the chaos of Australia, to create structure from the scrub. There is a frenetic and fearful energy to the dancers’ destruction of this geometry just as the clearing of huge swathes of the continent shallowly masked a fear of an Australian bush that harboured ‘miasmatic’ disease vapours and covered good agricultural soil.

With the appearance of women dressed in high Victoriana, the work becomes gothic in its heightened tension, the squeak of a rusted baby carriage mirrored in the slivered harmonies of a violin. The melodrama of the gothic is not such a distorted prism with which to view Australia’s history and sense of self-identification. An arid and desolate land, with an unknown interior harbouring the fear of isolation, displacement and death, is decidedly gothic. This is even before we consider the anchoring image of this work—the axe.

An axe is sharp, heavy and dangerous. By contrast Adams’ choreography is lithe, fluid and fragile: an intricate joinery of movement with all the complexity of fine lace. Wood chips fly and two dancers on the ground become sounding blocks for a double axe swing. Shifts in lighting states are punctuated by axe blows, greenish shafts stab through the milky swirl, reminiscent of light shining through the holes of a weathered tin work shed. Dancers appear trapped in their gestures and in vain try to connect with one another through birdsong.

Lurking at the back of the space for the majority of the performance, like a splinter in the concept of terra nullius, Jacob Brown represents the markedly different Indigenous connection to the land and enters the action with a rhythm of the feet. His presence sends a raw and dynamic energy through the group. Dancers begin to beat on the woodpile, making mockery of their ‘civilisation’ as the axeman disrobes to the collective intake of audience breath. This energy does not affect Brown, he works in counterpoint, creating his own rhythm and vocabulary of movement. Rather than linear precision, he works with arcs, stamps and a deep rooting to the earth. Eventually all others are drawn into his meditative geometry, the five dancers with wood transcribing the circle of Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man.

From horror leading to contemplation, BalletLab’s team succeeds in crafting a delicate lullaby to hush the collective, historical and habitual fears of arrived inhabitants to the spirit of this country. And with reference to this, perhaps the last word should be left to one of the first invokers of the power of the Australian landscape. “And the sun sank again on the grand Australian bush—the nurse and tutor of eccentric minds, the home of the weird, and of much that is different from things in other lands” (Henry Lawson, The Bush Undertaker, 1892).


BalletLab, Axeman Lullaby, artistic director, choreographer Phillip Adams, performers Joanne White, Clair Peters, Carlee Mellow, Stuart Shugg, Jacob Brown, Laurence O’Toole, composer David Chisholm, lighting Paul Jackson, Niklas Pajanti, costumes Doyle Barrow; Chunky Move Studios, Melbourne, August 7-17

RealTime issue #87 Oct-Nov 2008 pg. 40

© Alex Ben-Mayor; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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