Flip The Script: Theatre Down Under

This is a new theatre series covering artistic experiences outside the city of Chicago. Kristin Idaszak writes about the various works they saw at the Sydney Festival. 

A few weeks after the bomb cyclone deep froze Chicago and floods battered the southeast coast of Australia in late December 2022, I arrived at the Sydney Festival, an international festival of performance and culture in Australia. These meteorological events, as well as Australia’s massive brush fires of 2019 and 2020, were on my mind. I was thinking about the weather because I hoped traveling eight thousand miles from home and exploring unfamiliar aesthetic and literal landscapes would reinvigorate my own creative practice, which focuses largely on the environment and the climate crisis. 

Emerging from my own pandemic-induced artistic hibernation, I was eager to experience work that offered new creative methodologies, and reconceived the look, feel, and sound of environmental performance. My first week at the festival consisted of a double-header of pieces inspired by climate change, Sun  & Sea and Polar Force, followed by a dance theatre performance grounded in First Nations dramaturgy.

Sun & Sea is a Lithuanian experimental opera currently touring the globe. A durational performance, the 19 principles and 80 local Sydney-based choristers (plus a dog!) perform the hour-long opera on a loop. The audience promenades above the stage, looking down on the artists like voyeurs, anthropologists, or an impassive deity witnessing our destruction of the planet. This transcendent opera has no beginning, no ending, and no story to speak of. The music is ethereal, the choral interludes almost chantlike. The color palette is like a popsicle stand. The languor of sunbathing becomes a metaphor for climate inertia and inaction, though the piece’s message is delivered subtly, with a heavy dose of absurdity. In a song called Wealthy Mommy Aria, a white woman sings about her diving trip: “What a relief that the Great Barrier Reef has a restaurant and hotel!/We sat down to sip our piña coladas – included in the price!/They taste better under the water,/Simply a paradise!” 

A few days later, I was walking along a clifftop trail from the iconic Bondi Beach, following the sinuous coastline above the beaches that dot Sydney’s shores. I turned the corner around a cliff and thought I had stumbled back into the performance at Sydney Town Hall. Looking down at the beachgoers, I could almost hear the otherworldly strains from Sun & Sea – a song about building a post apocalyptic world via 3D printer: “When my body dies, I will remain,/In an empty planet without birds, animals, and corals./Yet with the press of a single button,/I will remake this world again:/3D corals never fade away!” This eerie song, which marked the end of my viewing experience, haunted me.

If Sun & Sea evoked climate change in Australia, the immersive installation Polar Force made me think of blizzard-ravaged Chicago. Mixing audio recordings made in Antarctica with live sound, Polar Force is a sort of postdramatic polar theatre, an art form that dates back to the 19th century when polar explorers staged performances during the months of total darkness while they overwintered during their expeditions. 

Polar Force embodies the chaotic experience and psychic landscape of overwintering in Antarctica. Primarily a soundscape, the audience is escorted into a white inflatable makeshift field research station for the duration of the performance. The resultant journey goes from the inscrutable, to the soporific, to the sublime. Two performers make music with melting ice and compressed air on a contraption that looks like a cross between a science lab and a jam band session. The hut heats up as the performance goes on, prompting several of my fellow audience members to nod off. The last quarter of the piece recreates an Antarctic blizzard with a surprising verisimilitude. The audience is plunged into cold again, and darkness, then blinded with intermittent strobing, and battered by an ear-splitting recording of katabatic wind. There was so much reverb my sternum was vibrating, and I was half-afraid it would set off my defibrillator. It didn’t. 

An Antarctic blizzard is an impossible experience to recreate onstage visually–any attempt to represent it literally would compress and confine it. Aurally, however, it’s terrifying. Structurally, Polar Force charts our emotional responses to the climate crisis: concerned attention that slides into climate fatigue or apathy, followed by fear while you are personally in the throes of a climate change event. But what happens afterward? Once the ice is melted and the lights come up, it’s up to us to make meaning and take action.

Tracker, a dance theatre piece that premiered at the Sydney Festival, explores the legacy of Alexander “Tracker” Riley, a Wiradjuri man employed by the colonial police force to find missing people in the bush. The piece features an actor who embodies both Tracker (Uncle Alec) and his descendant Archie (based on co-director and choreographer Daniel Riley) and three dancers who create and inhabit the world around them. Though not explicitly environmental, touches on a central tenet of climate justice: decolonization, indigenous sovereignty, and right relationship to the land. 

Archie is on the cusp of fatherhood, striving to connect with his history. Archie searches for his Uncle through the colonial written archive as well as oral histories and the land itself. The stage space is circular, like time in the piece. Three curtains, two made of diaphanous fabric and one made of hanging vines, swirl through the space, changing the audience’s view as the dancers manipulate them. Memory, archive, and landscape are permeable—shifting and yet immutable. As a settler-colonizer from the United States visiting another settler-colonial state, I was struck by Tracker’s observation as he is seeking out a particularly elusive bushranger, “You can’t walk on Country without leaving a mark.” Tracker was conceived and created by an all First Nations creative team, including two Project Elders. In a post-show conversation, Daniel Riley describes the artistic process as an act of tracking itself—using “dance and theatre and art to track [his] way back into a larger kinship system.” 

What I was most struck by was the way these works created—or were created by—their environment. In Chicago, our climate is mercurial. Our seasons have shifted gradually but unignorably. It snows in May and we have 70º days in November. I drove to rehearsal in September along a totally submerged Western Avenue in a flash flood. And yet our theatre spaces often conform to a singular concept of environment. We are beholden to the black box, a theatrical space that’s known for its transmutability but is deceptively the same show after show.

These spaces are often sumptuously designed, elegantly staged, and have increasingly evolved from Chicago’s signature kitchen sink realism to include poetic, evocative, and abstracted onstage worlds. Yet I can’t help but hunger for an even more fundamental consideration of environment in our theatrical ecosystem. Work that helps us emerge from the comfort of our climate-controlled theatres, toward attunement with our environment. If we don’t infuse our work with this primordial urgency, we risk falling into a sort of aesthetic impassivity that mirrors climate apathy.

There are of course, a thousand exceptions that prove the rule, from Pivot Arts to Albany Park Theatre Project to theatre that pops up in the city parks across the summer, and many more. But I wonder how it might feed our artistic community and our audiences to have a city-wide festival that celebrates this kind of non-narrative, inter- and undisciplinary work, and that co-equally cross pollinates international work and cultivates local artists. The results might be mesmerizing, or they might be total flops. But even those failures might make us sensible to the shifts in the weather.

The Sydney Festival takes place on unceded lands of the Gadigal People of the Eora Nation.

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Sun & Sea credits:
Concept and development Rugilė Barzdžiukaitė, Vaiva Grainytė and Lina Lapelytė 
Director and set designer Rugilė Barzdžiukaitė 
Lyrics Vaiva Grainytė 
Composer and music director Lina Lapelytė
Curator Lucia Pietroiusti 
Tour producer Aušra Simanavičiūtė 
Production manager and stage manager Erika Urbelevič 
Technical director Lique Van Gerven 
Libretto translation (from Lithuanian to English) Rimas Užgiris
Sound engineer Romuald Chaloin Galiauskas
Singing performers Aliona Alymova, Teresė Andrijauskaitė, Milda Andrijauskaitė-Bakanauskienė, Svetlana Bagdonaitė, Marco Cisco, Daniel Monteagudo Garcia, Claudia Graziadei, Ieva Marmienė, Artūras Miknaitis, Vytautas Pastarnokas, Egle Paškevičienė, Lucas Lopes Pereira, Salomėja Petronytė, Kalliopi Petrou
Choir Sydney Philharmonia Choirs with the Youth Choir BALSIS, members of River City Voices and Sydney Gay & Lesbian Choir.
Performers Raminta Barzdžiukienė, Jonas Statkevičius, Vincentas Korba, Mantas Petraitis, Jeronimas Petraitis, Pranas Petraitis, Juozas Petraitis

Polar Force credits:
Speak Percussion and Carriageworks
CO-DIRECTOR Clare Britton
PERFORMERS Matthias Schack-Arnott & Eugene Ughetti
SOUND ENGINEER Tilman Robinson
PRODUCER Ashley Dyer

Tracker credits:
Australian Dance Theatre in association with ILBIJERRI Theatre Company
Co-Director & Choreographer Daniel Riley 
Co-Director Rachael Maza AM 
Writers Ursula Yovich and Amy Sole
Set Designer  Jonathan Jones
Composer & Sound Designer James Henry 
Composer & Live Musician Gary Watling
Lighting Designer Chloë Ogilvie
Costume Designer Ailsa Paterson
Performers Tyrel Dulvarie, Rika Hamaguchi, Abbie-lee Lewis, Kaine Sultan-Babij          
Development Performer Ari Maza Long
Dramaturgs Amy Sole and Jennifer Medway 
Project Elders Aunty Shirley Mathews, Aunty Ann Cribb
Wiradjuri Language Translator Aunty Dianne Riley McNaboe
Scenic Artist  Merindah Funnell
Producer Erin Milne
Production Manager Simon Greer
Stage Manager Lyndie Li Wan Po 
Technical Supervisor Clinton Camac
Header image by Jonathan VDK, performer Tyrel Dulvarie

Cover photo is of the clifftop trail from Bondi to Coogee taken by Shane Kelly.

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