by Olivia Stewart | 2 September 2023
Northshore, Brisbane festival
Inspired by JG Ballard’s The Drowned World and set in a Perspex maze created by Beyoncé’s stage designer, this dystopian dance-theatre show is truly unique.
There’s a lot riding on Salamander, the centrepiece of this year’s Brisbane festival. More than three years in the making, the 80-minute cross-genre site-specific world premiere is perhaps the most ambitious – and expensive – work ever produced by the festival. Driven by internationally renowned British artists Maxine Doyle and Es Devlin, Salamander’s concept, scale and scope are breathtakingly next-level.
Its climatic themes though are universal, as is the production’s intended reach – backed by an extended 21-performance season running the entire festival. Artistic director Louise Bezzina is banking on word-of-mouth to inspire new arts audiences to “take a risk” by trying something different. For those people, Salamander may well be outside their comfort zone – but regardless of what they make of it, there is no doubt Salamander is an “experience”. And an epic one. Afterwards, the thought that kept coursing through my mind was “Go big, or go home”.
The reclaimed industrial portside Northshore at Hamilton is an apt entry point to a dystopian future. Inside the historic Associated Minerals Consolidated Limited warehouse we confront a world under glass. (Well, Perspex, actually.) Our first view is over a luminous house-sized maze of cubicles, passages and platforms, strikingly reflected against a black expanse. You can remain there; alternatively, walking down to watch from the lower thrust vantage allows you to confirm that this is actually water. A banana lounge appears to float on the surface.
Before the show starts, we’re given about 15 minutes to admire Devlin’s beautiful set – the maze could easily be a gallery piece – and contemplate the feat of realising such a design. Devlin originally conceived the maze for her first collaboration with Doyle, Here Not Here, for Swedish dance company GöteborgsOperans Danskompani last year. The acclaimed installation artist and designer’s pioneering creations have been admired by millions around the globe, featuring in the London Olympics closing ceremony, the 2022 Super Bowl half-time show and concerts by Adele, Beyoncé and the Weeknd.
The serenity is broken by the arrival of the first of eight Australasian Dance Collective artists, emerging from the floor. Their movements, alongside narration, reveal they are trapped in a world made uninhabitable by rising temperatures, humidity and sea levels. Contemplating this future prophesised in 1962 by JG Ballard’s novel The Drowned World, some humans venture outside and begin metamorphosing into amphibians. The salamander’s bright yellow swimsuit is the first of costume designer Bruce McKinven’s bold colour statements.
All of this makes for some striking movement passages exploring the varying emotional and physical states. A simple yet powerful motif repeated in the work’s second half is a height-ascending lineup representing the evolution of humanity.
The end of the first part is marked by a final send-off featuring celebratory red attire and wine, eventually flooded by a blood red wash of light (Ben Hughes’ design is spot-on). After choosing where to stand in the first half, we are ushered to seats to watch the second, a “last supper” on a circular platform.
The 12-foot long orange table represents much more than its practical purpose. There’s its integral communal role, reflected in a recorded recitation of Joy Harjo’s poem Perhaps the World Ends Here. Then, spinning from a central axis, propelled by the performers, it symbolises time – speeding up, slowing down, memory – and also a life raft. Intensity, urgency, desperation, tenderness and joy all feature as the dancers struggle to hold on to each other. Water showers from above; as it pools, slides and spins extend the movement vocabulary impressively.
The performance is a marathon for the dancers, who developed the versatile choreography in conjunction with Doyle. Their physicality is nuanced and emotional; both as an ensemble and individually, they are all exceptional.
Composer Rachael Dease’s sound design comes to the fore in the second half, as vocalist and conduit linking the passages. While Verdi’s Requiem Dies Irae was unexpected (and dragged out the climax), it provides a transition back to the theme of adaptation, survival, rebirth and a conclusion ultimately offering hope.
Taking dance theatre into a heightened experiential realm, Salamander is a work of global stature.
Salamander is on at Brisbane festival until 24 September.