by Nick Dent | 5 September 2023
The Sydney Morning Herald
Water world: Dystopian dance theatre piece makes a splash
You don’t have to look very hard at the 2023 program to find Brisbane Festival’s big-ticket, gold-standard, flagship show.
Artistic director Louise Bezzina has enticed major UK choreographer Maxine Doyle – along with Doyle’s design collaborator, Es Devlin, who has worked with Beyonce, Adele, the Weeknd and U2 – to stage a new work here.
And what a work it is. Immersive (in more ways than one), Salamander will be talked about for some time by those lucky enough to see it. It’s a beg, borrow, commit-a-crime-to-get-a-ticket scenario.
The venue is the repurposed Associated Minerals Consolidated warehouse, a vast tin shed amid the industrial desolation of Northshore.
Audience members are ushered into a red neon-lit passageway that twists and turns like an intestine, or birth canal. Emerging onto a darkened gangway, you’re able to take your place overlooking Devlin’s first impressive set: a transparent plastic maze set within a shallow pool.
While the sound of waves crashes through the space, dancers emerge from the blackness, their bodies reflected and refracted in the labyrinth.
The narrative that unfolds is inspired by the prescient 1962 J.G. Ballard novel The Drowned World. Half-naked figures climb into hazmat suits and thrash about in the shallows. The salamander herself, a figure in a frilly swimming costume, stalks through the water on all fours like a demonic Esther Williams.
Voiceovers speak of climate catastrophe, and yet somehow the dance evolves into a wild party with glasses of wine and laughing revellers.
After leaning over the balcony for 45 minutes, the audience is invited to take their seats at the northern end of the hangar, surrounding a lengthy dining table. The circular set here is lit from above by a halo of light that brings to mind Ken Adam’s designs for Stanley Kubrick’s apocalyptic film Dr Strangelove.
Surprises are in store as the drama picks up pace, with jaw-dropping coups de theatre, including an operatic climax. The table becomes a propeller and, ultimately, a life raft.
Endless rain, rising ocean levels, civilisation on the brink: Salamander has powerful things to say about the near future, but it never shows its hand too bluntly.
Rather, it offers sublime and harrowing images. The eight dancers, including members of Brisbane’s Australasian Dance Collective, give sinuous and gut-wrenching performances. The level of technical proficiency is very high – body strength and balance are put to some extreme tests here.
Doyle and Devlin’s highly cinematic vision is amplified by the shadowplay of lighting designer Ben Hughes, while costumes in primary colours by Bruce McKinven evoke the ritualism of another Kubrick movie, Eyes Wide Shut.
Another key contribution comes from Australian composer Rachael Dease, who appears throughout the show singing her own evocative songs while clad in forest green – a Mother Earth figure striding calmly through the storm.
There’s a lot to be said for Brisbane Festival throwing the dice and spending the big bucks on a production of this calibre. The only problem is that seats are limited – just 200 for each performance.
A spectacular fable of evolution, extinction and rebirth, nothing quite like Salamander has splashed down on this side of the river before.