KIERAN FINNANE reviews
A central metaphor for My Desert is Delicious, a performance in development by the Dusty Feet Dance Collective, is tinned Spam and tinned food more generally. It seemed to be a way of acknowledging that the perspectives being presented on this place – Alice Springs, the central desert – were imported. A good starting point perhaps, but I was left wondering why the show seemed to stay there – outsiders looking in – when at least half of the dancers on stage – Melissa Kerl, Miriam Nicholls, Hayley Michener – have years of local experience behind them, living, working, performing, choreographing, producing.
The work is a hybrid – primarily dance but with a few scripted sections which encouraged a narrative reading of the whole.
The six women arrive, picking their way into the place, stepping from tin to tin as if across a prickle patch – effective imagery for the tentative first steps in a new environment. They seem to have come from places where they have felt only half alive – their bodies heavy with sleep draped across one another, or rolling sluggishly away.
As might be expected in Alice they are awakened, energised, but it’s complicated, claustrophobic at times. The claustrophobia was well expressed – I could feel the heaviness of it.
Then they start to shed layers – cardigans are the first to go. Soon they’re adding flannel shirts to their dresses, some start to wear shorts and by the end they’ve all stripped down to the essentials (black dance gear).
Meanwhile the first scripted section takes us through every cliché ever uttered about Alice – “came for a day 15 years ago”, “if you’ve seen the Todd flow three times…” etc etc. This was done quite consciously, I’m sure, but it didn’t seem go anywhere. There was not another scripted section in reply, with something more subtle or original to say. Or if there was, it was undermined by how it was handled. Here I’m thinking of the individual stories that each performer tried to tell of how she came to be here. She got no more than couple of sentences out before someone talked over the top of her and by the end it was simply a cacophony.
What was this trying to say? That we’ve all got a story but no-one’s listening or they don’t matter anyway? How dispiriting.
The river does come down in the show. This is a striking sequence, with the dancers sliding across the stage, pushing the tinned food before them until in the end it all joins up, hundreds of tins, somehow reminiscent of the slowly gathering flow of the Todd, and the flotsam and jetsam bobbing along on the surface. At a metaphoric level, it was perhaps a statement about the river, standing in for the power of the land more broadly, sweeping all before it.
At the end the women are out bush. They climb a hill at dawn, as the moon sets and the sun rises. There are a few simple utterances about this experience, meant to summon the value the women have found in being in the desert. Strangely the words were left to do the work. The choreography seemed to reach a stasis.
There was no writing credit for the show. The scripted sequences seem to be important in carrying its meaning, but they are under-developed. Working with a writer would be worth considering.
The show also has original music. I was wondering about it until I realised I was hearing about Alice in the lyrics. It’s a cool, stylish kind of sound that, for me, simply did not take root in the desert.
In the production notes the dancers speak of how rewarding it has been to work with director Victoria Chiu and her partner Roland Cox, also a dancer as well as a musician, who composed with score with Matt Rodd:
“As independent dancers in Alice Springs, where most of our work involves teaching and leading others in the community, it is fantastic to be directed by artists with such a wealth of experience as Roland and Victoria. Their enthusiasm and commitment to Dusty Feet has seen the dancers gain skills, develop interstate networks and find new inspirations for choreography. We aim to hold a further development of My Desert is Delicious in 2015, and produce a performance season in Darwin as well as Alice Springs.”
The work to date has been developed over three intensive periods, with the third culminating in the performance I saw last Friday in the Centralian College Theatrette.
The desire to work with experienced professionals from elsewhere is understandable and I can imagine the pleasure for the dancers in getting to perform without shouldering all of the responsibility for content.
But Dusty Feet have set the bar high for themselves. They were responsible for the excellent Dance Jam After Dark in last year’s Alice Desert Festival – a highlight, if not the highlight of the whole program. It showed them tuned into place in a way that only people of everyday local experience could be. It told the stories, through its dance and imagery, of where people came from as well as where they have found themselves and it had us all ‘listening’.
They need to find ways to bring some of this insight, energy and flair to My Desert is Delicious. (See video clip.)