Review: Chunky Move - Mortal Engine at Southbank Centre
On its first London visit, Australian company Chunky Move’s 2008 production Mortal Engine repeatedly appears to speed up and peter out, or have its brakes abruptly applied. A show with potential, frustratingly unfulfilled. Misleadingly billed as a “dance-video-music-laser performance”, Mortal Engine would be better represented as a laser-video-music-dance performance, in order of the precedence, quantity and effect of each element.
Frieder Weiss (who describes himself as an ‘engineer in the arts’ ) has designed an interactive system which combines video images, laser beams, lighting and sound effects with the highly physical movements of the dancers. It is undoubtedly a clever idea, but one that is not fully explored and demonstrated. Dancers roll onto the sloped stage – their shadows are enlarged and blurred, and look rather like amoeba cells under a fuzzy microscope. A solo dancer is made to look like she is on a bed of marbles, which scatter and gather in the directions she sends her limbs towards. The cast of six are undeniably strong dancers, wringing their bodies into extreme, animalistic positions (choreography by company founder/director Gideon Obarzanek). But the technology outshines and overwhelms the dancing.
The video, when on its own, is far more striking. The show begins with a projection of concentric circles shrinking, followed by a dizzying lesson in geometry featuring lines, planes and ellipses. Swirls of spaghetti break up into little grains of coffee, which are then filtered until their origin is forgotten. It is like looking into a kaleidoscope, on a rollercoaster. Ben Frost’s score adds to the alchemy, with sounds ranging from a stirring hum to disconcerting beeps on a heart rate monitor.Despite the show’s examining relationships, the emotional content promises to build but is interrupted by a nifty projection or a blackout. One duet features a couple rolling over each other in bed, showing their interdependence as they never lose physical contact. Their relationship is not without difficulty though, as the sound suggests them rolling in gooey caramel. Another seems to hint at insecurity, selfishness – the woman clings onto the man desperately; she is illuminated, while he is always in the dark. As bracing as these duets are, they don’t come to full bloom.
The climax of the show comes at the end, where green laser beams emanate from the depths of the stage, piercing right through the auditorium. In a slow sweep from left to right, the lasers scan the audience like a barcode – a strangely unsettling move. I feel in a space of seconds, so vulnerable, so scrutinized, so raw.
In a show which largely comes off as being quite distant and cold, much like a sci-fi film, green lasers – the most one-dimensional piece of technology in the performance – surprisingly signify the human need for love and contact; the endearing cries of “E.T. phone home”.
Germaine Cheng is a graduate of the Rambert School of Ballet & Contemporary Dance. She writes for English National Ballet’s Dance is the Word blog and contributes regularly to londondance.com