Review: Axeman Lullaby ~ theatre notes

Monday, August 11, 2008

Review: Axeman Lullaby

Axeman Lullaby, choreographed and directed by Phillip Adams, score by David Chisholm. Lighting design by Paul Jackson and Niklas Pajanti, costume design by Doyle Barrow. Musicians: Aaron Barnden and Peter Dumsday. Dancers: Joanne White, Clair Peters, Carlee Mellow, Stuaty Shugg and Jacon Brown. Axeman: Laurence O’Toole. BalletLab @ Chunky Move Studios until August 17. Bookings: (03) 9685 5111

When you enter the studio, it is filled with an edgeless darkness: a spotlight shines aggressively on the audience, forcing you to blink, and the air is soft with smoke, so you can’t see where the walls are. And then the lights go out and you are sitting in impenetrable darkness. For a moment, nothing happens: and then, unbelievably, you hear the rhythmic fall of an axe, and the woodchips from the blow skittering to the ground.

That can’t be right, you think. Nobody could be chopping wood in this darkness, they’d chop their own feet off. But the steady strokes continue, and the lights slowly rise, deep red, like a murky dawn or a dream of blood, and there is indeed an axeman, steadily braced before a log thicker than a man, bringing the axe down on the wood again and again. And you can see that the edge of the axe is fine and dangerous, he lands his axe and the chips fly out and land on the floor with a sound as light as rain, the blade goes deep into the wood and is lifted and falls again and again.

This is no mimesis of work, but the work itself. The axeman is world champion woodcutter Laurence O’Toole (which is why he can chop a log in the dark without dismembering himself) and his constant physical presence at the back of the deep stage is a present reality that pins Phillip Adams’ dancework Axeman Lullaby to the heavy work of manual labour. And it reminds us that the settlement of Australia was as much a war against trees as against the indigenous inhabitants. The forests of early European Australia rang with the music of axe on wood.

And, as in the story of Jimmy Governor, a half-caste Aboriginal who went on a murderous rampage in 1900, sometimes the axe, the weapon of conquest, was turned against the conquerors. Jimmy Governor’s life was the basis of Thomas Keneally’s novel The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith, which was made into a film by Fred Schepsi in 1978, and also inspired Les Murray’s poem The Ballad of Jimmy Governor.

As a symbol of settler anxiety and buried white guilt, it’s hard to go past the resonances of this story. It has crucial elements of Australian bush gothic: the murder of women and children, left vulnerable in the bush; the sexual stain of miscenegation and its bloody revenge; the brooding hostility of the landscape itself. Phillip Adams has loosely – and sometimes not so loosely – drawn on this story for Axeman’s Lullaby, which in its various movements works up to a climax of violence, with a brief denouement of lament.

Most of the sound is made by the dancers and the axeman. At the beginning, the floor is covered with a square made of different lengths of wood, which the dancers with their (blunted) axes work in stylised representations of labour, and which are then thrown into a disordered heap – a movement that sounds, as my partner remarked, like a glockenspiel exploding. The whole studio becomes an instrument, played by the bodies of the dancers. This percussive inventiveness is counterpoised against a minimal score by David Chisholm for piano and violin.

The dance is a precise, anxious phsyical language that moves between tropes from classical ballet and contemporary dance, with a thrilling explosion of indigenous dance from Jacob Brown, who also advised on the indigenous themes for the show. Adams is a profound exploiter of melodrama, walking a narrow edge between naive passion and stylised sophistication; his shows have a rough and direct emotional quality belied by the precision of the choreography and its fine expression by the dancers. It’s a quality, for what it’s worth, that strikes me as very Australian: you sense something similar in the ballads of Nick Cave.

It makes Axeman’s Lullaby a wholly absorbing experience: it’s a short but densely packed work that annihilates any sense of the passing of time. It's constantly surprising: the only moment I returned to earth was when some scenes from Schepsi’s film were projected onto the back wall, which introduced a more literal language that seemed tautological here. A brilliant, uneasy work.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Dance theatre at its best. The dancers left me exhausted as their dancing was very intense.Loved the rhythm of the axes at the begining and then the lullaby of the dances moving the pieces of wood on the floor at the end.A different way to take a look into our australian history. Well done everyone.