REVIEW: This Fragile Planet (Auckland Fringe)

Review by Cynthia Lam

[We Are our Ancestors’ Wildest Dreams]

Billed as a dance theatre work of ‘artivism’, This Fragile Planet is a beautiful dance theatre work that combines storytelling, dance and poetry to explore the complex relationship between humanity and our natural environment. A collaboration between The New Zealand Dance Company (Artistic Director Shona McCullagh), The Conch (Directors Nina Nawalowalo and Tom McCrory), choreographer Ross McCormack, a cast of six performers (Carl Tolentino, Chrissy Kokiri, Ngaere Jenkins, Elijah Kennar, Arlo Gibson and Ren Slatter) and John Gibson as composer/organ player, the audience is brought onto a journey that charters our evolving relationship with the planet, centred around New Zealand using a Pacific lens.

Utilising the majestic space of the Auckland Town Hall with its 17-metre high ceiling and the organ as a stunning backdrop, Rona Ngahuia Osborne’s added set evokes a naturalistic environment consisting of earth-coloured ropes and fabrics. The audience is either seated on chairs or on cushions on the floor placed in a semi-circular shape around the stage, which immediately transports me back to a time in which humans were more ‘at one’ with nature, our fellow humans, and the world around us. Arlo Gibson opens the show, barefoot, listening in awe to the sounds of the forest, then reciting some beautiful lines of poetry expressing an appreciation of nature: ‘austere angel of wind was our first construction…drunk on sunlight we listen to a monotonous language…the nile tree trembles… it could be rain, it could be tears’. 

A warm yellow spotlight is constantly focused on a grey palm-sized stone placed at the front of the stage. The dancers appear and begin to ‘interact’ with this rather ordinary-looking stone, giving it significance. The dancers wear heavy fur coats to portray themselves as animals, waltzing around in groups and pairs to a rather comedic effect, eliciting laughter from the audience. Tension and struggle end this segment when a scene depicting the forced removal of the animals’ fur coat follows.

A change to a thudding mechanical sound signals the next segment in which man begins to become fascinated with words through the frantic use of a typewriter. The performers dance with a piece of paper, spin around in delight with it, are fascinated and puzzled by it. I interpreted this to mark mankind’s move away from the natural to the more ‘civilized’ and ‘modern’, which also means the destruction of trees and the rainforest to produce mass amounts of paper. 

The dance sequences and movements choreographed by Ross McCormack produce some memorable visual imagery: in duet and group pieces bodies are intertwined together on the floor, moving as one; a performer climbs over a ‘wall’ is created with a large piece of fabric. The versatility and precision of the dancers only strengthens the performance. Special mention goes to Carl Tolentino for his graceful movements and natural demeanour. After an arresting Pacific inspired group performance, the audience is encouraged to rub our hands together. The swishing sound grows in momentum, reminding me of insects when they rub their hands together, bringing us all as a community of people back in touch with the natural world.

Storytelling, dance and poetry are mixed to create meaningful expressions of imagery. The music and lighting add to the mood and visual spectacle. I particularly enjoy the juxtaposition of the organ player wearing a tailored suit (John Gibson as sound design and composition) seen in the background of the entire work against nature-inspired costumes of the performers and set design. The piece quotes poetry from Persian mystic poet Hafiz, and my companion recognised poetry from James K. Baxter, who was possibly used to situate the piece in New Zealand. Although most of the poetry is beautiful, some of the lines interspersed within the work come off as a bit general and trite, and I wonder whether they are all necessary to compliment the narrative or aesthetic of the piece.

All in all, this beautifully poetic dance theatre work conjurs up stunning imagery in order to present a narrative and raise meaningful questions in regards to our complex relationship with the planet and destruction of the natural world. I wrote the word ‘epic’ at the end of the performance – although the performance felt intimate, the themes raised are heroic and grand in scale. Due to the crisis humankind is now facing in regards to the environment, the feeling I was left with was not one of doom, but one of wonder and warmth where humanity and nature exist as one, with the potential for redemption.

This Fragile Planet is presented by New Zealand Dance Company and The Conch and played at the Auckland Town Hall as part of Fringe Town and Auckland Fringe, 25 to 26 February, 2020. 

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  1. 2020 NZ dance calendar Jan – March – allmyownwords

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