Disclaimer: roadkill is actually, seriously scary. Cinematic horror is not the most popular choreographic pursuit, but collaborative Brisbane-based company Splintergroup suggests it’s a frontier in contemporary dance worth visiting. With roadkill, their dance theatre thriller set in Australia’s mythic outback, Splintergroup makes its Montreal debut to conclude Cinquième Salle’s three-part Australian dance series.
There’s no shame in a good set-up: Dead of night. A red gravel-pocked jalopy that won’t start. A young couple (Gavin Webber and Gabrielle Nankivell) stranded. A flickering phone booth, line dead. A scruffy plaid-shirted stranger (Grayson Millwood) with a knack for sudden entrances. And all the while, the paranoia-drenched desolation of the bush. Great.
roadkill is more evidence of contemporary choreographers’ preoccupation with the cinematic. Created in 2007, the dance play takes B-rate psychological thriller fare and runs it through a Lynchian, nonlinear narrative – quite a different challenge for the stage – to harrowing effect. The plot becomes impossible to follow as it starts tripping out on its own fear factor. But high cinematic effects anchor the work and keep us hooked: frantic flashlight searching; footfalls in the dark; smoking, crashed cars; a mysterious hailstorm of white gravel.
Though the suspense-building drags at times, the mise-en-scène has shining moments that beat the movies, like when the stranger first appears and Nankivell is left alone in the car as the men confront each other outside. Because only the inside of the car is miked, their exchange is vague and muted, and our perspective is as trapped as hers. All there is is the girl’s breathing, growing heavy as she gives herself over to panic and claustrophobia. No, don’t get out! we telepath.
Danced passages, neatly arranged into solos and duets, explore the characters’ psychic worlds and add the piece’s third dimension. A window into their inner lives, the choreography works best when movement and poetic image converge to produce human portrait. In Nankivell’s first duet with Webber, she grasps drowsily, but insistently, at the surrounding space thick as sap. She tries to waft away, he tightens his grip; when she reaches skyward, he presses her hands and shoulders back down. She stays submerged.
In its more revved-up registers, the piece’s movement style borrows heavily from the signature high-risk, ballistic techniques of Belgian innovator Wim Vandekeybus, for whom Webber and Nankivell both danced. Go-for-broke barrel jumps, big spills and bruising knee drops all come in handy, for example, when the three decide to hurl themselves repeatedly on, off and against the (poor) Toyota. While flame-tressed Nankivell is particularly gutsy in her performance, movement invention is unremarkable as a whole when compared to the work’s very novel-feeling evocation of horror.
roadkill creators Webber, Millwood and Sarah-Jayne Howard (replaced in these performances by Nankivell) met as company members of the renowned Meryl Tankard Australian Dance Theatre in the 90’s. Tankard, a longtime performer with Pina Bausch, along with compatriots such as Lloyd Newsom (of London-based DV8 Physical Theatre), Gideon Obarzanek (Chunky Move) and Garry Stewart (Australian Dance Theatre), have been seminal figures in what has emerged in recent years as a brand of dynamic dance theatre distinctly Australian. Its young collectives like Splintergroup and Kate Champion’s Force Majeure, who opened this Australia series last October, are exciting troupes indeed and Cinquième Salle has scored a coup in tapping them. Next up … Sweden?
Splintergroup made their Montreal debut at Cinquième Salle on Wednesday, February 10 and will perform roadkill through February 13, with two shows on Saturday. Check the Cinquième Salle site for information and tickets, (514) 842-2112 or the Place des Arts box office.