Dark Night and Quake
Jill Orr and Hellen Sky
Thursday 21st March, 2019
Magdalen Laundries, Abbotsford Convent
Presented as part of Dance Massive 2019
Director & Performer: Jill Orr
Sound design: Steve Bell
Costume design: Alison Kelly
Set design: Jill Orr, Nick Aguis, Aaron Poupard (ARM architecture)
Set construction: George Douralis (Gamma Doura Australia)
Choreography & Performance: Hellen Sky, Myriam Gourfink
Sound design & Performance: Mark Cauvin, Kasper T. Toeplitz
Lighting design: Nik Pajanti
It is the smell of composted ingredients I notice first as I make my way along the passage. A blend of animal manure, rainforest mulch, leaf mould, washed river sand, and loam, giving off that warm garden smell. A mound of steamy soil, piled high in the Magdalen laundry[i] of the Abbotsford Convent; a soil mix for holding moisture in a space still damp from its history. Soil might be a source of nutrients for growth, but in the dirt and dust and sadness of the laundry, its steam is overpowering on a humid autumn night.
Change the location, and a normally pleasing smell of pottering about in the garden alters how it is felt. This cavernous space is airless. I feel like I am being herded into a shed, like livestock penned in against the night and her predators, albeit gently, curiously, by a raft of smiling ushers who motion with torches “mind the cables”, “there’s room along the side wall”. Sand, sphagnum peat moss, perlite, overwhelming! Overhead, a moth crashes into the light. It flutters. I stand. There are not enough seats. (Earlier, audience members who most needed a seat had been asked to come forward.) Grass clippings, fungi, and bacteria! Vermiculite, from the Latin vermiculari, to ‘be full of worms’, too. The urge to flee, or at least stand near to an exit is strong: I don’t want to put down roots here, in neither laundry’s past nor soiled, oppressive present.
And yet I do, for atop this mountain ‘full of worms’ sails Jill Orr. Majestic and unassuming, simultaneously. Both as assured captain of the craft and as a canvas for the audience to project their own thoughts upon. Legendary. Orr and her boat. Her surname alone, an oar, a navigational means, but I reckon she’d be pretty tired of hearing that. Presented by Dancehouse in partnership with the Abbotsford Convent as part of Dance Massive 2019, “emerging from an installation conceived for the Venice Biennale as a response to the terrible fate of asylum seekers arriving by boat to Australian shores, Dark Night explores the crumbling humanitarian ideals of a world in crisis. In this embodied installation, embracing the dramatics of scale, volume, tone, rhythm and movement, a series of images are performed.”[ii]
As with her work for The Promised Land, “the search for land, peace, faith or refuge, this need and desire is fundamental to human existence and has compelled and propelled journeys despite immense danger. The urge goes deep into the very instinct to survive and live in a sense, beyond the self, for future generations. It is both vividly seen in contemporary life and throughout history.”[iii] As Orr rows a boat which is not watertight and does not appear to move, but remains anchored within the bed of soil, there is, within Dark Night, the black humour, too, “and the sense of the ridiculous. Indeed this boat will not float but maybe it does!” Yes, perhaps this skeleton boat will.
Images, places, everything shifts! There, Theodore Gericault’s Raft of Medusa! Flanked by the initial appearance of chaos within Eugène Delacoix’s Liberty Leading the People. There, Jill Orr. Three known images, colliding. Driven by smell, and impressive scale. Past and present knock in to each other, mediums (still paintings and quivering performance) too, and for a moment Orr could be wearing a Phrygian cap, like Liberty. To the sounds of heat and birds and blistering, an Australian landscape blazes. Just as a photographic image of Orr’s Ingredients for a Precarious Meal delivers “the sounds and smells of [an] early dawn in a Mallee wheat field”[iv], the sound of birds chortling and screeching, and cicadas throbbing and humming, conjures nature from within the confines of the pressed metal ceiling. And I am transfixed.
When I return to the adjoining space later in the evening, for Hellen Sky’s Quake, also presented by Dancehouse in partnership with Sir Zelman Cowen School of Music at Monash University and the Abbotsford Convent as part of Dance Massive, I creep past the moored boat, now unattended, yet still strangely occupied. A boat that floats and yet remains tethered. Marvellous, however she looms.
Sky, together with Myriam Gourfink, and music by Mark Cauvin and Kasper T. Toeplitz, have constructed a complimentary geography of blanketed islands to negotiate. Electric blue cabling tumbles from the rafters, and feathers, perhaps plucked from the birds that earlier squawked for Orr, flutter not as nature but as a mobile. The former laundry is once more transformed, while still remaining an unsettling space in which to drop anchor. One of the last to enter, I find a spot on the dusty floor. At the centre, Sky, Gourfink, Cauvin and Toeplitz wait and yet have already begun. The measured, barely perceptible movements of Sky and Gourfink harpoon me to my spot. The slow thought of their actions making the movements of the audience slumped and repositioning themselves on the patchwork of beanbags look fast and furious. The contrast, the different planes, a sensory delight!
“In a world that moves too fast, the ‘players’ invite us to reflect on the nature of movement and affect in our relationship to environment and landscape, palimpsests of histories, digital interfaces and cellular structures…. Breath[ing] new meaning into everything that we see, hear and feel.”[v]
And I bob on, pins and needles be damned. (It could have been hours. Was it?)
[i] Magdalen laundries, Abbotsford Convent, accessed 22nd March, 2019.
[ii] Jill Orr, Dark Night, Dancehouse program, 2019
[iii] Claire Bridge, ‘Jill Orr, The Promised Land, part 1’, Art World Women, accessed 22nd March, 2019.
[iv] Helen Vivian, ‘Mishka Henner and Jill Orr: Performing to the all-seeing eye’, Artlink, September 2015, accessed 22nd March, 2019.
[v] Hellen Sky and Collaborators, Dark Night, Dancehouse program, 2019.
Image credit: Jill Orr performing Dark Night by Gregory Lorenzutti