Mortal Engine | Chunky MoveLeft - Charmene Yap. Cover - Lee Serle. Photos - Andrew Curtis

Gideon Obarzanek
describes Mortal Engine, his new work for Chunky Move, as a “dance-video-music-laser performance” and it is most probably quite unlike anything its audience has seen before. The work itself is staggering. With all its visual and sound effects, body contortions and extensions, and the timing of each of these, one can only wonder how it all works. Although seemingly incongruous, as its title suggests, this is an exploration of how the movement of organisms can create energy. And in this show, the concept of humans working together to create light and sound is far from just an illusion.

The opening sequence sets the tone for the following hour. A white whirlpool of light moves against black. The eerie vibrations of Ben Frost’s music are so loud they threaten to make the theatre, and the ears of the audience, explode. After a while the darkness lifts to reveal a lone dancer slowly flexing her body. She appears to be stuck to a vertical wall but on closer inspection she is clinging to a large white ramp that fills the performance space.

This ingenious sloping stage, designed by Richard Dinnen and Obarzanek, is an integral part of the production. It is the only set piece, the only prop. It acts as a giant screen for the lights and abstract images to be projected onto. Panels of the ramp also intermittently lift away to create vertical walls, which the dancers move against in most of the duets. As the dancers move across the ramp, the lighting or shadows follow them. They are like magnets moving across a giant Magna Doodle. Where the dancers go, their smudges follow. As the shadows and performers seem to morph into one another it is difficult to distinguish between that which is alive and that which is engineered. Amidst all this, an action as seemingly inconsequential as the entwining of two hands and the flexing of fingertips, become a very important sign of life.

As they traverse such a steep incline, the dancers display great strength, control and balance. With their lifts and mirroring of each other’s actions, it seems miraculous that the dancers do not roll off the slope and into the audience. Each performer is as wonderful as the next with the work of Charmene Yap and Sara Black perhaps standing out. The slant of the stage also forces the dancers to move slowly and at irregular angles. Often they contort their bodies, making it difficult to distinguish an arm from a leg. It is then that the dancers become unidentifiable creepy crawlies.

One of the most fascinating aspects of this production is that the movements of the dancers greatly determine the sound and lighting for each performance. An infrared camera follows the movements of the dancers. The interactive computerised system, designed by Frieder Weiss, combined with the laser and sound artistry of Robin Fox, responds to the data collected. Each medium is therefore responding live to the actions of the dancer. In one scene, two dancers stand against a vertical wall and every time they move there is the sound of them being peeled off the wall and each other. In another, two dancers disturb a formation of white sticks that are projected onto the wall. They do so a few sticks at a time, seemingly with the movement of a shoulder or a leg. Both scenes are very effective and not only demonstrate impeccable timing but are the product of this live interaction between movement, sound and lighting.

Mortal Engine originated as a half-hour solo piece and it does work well in the longer form. However, the movements in each scene are fairly repetitive. With this in mind and because the work on a whole is so abstract, each scene could perhaps have benefited from being shortened. Towards the end of the production however, there comes a welcome and somewhat startling change of pace. The entire theatre is plunged into darkness except for electric green strobe lights that cut across the audience. It is then that the theatre becomes alive with unmistakable artificial lights and pounding music. When the lights eventually subside the dancers re-appear. It seems there are such things as mortal engines.

Chunky Move
Mortal Engine

Venue: Merlyn Theatre, C.U.B. Malthouse, 113 Sturt Street, Southbank
Dates: 4 - 8 March
Tickets: $28 - $37
Times: Wed (Preview) & Thu 8pm, Fri 6.30pm & 9pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 5.30pm
Bookings: M-Tix 03 9685 5111 or

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