Sarah Winter hasn't made anything resembling a conventional performance-based theatrical work in years – not since 2009's Venn for Brisbane Festival's Under The Radar program. Increasingly, she's shifted her aesthetic away from even the nebulously defined realms of contemporary performance and into territories of installation and site-specific work. A Dinner With Gravity sits very comfortably within this trajectory.
Indeed, with LaBoite Indie's latest production, Winter seems to have finally found a practical application for her ongoing obsession with minutiae and mnemonics. Previously, her work has been both compelling and beautiful – but also quite vague. Works like Venn or her developmental showcase from last year's La Boite Scratch program have excelled in creating beautiful images but fallen short in regards to communicating sustained ideas.
A Dinner With Gravity remedies that oversight. Whereas Winter's previous works have been collages of experience, Gravity is a single, clearly articulated concept – a dinner party wherein dishes literally float above the table. By limiting her fascinations to a specific scenario, Winter grounds her ephemeral sense of beauty within a clearly defined and memorable audience experience.
The evening begins with a gaggle of disparate dinner guests being led through darkened hallways into a sparsely decorated dining room. A large table sits at the centre of the space; a wardrobe squats in the corner. A piano lies disused against a wall. Hovering over the table are scores of helium balloons – guests' meals levitating ever so slightly above the surface. Menus outlining conversation topics sit around the table.
With guests seated, Winter delivers a few brief words of instruction (in essence; 'don't let the food fly away') and – bar the occasional provocation via mysterious delivery – largely leaves her audience to their own devices. It's difficult to describe what happens next because, in addition to varying from audience to audience, A Dinner With Gravity will vary from audience-member to audience-member.
Your reviewer, for example, will simply never feel completely comfortable in such environments. Winter's trick is to transform an everyday experience (namely, conversation over a meal) into an extraordinary experience – both through exceptional space design (mood lighting, ambient scoring) and whimsical novelty (floating food). The upshot of this trick is that it magnifies all aspects of a participant's experience – good or bad.
If you are a self-conscious conversationalist, for example, your insecurities will be amplified. Granted, so will any connection you eventually manage to secure, but, regardless, your experience of the work will be shaped and defined considerably by your background and outlook. Some may object simply to the occasionally twee nature of Winter's conversation topics ('What does happiness taste like' being particularly precious).
Winter has, as much as possible, tried to ensure a positive experience for all, however. In actual fact, where A Dinner With Gravity most impresses is in its sense of craftsmanship. Winter's trick is relatively simple in design (albeit admittedly complicated in execution) but she and her team have been quite meticulous in exploring their concept – designing their venue with precision and guiding their audience's interactions with the gentlest of hands.
All in all, it's a difficult experience to review from a critical standpoint. Winter certainly deserves credit for breaking through to another level as an artist. Even if an audience member doesn't wholly enjoy their experience as Winter's dinner guest, they'll be pondering the whys and wherefores of that experience for a considerable period after the fact. It exposes you on a personal level and forces a certain degree of introspection. At its best, it reminds you of particular personal truths you'd once forgotten.
There are no guarantees, but – recommended.
LaBoite Indie and Sarah Winter present
A Dinner With Gravity
Venue: Roundhouse Theatre | Level 5, The Works, 6-8 Musk Avenue, Kelvin Grove
Dates: 27 June - 7 July, 2012