White Matter | Blue RoomImage – Ashley de Prazer & Chloe Flockart

Choreographer Shona Erskine has found a way to work through a family issue through her art. Her sister, and consequently her family, is living with MS, multiple sclerosis. Erskine is not only a dancer and a choreographer, but is also a psychologist with an interest in performance psychology, and she wanted to create this piece in order to open a dialogue with fellow dancers, an audience, as well as her family about their experience with the degenerative disease. The result of that dialogue is her contemporary dance piece, White Matter.

Often times, art born from personal experience can be confessional and cathartic for the artist, and this is of course one of the reasons artists create. A very good artist makes their personal experiences universal, leading to empathy and hopefully a finished product that has a resonance beyond a very specific context. Erskine’s White Matter is a beautiful example of this; it not only makes audiences aware of her family’s situation by identifying the work’s origin, but it also becomes meaningful and powerful in other ways.

I found the piece difficult to latch onto at the outset. The opening sequence was performed in silence, with little else but the sounds of the dancers’ trousers sweeping against the floor to fill the room. This empty, silent room with its shafts of light, didn’t offer much in the way of setting, or exposition. But eventually, slowly, the relationship between the two performers, Scott Elstermann and Harrison Elliott, began to establish itself. It’s worth noting here that there are two sets of performers, one male (which I watched) and one female.

Once their relationship began to open up, it became abundantly clear how intimately attuned the performers were to each other. They had no music to sync their movements to, only each other’s breath and other physical cues served as a guide; they had to listen, watch, and use that other sense, the sense of energy, that we don’t know how to classify amongst the traditional five, to stay connected to one another.

Once beyond the opening sequence, the internal logic and language of the piece emerged, and I found myself thoroughly immersed. Elstermann’s long lines, juxtaposed with Elliott’s more compact ones, made for an interesting interplay of physicality. The choreography became less about coordinated, broad movement, and more about the different ways the two ‘siblings’ interact and react. Props, in the way of lights, as well as a kind of web of stretchy material manipulated by the pair, gave the shorter middle sequences variety and surprise. Added sound concept by Chris Cobilis and sound design by Brett Smith provided punctuation and an additional subtext.

In the end, we are back where we started from, in a silent room, feeling our way through the dark and a couple of shafts of light. But we come back richer, in a different frame of mind, more aware of the subtleties of the moment. The piece finishes, but the audience is stilled, and a few beats pass before quiet voices begin to buzz, assessing our experience. The personal has become universal.  


Blue Room
White Matter
Shona Erskine

Venue: Blue Room Theatre | 53 James Street, Northbridge WA
Dates: 10 – 28 November 2015
Tickets: $25 – $15
Bookings: blueroom.org.au