One Single Action review – two dancers in powerful, disturbing synergy

<span>Geoffrey Watson and Amber McCartney are utterly transfixing in Lucy Guerin’s One Single Action, playing at Rising festival in Melbourne.</span><span>Photograph: Gregory Lorenzutti Photography/Lucy Guerin Inc.</span>
Geoffrey Watson and Amber McCartney are utterly transfixing in Lucy Guerin’s One Single Action, playing at Rising festival in Melbourne.Photograph: Gregory Lorenzutti Photography/Lucy Guerin Inc.

In a highly automated world – where workers are constantly monitored and technology dictates our every movement – two dancers struggle to perform one single action that may change things. But there’s no guarantee the new world will be any better than the old one.

Lucy Guerin is indisputably one of the country’s great choreographic talents, her work defined by rigour and an intensity of purpose almost unmatched on Australian stages. Each new work seems like a drilling down and opening up of her primary concerns, as if she’s forever scratching at an idea or thought process. One Single Action is no different in that sense, familiar and yet inching towards the untried and experimental.

The work is divided into two sections: before a single action and after it. If the first is more successful, it’s only because the second is more formally daring and dreamlike, resistant to catharsis or reconciliation. The first shows off the dancers’ skills more blatantly; there’s more lyricism and synchronicity. The second is often weird and illogical, although it’s also capable of shock and sly humour.

In a long, narrow space lit simply by Paul Lim, dancers Amber McCartney and Geoffrey Watson work their bodies along a singular line towards a strange object hanging stage right, a moon or rocky planet. Their movements are staccato, frenetic but also highly regimented: they’re working in a pressurised, soulless environment, so disciplined they could almost be mistaken for AI.

Related: ‘It’s like being possessed’: Australia’s star choreographer Lucy Guerin on 20 years of dance

Guerin’s choreography is precise and whip smart, the dancers’ limbs shooting out at right angles, extremities dropping and lifting mechanically. Each choreographic thought is meticulous and considered. And then every so often, a totally antithetical phrase is introduced, lush and lyrical. Ballet and tango inflections pop up, things loosen and relax.

It’s only ever for a moment or two. The dancers have a purpose: hammers and clear plastic goggles are at the ready, to reach that moon, to smash it if they can. For a long time, the unseen treadmill carrying them further and further from their task makes it seem as if they won’t make it. And then suddenly, it’s smashed. And a new way of being has to be carved out of the ruins.

McCartney and Watson are terrific, utterly transfixing in the first half and playfully game in the second. They develop a powerful synergy before the break, so that their rift feels particularly wretched. Watson’s indifference grows in direct contrast to McCartney’s despondency. A violent act late in the piece is arresting, not tragic exactly but cruel and finite, and both dancers navigate it powerfully.

Some sections drag – a laborious suiting-up of McCartney in clear plastic feels like a poor solution to a technical problem, and her rolling over broken glass is less interesting than Guerin may think it is – but the predominant mood is strange and absorbing. CS + Kreme’s sound is central to the effect: a complex, intricate composition that drives the first half evokes any number of systems, computations and mechanisms. The use of György Ligeti’s Lontano towards the end is spooky and sad.

The meaning of One Single Action is difficult to discern, which is not to say there isn’t any. Much depends on your reading of the object the dancers smash. If it’s a planet, could it represent our environmental vestiges, or is it the rock we will die on? If it’s an overlord or damned institution, maybe it’s better smashed.

Guerin’s constantly inventive, thoughtful choreography draws as much on the animal world as it does the inorganic. But the animals that roam the busted stage seem not just forlorn but bereft. Is the work saying we’re better off in our mechanised state, like Sisyphus, rolling our rock? It may be a single action, but it lingers in the mind, ambivalent and disturbing. As another piece of the Guerin puzzle, it’s indispensable.

  • One Single Action is running from 13-16 June at Chunky Move Studio in Melbourne as part of Rising festival