Forged across 52 years by the geographic and cultural isolation of its base in Townsville, Queensland, contemporary dance company Dancenorth is a masterclass on the imperative of connecting with an audience. It takes a tailored creativity for the arts to cut through in this remote regional industrial and army centre, where the North Queensland Cowboys are the pride of the city, but since spouses Kyle Page and Amber Haines took the reins in 2014, the company has explored cerebral themes with a sensorial immediacy that brings the often esoteric genre of contemporary dance to the people.
Their latest production for this year’s Brisbane festival, Wayfinder, is no exception: an antidote to the recent gloom as we try to find our way forward – or, as Page describes it, “a tonic for our times”.
Set on a custom-made inflatable stage, the heart of the production is two symbolic centrepieces historically associated with hope: the beacon and the rainbow. The work’s title explains the first – represented in the form of 100 coconut-sized “pearls” used onstage and throughout the auditorium – while the latter serves as a recurrent motif, devised in collaboration with visual artist Hiromi Tango.
Taken together, alongside movement, music, costumes, set and lighting, the aesthetic is one of wonder, awe and joy, with a playful energy that’s so infectious new dance-goers will be swept up too.
For Japanese-born, Tweed Heads-based Tango, healing goes hand-in-hand with the hope rainbows inspire. The artist’s Rainbow Dream: Moon Rainbow saw long queues at Hobart’s Dark Mofo festival earlier this year, and she coined the term “brainbow” to describe the uplifting effect seeing them has on our psyche.
Wayfinder’s immersive pearls and rainbows evoke both nature and novelty, offering a surprising interactive treat. They generate community among the seated strangers watching who share spontaneous exchanges, and also among the 150 volunteer finger-knitters, who pulled together 70km of salvaged wool creations for the show.
These form a deluge of rainbow cords that turn one dancer into a “Cousin Itt”, and then are gathered into a giant roll. A towering textile sculpture crafted by Tango could be a creature, or coral, or a lighthouse at different times during the performance, while another vibrant set piece conjures a magic carpet ride that teeters from chill to thrilling. Each cast member’s patchwork tracksuit represents a hue of the colour spectrum, with a surprise celebratory costume change in the finale.
The sound design is another inspired collaboration, between Bryon J Scullin, Grammy-nominated Australian four-piece band Hiatus Kaiyote and its Melbourne-based lead singer, Nai Palm. It interweaves six tracks (Atari, Prince Minikid, Shaolin Monk, Motherfunk, Rose Water, Canopic Jar and Get Sun are interwoven) alongside Nai Palm’s siren song of bespoke ethereal vocalisations.
Often contemporary dance is set to mechanical sounds that can be alienating; this soundtrack is a welcome change. The languid vibe, warm melodies and hip grooves are entrancing, contrasting with energised percussive sections mirrored in hyperkinetic dance moves. Natural organic sounds inspire simple yet redolent imagery that fires the imagination: the dancers lying in a collapsed domino formation use their arms to conjure bird wings, multi-limbed insects and weightless sea creatures.
The inflatable stage makes for gravity-defying dance, expanding the angles of flowing movements and adding extra revolutions in the air. The choreography does this without simply becoming acrobatic “party tricks” borrowed from other sports such as gymnastics or tumbling.
The lighting, designed by Niklas Pajanti, is another stroke of genius. Strobe lights used at different speeds add excitement – most potently in a mesmerising sequence in which the dancers whip a rainbow of ropes into a pattern of colourful waves rolling from the back of the stage to the front.
The only downside are the audience sight lines, which are impeded from various positions when the cast perform work off the stage. Marlo Benjamin’s accompanying solo, and duet with Michael Smith, seem overly long as a result, despite their skill. The pair are, like the rest of the ensemble, stunning dancers with individuality and presence who also work tightly as a group with crucial trust and timing.
It’s rewarding to see a collaboration among such diverse talents achieve such unity of purpose. Wayfinder is a rare offering that excites, entertains and enriches.
Wayfinder runs at Brisbane Powerhouse until 24 September, as part of Brisbane festival