buckle up: roadkill is one wild ride

photo by jeff busby

The Harbourfront Centre’s World Stage Series is described on its website as “your opportunity to see unrivalled works of international and national theatre, dance, music and multidisciplinary performance from the globe’s leading artists. These are the productions that challenge, enlighten, [and] push boundaries from creators who defy expectations and redefine contemporary performance.” As grateful as I am for my steady diet of Canadian Theatre, both those works written and created by this nation’s talented artists and productions of works from elsewhere re-imagined and interpreted in our cities, it is always inspiring and invigorating to have the opportunity to see the creative work developed by international companies, beyond the national tours coming in from New York. roadkill, a theatrical dance show playing at Harbourfront Centre’s Enwave Theatre until February 6th, 2010, comes from Brisbane Powerhouse and Dancenorth in Australia and is a fascinating example of the ingenuity and talent emanating from the contemporary theatrical dance companies Down Under.

“A couple is stranded in the Australian outback with a car that won’t start next to a phone booth that doesn’t work. This is a road trip into the agoraphobia and desolation of the Austrailian outback: a place of dreams and dust and ghosts.” The lights come up on a dusty old car onstage, sputtering and retching as its two young passengers sit in silent contemplation of their predicament. roadkill, choreographed by Splintergroup, is a story told predominantly through movement and dance to explore the intense panic this situation evokes and the way each mind twists and contorts reality as the imagination spins wild and unrestrained.
From a visual point of view, roadkill is stunning. There are three performers (all of whom double as co-chorographers), Grayson Millwood, Gavin Webber and Gabrielle Nankivell, and Sarah-Jayne Howard, who is credited as a choreographer, presumably acted as the group’s outside eye throughout the creation process. Their use of space, specifically the way the car is incorporated into the story and simultaneously represents the frustration of being impounded, the horror of a massive deadly weapon hurdling toward an inevitable crash and all the sexy playfulness of taking a date “parking” is breathtaking and brilliant. The performers climb all over the car, throwing themselves against it, rolling and tumbling across the roof, sliding down the windows, and essentially leaping clear over it with unbelievable agility and utter fearlessness. There was one amazing moment where Nankivell was sucked in a single swift movement through the car’s window as though she were a Gumby action figure. The phone booth was used similarly and at one point, one of the performers seemed to be floating in it, upside-down in a startling, and particularly eerie defiance of gravity. Many of the images were haunting and gorgeously artistic, including the way the cast represented the speeding of a car along a highway, and one of the characters was a disturbing stranger whose presence created much sinister imagery which elicited a genuine feeling of dread and fear in the audience.
As a narrative I found roadkill at times to be confusing because it was difficult to discern the reality from the subjective illusions of the characters. I found the use of repetition and the connection established between the ominous stranger and the boyfriend particularly evocative, but I felt that each time I grasped for even a fragment of “meaning” or “significance,” it was immediately undercut or contradicted. The theatre critic in me found this at times frustrating, as it was clear that a complex story was being told, but it felt as though my brain could not connect the right puzzle pieces to unite the imagery into a coherent whole. Of course, as I kept reminding myself, sometimes in art the pieces don’t fit and that’s the point.
The dancing in roadkill was unlike anything I had ever seen. There was a striking lack of music, and the dancers’ bodies moved with a laidback grace and each incredible moment launched out of the tone and circumstance of the story being told with a bold sense of heightened realism. In this way, although some of the movements were impressive and remarkable, the tone with which they were executed was strikingly different than the razzle-dazzle exhibition of skill one becomes accustomed to both in musical theatre, conventional dance shows and even among the physical routines of Buskers. I found that this rooted me more ardently in the ambiance of panic and danger that was being presented by the performers, rather than being distracted by a showstopper which would have dragged me completely out of the Outback.
roadkill is every bit as raw and gritty as its title suggests and these incredible performers have what it takes to make your heart race and your mind spin like tires skidding through the harshest of terrain. Grab your chance, go global and hit the road.
roadkill plays at The Harbourfront Centre’s Enwave Theatre (235 Queen’s Quay West, Toronto) until Saturday, February 6th, 2010 at 8pm. For tickets or more information please call 416.973.4000 or visit www.harbourfrontcentre.com

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