Director, Composer & Design Irene Vela - in collaboration with choreographers, dancer & musicians of Outer Urban Projects. Arts Centre Melbourne, Playhouse Rehearsal Room. 20-23 September 2017

A boat is a vessel, carrying life across dangerous seas, and a womb is a vessel, carrying life across a dangerous world.  These concepts combine in this strikingly original dance work performed by six young dancers, a performer, a singer and two musicians.  The central theme is that of the ‘mother’ – the life-giver, the nurturer (but not always), and with whom there are bonds – like it or not - that are never broken.  The umbilical cord (powerfully represented in the closing sequence of this work) may be cut, but the link remains. 

Irene Vela, Artistic Director of Outer Urban Projects, began the creation of the work from some heartbreaking images.  First, among those who drowned with the sinking of SIEV X, was a baby with umbilical cord still attached to the refugee mother.  Second, Kate Durham’s artwork of dolls covered in tinsel – a signifier of seaweed – and the blue of the ocean.  Dolls, in fact, feature prominently here – the stage is edged with dolls and, in a very moving opening sequence the dancers bind ‘babies’ to their backs in a complex image of care but also of a burden - and then again the infant from whom the dancer grew. 

The music, composed by Ms Vela, with an unmistakeable Greek influence but with folk song references from Armenia and Lebanon, mixes a pre-recorded score with the work of two musicians there on stage: Kelly Dowall on drum and clarinet, and Lebanese Fouad Harraka, who also sings, on violin and bouzouki.

Indeed, it’s particularly apt and important at this time to mention the ethnic mix on stage, as well as the achievement of these relatively inexperienced (in terms of years) dancers.  Sahra Davoudi, who speaks an introduction to the piece, is Iranian.  Victoria Canning, a dancer, is Tongan.  Simone Etheve, Thai-Australian; Josephine Inia, Tongan; Damian Seddon, the only male among the dancers, is Eritrean-Irish.  Demi Sorono, dancer and choreographer, is a Philippina.  And Tehyali Malone is indigenous.  To see this variety of faces, bodies and cultures melding and creating together is inspiring.

United by its theme, the piece conveys so many facets of life experience with great clarity.  There is nurture, but there is also conflict, rage, loss, rejection, the chatter of gossip and unwanted advice – and then again joy and the warmth of community and, especially, family.   

There is no need to make excuses for this production on the basis of its origins, participants and a mere six weeks’ rehearsal.  On the contrary, it’s an unusual and impressive achievement that such a coherent piece with its outstanding choreography has come together combining the work of three choreographers of diverse backgrounds and approaches to dance. 

Thomas E S Kelly, an indigenous man, was first, taking over a dance project already in progress called ‘Northside Baby’; then Nebahat Erpolat, a Kurdish woman; and finally, Demi Sorono, who dances herself and is the intense, central figure of the ensemble, her delicate body evoking so much of the piece’s emotions.  I certainly could not say where one choreographer’s work ends and another’s begins – the transitions are invisible, the sequences flow together to make one whole.

The Outer Urban Projects Team has another achievement (after their recent Poetic Licence) to be proud of – and they are proud and rightly so.  Executive Producer Kate Gillick is there, acting as an usher.  How many exec producers do that?  It’s a sign of the way a diverse, outer urban community can come together to make something so expressive of themselves but that communicates its idea and values so powerfully.

Michael Brindley

Images: Simone Etheve, Tehyali Malone and Damian  Seddon; Damain Seddon, Tehyali Malone, Demi Sorono, Victoria Canning and Simone Etheve; Demi Sorono and Victoria Canning. Photographer: Daniel Gill

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