Choreographer Gideon Obarzanek describes Mortal Engine as a dance-video-music-laser performance. The hyphens are fully justified. An awe-inspiring hybrid work that explores the relationship between movement and technology, Mortal Engine takes live interaction to a new level.
Obarzanek’s fixation on the idea of contrast is boldly visual from the outset. The performance begins in darkness, with a host of laser images flashing across the raised stage. A single dancer emerges, bathed in white light. As she moves, she leaves a white glow around her, a beacon in the dark.
Only when this image is reversed do we see the sinister ‘other’ side of the equation. A blackened multi-legged creature, made from the intertwined bodies of several other dancers, chases our heroine, enveloping her in its shadow. It is at once a part of her and also her nightmarish opposite. Good and evil, light and shadow, the self and the other, mortal and engine; all these themes resonate throughout the performance.
Whilst the movements themselves, though beautifully danced, hold little intrinsic interest, the effects they trigger in the music, lighting, and lasers are astonishing. Mortal Engine has no pre-rendered video, light or laser images and the music is similarly generated by movement. Pre-composed phrases are triggered by the dancers’ motions, or by the operator at the correct point in the performance. The whole production is pulled together by computer engineer, Frieder Weiss. That means each night, Mortal Engine is truly live. Though its sequences are always in the same order, the work’s total length is determined by the rhythm of its performers.
Many moments brought to life through this interaction are magical. In one instance, a dancer is followed by trails of marble-like dots, made of light, across the stage’s platform. After each pause, the dots are sucked back into the dancer’s physical frame, only to spread out again as she resumes her dance.
Another note-worthy sequence sees two dancers, a man and a woman, stand together against the now vertical platform-turned-wall. As they lean away, peeling noises from Ben Frost’s experimental score integrate so seamlessly with their movements that the dancers seem to literally peel off each other. As in film, each element of the performance is perfectly integrated, creating a satisfying, total experience.
It must be said, however, that Robin Fox’s laser designs steal the show. Though the laser-only section of Mortal Engine lacks the dynamic tension of the other hybrid sequences, the show would be barely recognisable without the lasers that interpret and transform almost every scene. Special mention must be made of the show’s conclusion. Smoke machines engulf the audience, isolating each member, and green lasers project outwards into the theatre, creating an illusory tunnel. The distortion of space and perception is both fascinating and somewhat unsettling.
Though it seems an obvious warning for a show involving lasers, epilectics beware. Strobe-lighting is used heavily, and if you happen to be conservative in your artistic tastes, please note that partial nudity and uncomfortably loud noises also feature. For those who have seen Mortal Engine in the past, the ending has been slightly altered for this revival.
Mortal Engine is a captivating exploration of the line that separates movement and technology. Guaranteed to keep you thinking for days, the return of Chunky Move’s award-winning hybrid show to Melbourne is a triumph for Victoria’s own state-funded contemporary dance company.