I went down to the theatre early one autumn evening and sat, metaphorically speaking, on the bank at the junction of the rivers where the Darling’s coffee-coloured waters merge with the greyish green eucalypt tea of the Murray. Listening to the insects chirring and humming, mesmerized by the lapping water, I watched as the sun lingered on the horizon, light fading into the warm night. The quiet was only sporadically broken by the flit of a bird as it danced across the stage. So evocative was this performance that, as the music percussed, I experienced a time-space slippage between the confluence and Conflux, between the imagined river’s edge and the theatre’s stage.
It seems only fitting, in this place where the two largest rivers in the Murray Darling Basin become one, that a performance like Conflux could be brought to life. The region’s offering for One River is the work of two local artists, Mildura composer/musician Kim Chalmers and Wentworth dancer/choreographer Sally Hederics. Their deeply personal connections to the rivers underlie the thematic extension of previous collaborative works. Throughout its three parts, Conflux reveals a continuing exploration of social, intellectual and spiritual issues within this specific landscape. The theme of water winds its way through each part of the work, effectively mapping the rivers’ influence on our daily lives.
The inaugural One River event came in three acts; the title work five-piece dance movement Conflux, the interlude of audio and visuals, and the three-piece dance movement Riverlife. The title work Conflux, is the product of workshops held for senior contemporary dancers of Mildura Ballet Guild which included the opportunity to be mentored by Adelaide based choreographer and Spirit Festival artistic director Gina Rings. To accompany the dancers, Chalmers enlisted the talents of Melbourne-based ensemble Speak Percussion who were given the same repetitive rhythm, an intentionally stripped down looped sample open to translation by both the dancers and musicians. Splitting off into small groups, the dancers worked with Hederics to choreograph a response to the music, a process that encompassed discussions about the concept of “conflux” and its countless implications, interpretations and representations for the district’s residents.
These interdependent elements of live music and dance finally came together in the Mildura Arts Centre theatre on the day of the premiere performance, as Speak Percussion and the senior dancers physically combined for the first time to weave a new work from two threads. As a result of this process, Conflux was raw, unpolished and organic. The combined energies of the dancers and musicians was quite palpable, as they pushed off one another and converged to produce an exciting piece of work. A mix of duets, trios and large group configurations, the work evoked various imagery: the patterns made by farmers sewing crops, the formations of eddying waters, the subtle movements of microcosmic ecologies and the bold actions of agricultural machinery.
The third movement featured the eldest male and youngest female dancers in a playful duet of call and respond, oscillating from youthful cheekiness to mature respectfulness. Textile artist Anne Hederics’ costumes added to the black/white aesthetic, the male dancer wearing a sturdy crocheted cabal garment and the female wrapped in a boa of emu feathers billowing behind her as she dashed across stage.
Equally engaging was the colour and motion of the meditative fourth movement in which lengths of red and blue tulle were twisted and woven, stretched and manipulated by the dancers as they ebbed and flowed against a contemplative percussive accompaniment of drums and chimes.
Spliced in between was an interval of sorts, actually the second act of the work, reminiscent of granddad’s slide nights – a nostalgic interlude transporting the audience to familiar places: favourite Easter camping spots, picnic places or bushwalking trails, in times of flood or drought. The source material for this projected content came from the families of artists and performers, collected during the workshop phase so as to provide context and inspiration for the young dancers and to help build a greater understanding of the enormity of the river that is the lifeblood of our region. These images and narratives eventually evolved to become an important and integral component of telling a community’s story, including stories from a riverboat captain, an Aboriginal elder, a water policeman, a broad acreage farmer and a lockmaster. Though evocative and reflective, for me this aspect of the performance felt akin to a lock holding back the flow of the performance.
Laying parallel to the communally produced Conflux is Riverlife, a refined suite of music and dance in three movements – Nature, Man and Industry – exploring how our community interacts with the waterway.
The accomplished composition and choreographry of Chalmers and Hederics is honoured by the mature efforts of the six young dancers invited to interpret this work, developed over a concentrated three-month rehearsal period.
Chalmers’ composition for this work follows her signature style of repetitive patterns etched out in a percussive rhythmic groove, with an occasional uneven kilter to mimic the organic nature of a pulsing river system. Each movement began with a collage of recorded sound – the chatter of birds, the turning on of taps or the heaving of a water pump – that merged with the composition. A difficult arrangement to dance to, it is testament to Hederics’ relationship with her students that they worked assiduously to realise such a demanding work with such aplomb.
Nature, the first movement of the Riverlife suite, unfurled like a fast-forward evolution from time began, with myriad animals swimming the waters, surfacing from the swamp and climbing onto land.
Man delved into our domestic use of the resource, Chalmers’ lighting design carving up the stage into small living quarters. Taking showers, brushing our teeth, washing the dishes, we are reminded that we interact every day with the river as it pours from our taps.
In Industry, the third movement of the suite, a particularly resonant moment was created by the structured repetition of the music instructing a dance duo to follow the order of cogs and gears that run at the heart of agricultural machinery. The recurring pattern of the dancers’ movements became more erratic and irregular, suggesting the need for mechanical maintenance, and then, left too long, they eventually sprung free of themselves.
For me, the most poignant aspect of the Conflux and Riverlife works was the lingering impressions and mental images that I took away with me on that warm autumn evening in March. In the days that followed, each piece gently filtered down through me, distilling, settling in my mind. I became aware of the meta-narrative that lay across the performance like a veil of early morning mist on the water. It speaks very quietly about a spiritual connection to land, acknowledging an ongoing indigenous relationship with these waterways as well as a contemporary, shared sense of identity. Ultimately, this is work about being ‘river people’.