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Review: SAVAGE at Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide Festival Centre

Review: SAVAGE at Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide Festival Centre

Daniel Riley's first work as the new Artistic Director of the ADT

Reviewed by Ray Smith, Thursday 22nd September 2022.

Savage, Daniel Riley's first major work as the newly appointed Artistic Director of the Australian Dance Theatre, is explosive, violent, urgent, hugely physical, and will take days for me to recover from.

Riley, a Wiradjuri man, has worked with some of the leading dance companies both here and overseas, including Bangarra Dance Theatre, the Sydney Dance Company, Ireland-based Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre, and Louisville Ballet, the Official State Ballet of Kentucky. Now he has been handed the reins of Australian Dance Theatre, one of Australia's pre-eminent contemporary dance companies and, while it remains the longest running in the country, its 57-year history is a blink of an eye when compared to Riley's own cultural history.

As we filed into the theatre to claim our seats, a solo dancer walked calmly around the all but empty stage, wandering
inquisitively through a smoky haze, in front of a backdrop that appears to be a very large wall of draped tarpaulin, occasionally sitting down, or scanning the chattering audience with great disinterest.

Fifteen white plastic chairs on the theatre floor face the audience, their backs against the front of the stage, empty and expectant, a waiting room yet to be opened, as James Howard's techno soundtrack crackles and pulses in defiance of the languid movements of the lone figure ambling around the stage, and down from it, using one of the chairs as a step.

The house lights go down and the tarpaulin wall is wheeled deftly aside to reveal another wall, a wall of mesh, and behind that wall, trapped, appear the silhouetted outlines of human figures. Fluorescent lights hang above the dancers' heads as they are herded, confined, separated, and controlled by the moving walls, the environment being constantly redefined, the anger of the captives evident in their violent and furious movements.

A fist fight of exquisite fluidity breaks out that felt like a brief nod to Momix in its beauty and cleverness, a pas de deux of soft malevolence, a duet of deadly intent, as chairs are hurled across the stage to be shunted aside by the ever moving walls as the hurlers themselves are herded. A dancer in a suit struts the front of the stage, her demeanour confident and defiant, she summons the audience to challenge her, quite confident in her mind that no one would dare. She was the boss and she knew it.

The fluorescent lights lower to form a ceiling of unforgiving, white, shadow-defying coldness that screamed institution, and the violence continued.

This is a very large troupe of dancers, and the choreography of the chairs and the walls were as fluid and seamless as the dance itself. Six company artists are joined by ten guests, nine of whom are graduates of the
Adelaide College of the Arts, and the very creator of this work, Daniel Riley himself.

That Riley decided to perform himself in an important, but not pivotal role in his first production as Artistic Director, was not I think to gain street 'cred' with his new company, the man has nothing to prove, but rather to add authenticity to a work that examines an issue very close to his heart. That he chose to invite recent graduates to appear as guests seemed to be a gesture of legacy, of passing the torch to the next generation, a continuation of the long tradition of dance that has been a feature of this continent for tens of thousands of years.

Working with set and costume designer, and Worimi man, Dean Cross, composer/sound designer and Jaadwa man, James Howard, lighting designer, Matthew Adey, dramaturg, Kate Champion, and associate director, Sarah-Jayne Howard, Riley has hit the ground running in this enormous and absolutely fearless first utterance.

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