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The Barest of Margins

The Starlet in the ballroom with the candlestick. Or was it the Mobster in the billiards room with the dagger? The clues to this mystery aren’t straightforward, nor are the characters in this story. Australasian Dance Collective’s production of “Halcyon” is an ambitious new take on the whodunit genre—the latest experimental brainchild of Jack Lister. Choreographed in collaboration with the company artists, “Halcyon” explores a world of glamour and murder. Where, as Lister puts it, “adoration and envy are separated by the barest of margins.”

Performance

Australasian Dance Collective: “Halcyon” by Jack Lister

Place

Powerhouse Theatre, Brisbane Powerhouse, Brisbane, Queensland, November 12, 2023

Words

Madelyn Coupe

Australasian Dance Collective in “Halcyon” by Jack Lister. Photograph by David Kelly

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From the moment you arrived in the theatre, it was obvious that something different was occurring. The crowd hovered in the foyer, and despite the five-minute bell being called, no one was allowed to enter and take their seats. Instead, one by one, we found ourselves being ushered through a backstage door, each person blindly following the one in front. As we entered, the corridor was dark. Only the shrill sound of laughter (both elated and murderous in nature) split the air. What eventually lay before us was a fantastical theatre space: two elevated stages sat at opposite ends of the room; a chalk outline of a body on the floor in the centre; the audience required to stand and follow the action whilst characters walked every which way around you. The experience of “Halcyon” was heavily dependent upon where you stood and how willing you were to explore the performance. The more inquisitive you were, the more you were rewarded. 

The characters of the story were caricatures—personified tropes of stock mystery figures. There was the haunted Detective, the Starlet with a mysterious past, her obsessed Ingénue, a threatening Mobster, an observant Director, and the alarming but alluring Maître d’. Each dancer embodied their personas flawlessly. Lilly King, in particular, was a fabulous Maître d’. With her weathered showgirl-like appearance, she occupied a space that was both sensual and grotesque. Her movements captivating enough that they reeled you in but also horrifying in a way that made you aware of where she stood at all times. King played a figure long forgotten; a character from the past trying to reclaim her prevalence in the present. 

Lily Potger in “Halcyon” by Jack Lister. Photograph by David Kelly

“Halcyon” also pays homage to the cinematic history from which these characters were drawn. Lister emphasised his desire for the show to be half dance work, half cinematic experience, and, at times, the performance does this very cleverly. One section, especially, hits this mark. Gabrielle Nankivell as the Starlet and Harrison Elliott as the Detective were caught slowly swaying in an illicit embrace—the pair waltzing on one section of the stage. In the background, the sound of a film roll was being played, as well as the dialogue from the 1942 movie Casablanca. Additionally, but most importantly, light shone down on the couple, slowly flickering to create the illusion that you were watching two dancers in a film. Nankivell and Elliott were a 3D recreation of what was originally captured on the b-roll years ago. Credit goes to lighting designer Christine Felmingham for creating a moment like this. 

Another highlight was the interrogation sequence—the characters circulating around one another to question the prime suspect in the case. Elliot began questioning Taiga Kita-Leong as the Snake whilst the others watched on. They danced; some advocated for innocence, others condemned a guilty verdict. A visual weaving of a fragmented narrative. Then, a few seconds after it happens, you realise you were caught in a thrall, and the dancers have swapped positions. Kita-Leong now inhabits the Maître d’, whilst King is now the Detective. It’s always impressive when a performance is two steps ahead of you. That feeling of needing to catch up on the ground you lost keeps you hooked on the action. 

Lilly King in “Halcyon” by Jack Lister. Photograph by David Kelly

“Halcyon” sits in a kind of limbo—it presents more than just a conceptual idea but not a fully realised narrative. It provides a visual spectacle, but the emphasis on aesthetics sometimes dilutes the clarity of its meaning. From the outside, it is an ambitious concept, a dramatic fantasy of glamour and mystery and certain aspects deliver just that. But dramaturgically, there is a slight disconnect between the intention of the piece and the message it delivers to the audience. Everything you could possibly want from the production is there: fantastic characterisation, eye-catching projections, emotive music. But what it doesn’t currently do (but potentially could) is provide the audience with enough tools to be able to fully understand the individual strands of the piece and how they thread together. 

The dancers flesh out the characters with their artistry, but the story is too fragmented that it doesn’t fully connect these strands. There are too many outstanding questions to this piece that allow the dancers’ motives and the impact of their decisions to fall between the cracks. What is the significance of the murder happening in those very last moments? How does that delayed information affect the clarity of sequences like the interrogation scene? How does this, then, affect the storylines of the ancillary characters to this event? “Halcyon” purposefully refuses to provide the answers, but then again, maybe that is the point. Maybe the murder, the aesthetics, and the glamour are all inconsequential, and what truly matters is how this piece makes you think long after you leave the confines of that dark space. 

Madelyn Coupe


Madelyn is a dramaturg and former ballerina based in Brisbane. She holds a BA (Honours) in Drama and is currently undertaking postgraduate study specialising in Classical Ballet Dramaturgy.

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