BY LEWIS INGHAM
Supersense: Festival of the Ecstatic
Opening night with various acts
Arts Centre Melbourne, 18 August
What’d you miss?
- Inventive collaborations
- A song cycle in more than 25 languages
- State Theatre looking like a club
The Arts Centre’s spire is ablaze in a vibrant purple, brilliant against the wintry clouds descended upon Melbourne’s Friday night. Below the iconic spire, a labyrinth of walkways, stairwells, and performance spaces lie in wait, allowing the public new perspectives of the arts centre and new musical experiences at every turn.
This is the venue for Supersense: Festival of the Ecstatic, an immersive ‘festival-as-theatre’ event presented by Arts Centre Melbourne and curator/performer Sophia Brous.
I plunge into the depths of the arts centre via a stairwell just outside the venue’s main entrance. A deep gurgling sound emanates from speakers inside the ventilation shaft around which the stairs wrap. The sound of the gurgling water follows me out of the stairwell, through the venue’s vein-like back corridors, and into the Playhouse Theatre; the closeness of the sound diminishing my sense of space as I take my seat.
Only as complete darkness falls onto the theatre does the gurgling cease, replaced now by a pulsing electronic drone and a single spotlight cast on a lone body. This is the start of Memory Field, a collaboration between Bangarra Dance Theatre dancer and choreographer Waangenga Blanco and drummer/composer Laurence Pike.
Blanco’s movements mirror the pulsing of the initial drone, the dancer slowly shifting from lying on the floor to crouching on his feet whilst shimmering cymbals emerge at Pike’s command. Once fully standing, the rawness of the drummer/dancer combination is greatly apparent with the full-bodied sound of Pike’s amplified drums driving the full-bodied movements of Blanco’s choreography.
The performance continues through several sequences with different pre-recorded electronic or metallic samples underlying the soundscape of the live drums. I can feel the boom of the toms and kick drum resonating in my chest and feel immense satisfaction in being able to physically feel the beat to which the dancer moves. The lighting design also expands with the performance, the single spotlight widening until the entire stage is bathed in light, allowing Blanco to move freely and illuminated through the space.
My favourite moment in Memory Field sees the two performers trading rhythm for movement. In these moments, Pike performs short rhythmic phrases, skilfully plucking a kalimba whilst manoeuvring across the skins and cymbals, before falling silent to allow Blanco to dance under a single spotlight with his controlled and vigorous movements truly showcased.
Although unaware of the narrative of Memory Field, I find the performance deeply moving; the piece concluding with Blanco once again lying near-motionless on the floor beneath a narrow spotlight. The hypnotised crowd rises to its feet and applauds, thankful for the entrancing experience. The familiar gurgling sound re-emerges in the receding applause, permeating the murmur of the crowd and now seeming deeper in my ears than before. It follows me as I continue my Supersense experience.
In the blackness of the hazy Fairfax Studio, I feel my senses heightened. The overpowering reek of sweat and cigarettes from the man seated next to me contrasts the subtle whispers and breathy vocals of Sophia Brous beginning the world premiere of Lullaby Movement.
From intimate whispers to rich and full melodies
Lullaby Movement is a theatrical song cycle which sees Brous explore the ritual of the lullaby, singing in more than 25 different languages learnt from migrant and refugee communities around the world. Her attention to the details and inflection is captivating, her headset microphone allowing her to transition from intimate whispers to rich and full melodies.
Accompanying Brous are talented instrumentalists Leo Abrahams and David Coulter. Abrahams plays a heavily effected electric guitar, casting intricate phrases and harmony into the theatre’s haze. Coulter performs with percussion, electric violin, bass guitar, and musical saw, adding considerable sonic variety to the soundscape and often beautifully embellishing Brous’ vocal tone.
The starkness of the stage, complemented by projections of elegant geometric patterns or a starry backdrop, allows Brous’ physical presence to mesmerise. The delicacy in the movements of her hands is a feature as she slowly traverses the space, occasionally interacting with a large boulder propped upon the edge of the stage. Brous directs a wonderful ebb and flow of fragility throughout the song cycle, intimately evoking themes of refuge and safety; common topics in the current climate of global migration and people displacement.
Lullaby Movement ends with a beautiful restatement of Brous’ final melody by Coulter, who bows the rising melody on the musical saw as darkness consumes the stage. Following the standing ovation the performers so deserved, the gurgling sound doesn’t reemerge until after I’ve left the performance space. This feels appropriate, with my thoughts on the wonderful performance free to linger, distracted only by the buzzing crowd filing out of Fairfax Studio.
With the theatre’s curtains drawn to the empty seats, the black cavernous space behind has been transformed into a club-like music venue
Before resurfacing from Supersense’s depths, I tunnel to one of the deepest points of the Arts Centre Melbourne: the State Theatre’s stage. With the theatre’s curtains drawn to the empty seats, the black cavernous space behind has been transformed into a club-like music venue with a raised and lit stage looking down on a dance floor; a spattering of tables located beside a tucked away bar.
The quadruple stop harmonics echoing from Oliver Coates’ cello are the first, and possibly last, true tones of the instrument we hear as part of Skylinerave, a performance displaying Coates’ ability to combine his mastery of the cello with his deftness as an electronic music producer.
A desolate urban environment, the audience travelling through this digital landscape…
From the opening cello phrases the sonic landscape quickly morphs into an intense texture of beats, drones, and heavily effected cello. Coates performs upstanding with his cello, his figure dwarfed by the large projection behind the stage that depicts a desolate urban environment, the audience travelling through this digital landscape from a first-person point-of-view.
Personally aware of Coates’ virtuosity as a cellist for a number of years, I’m amazed to see how comfortable he is performing on his instrument in this unique context, weaving fierce cello lines into his electronic sound world. The intense grooves created linger and punctuate through the small swaying crowd, slowly evolving or suddenly changing at Coates’ discretion.
Soon after Skylinerave fades away, the State Theatre curtains unexpectedly rise, allowing the audience to gaze out onto thousands of empty seats. This sudden unique perspective of the State Theatre perfectly sums up the uniqueness of Supersense. The festival’s opening night allowed attendees to embrace more than a single theatre or a single seat, often our experience when we see a performance at the Arts Centre.
Making my way back through the venue’s curling underground corridors, the omnipresent gurgling sound stays with me until the cold winter rain against my face marks my departure from the arts centre; the end of my brilliant evening at Supersense.
Images supplied. Credit: Mark Gambino.