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the unbearable lightness of unconsciousness

keith gallasch: force majeure, not in a million years


Sarah Jayne Howard, Not in a Million Years, Force Majeure Sarah Jayne Howard, Not in a Million Years, Force Majeure
photo Lisa Tomasetti
A MAN STANDS HIGH UP IN THE DISTANCE, SPOTLIT, ABOUT TO JUMP, HIS VOICEOVER SPELLING OUT THE TENSION GENERATED BETWEEN THE IMPULSES OF HIS REPTILIAN BRAIN AND THE RATIONALITY OF ITS EVOLVED FORM, ALTERNATING BETWEEN SHEER TERROR AND THE ATTRACTIONS OF RISK. ONE, TWO, THREE, HE LEANS...BLACKOUT. WE DON’T KNOW IF HE ACTUALLY JUMPS, BUT ONE THING’S CLEAR, HE WANTS TO AND HE HAS KNOWLEDGE AND CHOICE. BUT FORCE MAJEURE’S NOT IN A MILLION YEARS BUILDS ITS PERVASIVE SENSE OF PHYSICAL AND EMOTIONAL CRISIS NOT FROM THESE EVOLUTIONARY ADVANTAGES BUT FROM INCIDENTS OF POWERLESSNESS AND UNCONSCIOUSNESS, WHERE CIRCUMSTANCES HAVE SUCKED AWAY THE PHYSICAL CAPACITY OR WILL TO ACT.

Some of the figures in Not In A Million Years—an airline attendant, a paraglider and a pair of miners—engage in jobs or activities that are inherently risky. The miners endure the collapse of a mine while the airline attendant suffers something unique: she is the lone survivor—found on the ground—of an aircraft that exploded at 33,000 feet. The paraglider is sucked up “higher than Everest” into the upper atmosphere, unconscious throughout and almost frozen, but miraculously survives (perhaps ‘preserved’ by the cold). Other figures haven’t taken the risks of employment or sport but the will to act is likewise denied them: a man in a comatose state for 10 years suddenly wakes to a world with which he is unable to engage. A woman wins a huge lottery prize but is rendered incapable of using it, fearing public attention and the risk her son might be kidnapped. Another character is a sporting champion (inspired by the story of an astonishing long-jumper), abused and shamed by her coach into mindlessly and dangerously excelling.

Elizabeth Ryan and Vincent Crowley, Not in a Million Years, Force Majeure Elizabeth Ryan and Vincent Crowley, Not in a Million Years, Force Majeure
photo Heidrun Löhr
The horrors of these conditions are made palpable, played out on shifting clouds, fields and dunes of soft, snow-like sparkling crystals through which people wade fitfully—or, like the athlete, forcefully, as if battling sand or heavy surf—or in which they are buried. A man unearths the airline attendant in the first of a series of duets, cradling, lifting, helping her stand before an inevitable, sad collapse. The challenge of helping is further writ large in the frustrations of the wife of the comatose man as she struggles to clothe him while begging for his affection, trying to make him jealous, or in the mutual assistance enacted between the trapped miners, from time-filling chat to shared songs to the slightest of physical shifts to ease pain. Later the wife will drag her comatose husband through the ‘snow,’ unable to make him stand unassisted, amplifying the sense of helplessness experienced by carers as much as the victims of fate.

Max Lyandvert’s emphatic score moodily underlines the action—melancholy piano for the airline attendant, electronic pinging and pulsing for the athlete, ominous rumblings for the miners. Spatial transformations are also effected with the ‘snowscape’ swept away, replaced by mobile walls that frame the entrapment of the wife of the comatose man and the reclusive lottery winner, while the paraglider flies in the distance, often seemingly helpless, an almost constant reminder of the beauty and risk of human flight.

The instability of these aural and visual shifts resonates with emotional complexities as the interwoven tales unfold, some more detailed than others. Survivors like the airline attendant and the formerly comatose man cannot comprehend why they are treated like heroes. The man is bitter over the loss of time and love: “Where’s the miracle?” He cannot relate to his son or understand why his wife just didn’t give up on him—”Why did she keep me...like a piece of nostalgia?” Only a mate’s ironic “Guess what, stupid, you stopped smoking” cheers him.

These ‘accidents’ variously yield humour and fortitude, or reveal the strengths and weaknesses of relationships or result in uncomprehending despair and infinite frustration—the athlete is literally driven up the wall, repeatedly rushing at and bounding up CarriageWorks’ craggy stonework. Amidst such indeterminacy it’s odd that the figure who opened the performance, pondering a leap, returns to muse over a famous tightrope walk between skyscrapers in New York, picking over its meanings—sublime or absurd, inspirational? “Could I ever risk that? Am I ever that alive?” The victims of strange and not so strange accidents in Not In A Million Years have not taken undue risks (you might not like to paraglide, but many thousands do) and in several cases they certainly feel less than alive after their ‘accidents,’ and certainly neither adventurous nor heroic—their will-power had been suspended.

As if to underline a swing to a more optimistic view of the effects of extreme happenstance, the athlete, seemingly freed of her coach, spins and sweeps through the expanse in the first palpably choreographed movements. She draws the other performers with her into a collective dance in silence, cutting neatly through the ‘snow,’ hands pushing back over heads, fingers pointing, legs weakening at the knees (reminiscent of those characters who earlier collapsed into the ‘snow’) but rising up, looking up, suppliant even, asking not “Could I ever risk that?” but “How could I endure those states of being, of suspended will and self, with their all too existential consequences?”

I’m not certain that Not In A Million Years is conceptually consistent or that it fully exploits the potential of its ‘snowscape’ design—visually or sonically—while the deployment of the ungainly mobile walls functionally detracts from the overall eeriness and the soundscore occasionally verges on the melodramatic. But it’s a thoughtful and often disturbing creation that conveys the unbearable lightness of unconsciousness. For a dance theatre work, curiously it’s the naturalism of the affecting performances from Elizabeth Ryan and Joshua Tyler (not least as the wife and erstwhile comatose husband) that provide Not In A Million Years with its emotional centre of gravity, as their world and others around them spin out of control. I’m looking forward, anxiously, to experiencing Not In A Million Years again at Dance Massive in Melbourne in March.


Force Majeure, Not in a Million Years, director Kate Champion, assistant director Roz Hervey, designer Geoff Cobham, performers Vincent Crowley, Sarah Jayne Howard, Elizabeth Ryan, Joshua Tyler, original music, sound designer Max Lyandvert; CarriageWorks, Sydney, Nov 18-27, 2010; www.forcemajeure.com.au

This article was first published online Jan 17, 2010.

RealTime issue #101 Feb-March 2011 pg. 37, web

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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