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Exploring the country of death

Leah Mercer

Igneous, Thanatonauts, Navigators of Death, video still Igneous, Thanatonauts, Navigators of Death, video still
Thanatonauts, Navigators of Death, by Brisbane-based cross-cultural and cross-artform performance group Igneous is not a video of a live performance, but rather a video in which the live and the mediated co-habit. The title, inspired by the novel Les Thanatonautes by Bernard Werber, is a blend of Greek words meaning ‘death voyager.’

In this 12 minute video, Igneous explore the country of Death and the idea “that death is not an end in itself but a separation of life into 5 elements: space, earth, water, air and fire.” These elements provide a series of landscapes to be navigated by the performers: James Cunningham (choreographer), Vinildas Gurukkal, Scotia Monkivitch and Simon Adams, all decked out like warriors of the afterworld.

The ingredients for this piece are diverse: a series of pre-recorded interviews conducted with Brisbane locals on the subject of death; contemporary dance; Kalaripayatt, a South Indian martial art with master/performer Vinildas Gurukkal; Zane Trow’s original music, Andrew Kettle’s soundscape and the Brisbane Powerhouse itself. Igneous’ ongoing relationship with this building, both as a venue supporting live arts and as a piece of architecture, is here taken to a whole new level, as it becomes the canvas against which they perform.

The interviewees respond to the implicit but unspoken question: what do you know about death? This question evokes everything from loss and release to “no more chocolate cake.” Particularly compelling are the personal stories that deal with the loss of a family member. The intimacy of these stories yields complex responses: sadness, struggle, fear, respite, happy endings. At first the interviews are delivered as voiceovers, part of the soundtrack to the images. Later the speakers themselves appear. Putting faces to anonymous voices grounds the material and it is this integration of the non-performed with the highly theatrical, the ordinary with the extraordinary that multiplies the resonances of this work.

The physical vocabulary integrates contemporary dance (Cunningham has performed with Dance North and DV8) with Kalaripayatt. Igneous’ Artistic Directors Suzon Fuks (director/editor) and Cunningham, met Gurukkal in 2000 during an Asialink residency in India. Since then they have invited him to Australia twice to conduct masterclasses in Kalaripayatt. His presence is most notable as the ensemble navigates the element of fire. In his mastery of the form, both a spiritual practice and a self-defence, Gurukkal’s is a powerfully grounded persona, endowed with the qualities of a guide on this journey. As the ensemble navigates the other elements, the viewer is led through an array of startling dream-like images that evoke the changing qualities of the elements. The integration and interaction between Kettle’s sound design and Trow’s score casts a delicate web around the action.

About 2 years ago I saw an earlier version of this work in one of the rehearsal rooms at the Powerhouse, which was my introduction to Igneous. The work combined video with live performance, engulfing the audience in a sense of landscape by projecting onto the bodies of the performers and the walls around us. The rawness of this version, its use of space (a memorable moment combined doors and projections to create a sense of access to another world) and the integration of live action and media helped to generate a sense of a third space that is less immediate in the video version. It has been replaced by the integration of the non-performed (in the form of the interviews) and the heightened cinematic quality of the world inhabited by the performers. The third place of this video is equally alien but perhaps a little less visceral; I craved a little more liveness in my Death.

Thanatonauts demonstrates Igneous’ ability to weave together disparate strands and to make each an essential component in the creation of the final product. As director and editor, Suzon Fuks’ command of the material is clearly apparent. Sound and image seem to breathe, rising and falling, precise and deliberate. The ultimate impact of the piece is achieved through an accumulation of information that works at both emotional and intellectual levels. One of the interviewees relates her experience of lying in the ocean and feeling as if water and air were one. For her, this is a perfect evocation of death. This metaphor of oneness captures Igneous’ marriage of form and content.

Igneous, Thanatonauts, Navigators of Death, video director/editor Suzon Fuks, photography Russell Milledge; Visy Theatre, Brisbane Powerhouse, Feb 15

RealTime issue #61 June-July 2004 pg. 6

© Leah Mercer; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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