Skeleton Tree review (Malthouse Theatre, Melbourne)

My thinking, for some years now, is that as one nears ‘the end’, a round of applause is owed. For getting through, if nothing else. I love that Stephanie Lake’s newest work, Skeleton Tree: 13 meditations on death and loss, begins with just such an ovation.

What follows is a series of reflections we are encouraged to view “through the lens” of our own mortality, on death and its inevitability, and on the ways in which we experience loss and grief.

A kind of physicalised On Death and Dying, but nowhere near so prescriptive.

It’s a riveting experience, at once intense and soothing. A description and an act of witness.

Let us go now, my one true love
Call the gasman, cut the power out
We can set out, we can set out for the distant skies

In contrast to last year’s Colossus, Lake’s Skeleton Tree is small scale – in numbers though not in breadth of thought – performed by just three dancers, Marlo Benjamin, Nicola Leahey and James O’Hara, in varying permutations and combinations.

Kaleidoscopic patternings and precise arrangements of bodies – where does one being begin and another end? – are contrasted with moments of chaotic abandon (death as dance party) at once exhilarating and terrifying. And there’s a wildness at times, a howling at the moon in the face of death.

Sometimes the dancers’ bodies are a blur of arms and legs, an entanglement of connection and, conversely, an indication of the need to disentangle, to save the whole. Sometimes a single body defies the darkness; the body, the person, a possibility, in an intimation of what might have been.

And sometimes release is a battle fought, a hill to climb. Spasms, quivers, hiccoughs, flickers, flinches of movement, of awareness; as the barrier between life and death is tested, resisted, relaxed into.

Each reflection is separated by a blurring of sound: wind, the sea, the void. And, throughout the piece, Robin Fox’s evocative score – broken at times by more domestic, familiar songs and iconic conjurations (Joan Baez, Bach, Saint-Saëns, Angels of Abhorrence, the Cave-man himself) – whether sounding of chimes and clocks or pulsing metallic aggression, conveys the pervasiveness of time, the passing of the moment.

While, in Niklas Pajanti’s ravishing design, light is an elemental force: splintering, shattering the darkness; cradling, bathing, softening the edges of sight.

The balance of strength and fragility in much of Lake’s work is evident here. Her concerns are intimate, private, singular and yet open hearted, communal.

In my end is my beginning

There’s a ritual quality to one of the later segments.

Leahey is The Body, Benjamin and O’Hara The Mourners, The Embalmers; worshipping, washing. It’s almost detached, but respectful, measured: Cleanse me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.

Finally, to the gliding, floating sounds of Saint-Saëns Swan, Leahey is spinning, endlessly spinning into the abyss.

Let us go now, my only companion

Set out for the distant skies

Soon the children will be rising

Will be rising

This is not for our eyes

As I write this, the calculated, casual violence at the mosques in Christchurch, and the aftermath is playing out.

Sometimes words are not enough.

Skeleton Tree plays at the Malthouse Theatre as part of Dance Massive until March 23.

Image credit: Pippa Samaya

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