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The Paratrooper Project (Judith Wright Centre, Brisbane)

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Last time Phluxus2 took over the Judy, its performance space was transformed into a post-apocalyptic wasteland. This time, we slip off our shoes in the foyer and tread into a tent formed by white parachutes, loosely threaded together. I slip into a corner as the space slowly fills to hotbox capacity. Three audience members start singing Ziggy Stardust to themselves.

Artistic director Nerida Matthaei’s latest dance theatre installation, The Paratrooper Project, unfolds into a dreamscape of disparate war narratives, exploring our detachment to conflict — war as ‘another country over there’ — as well as our relationship to grief. We encounter women who have lost their loved ones, men fighting in the trenches, soldiers humiliated as prisoners of war. These tableaux are performed by dancers Matthaei, Gareth Belling, Gabriel Comerford and actor Margi Brown Ash, all costumed by Lisa Fa’alafi in stark white.

The parachutes themselves shift to expand or contract the space, and sometimes seem to act as gas, fog or sheets to wrap bodies — or reveal ghosts. Beyond this motif, airborne warfare itself is never mentioned, making for an odd disconnect between set design and the work’s themes. Furthermore, the invitation to set aside our shoes to ‘enjoy the delicate embrace of [the show’s] parachutes’ is all for naught. Though we move about free-range, there’s nothing special for our feet to touch.

Matthaei’s stark choreography is the foundation of The Paratrooper Project. Performers waft, fight, collapse and crawl through the space. Layered atop the movement, spoken word complements Andrew Mills’ looped, minimalist sound design. The artists unravel repeated, vivid images. Matthaei, as a grieving woman, describes ‘humanity coming off me like the rind of an orange’. Brown Ash, often acting as maternal narrator, introduces humour — slightly jarring in amongst scenes that evoke violence and anguish — offering to repair all ills with tea and biscuits.

Despite an intriguing set up, the installation feels bare. Some sequences are hard to piece together, with relationships between characters unclear. Others are heavy-handed, even at one point reaching for that easy scapegoat, Facebook, to warn of our Slip’n Slide towards an apathetic end. Sometimes, the text itself is just mystifying, as when a male prisoner of war is threatened with humiliation by menstrual blood. The audience is fidgety.

In an evocative moment, we lie down (shoed and barefoot alike) to take in a guided meditation through the trenches themselves. It turns nightmarish; I’ve rarely been so aware of my breathing. It’s a nuanced scene that builds a sense of dread, exploring our concepts of safety, memory and involuntary flashback. When we stand, pushing away low clouds of parachute, we’re drawn in for an intimate morality lecture and handed oversized kindergarten chalk. For reasons barely clarified, we write messages to our dead loved ones on the floor: ‘to the ones who came before’.

The Paratrooper Project aims to contrast historical regimes with present-day conflicts. By interweaving warzones with the domestic, the artists examine the impact of war on the everyday. Unfortunately, a scattershot approach dilutes the message, and the show’s nebulous narratives are a challenge to access, even by parachute.

The Paratrooper Project plays at the Judith Wright Centre, Brunswick Street, New Farm, until 4 July.

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