September 3, 2020
Arts & Culture

Restless dancers shed new light on expressionist artworks at AGSA

Audiences will be treated to an intimate and immersive art experience at the Art Gallery of SA with Seeing Through Darkness, a new performance created by Restless Dance Theatre in response to the works of expressionist artist Georges Rouault.

Restless Dance Theatre artistic director Michelle Ryan admits she was surprised it was the works of expressionist artist Georges Rouault that caught her attention when she was invited to explore the Art Gallery of South Australia’s collection around five years ago.

Her goal was to select an artist as inspiration for a new Restless project, and there was something about Rouault’s monochromatic portraits that drew her in.

“They are not something I thought I would go for,” Michelle says.

“I thought I would choose something pretty and bright, but these have such depth of emotion … they’re really dark but the physical form is very sculptured in the artworks.

“The reason I was drawn to them is that, in some ways, people could see them as quite grotesque but there’s such beauty in them as well. I like that contradiction within the work.”

Seeing Through Darkness, which will be presented at the Art Gallery of SA from today until October 2, is the physical response to Rouault’s art created by Ryan and her team at Adelaide-based Restless – Australia’s only dance company working with artists with and without disability.

Six dancers will perform alongside the works, accompanied by an original score by Hilary Kleinig and Emily Tulloch and a dramatic interplay of light and shadows designed by Geoff Cobham and Meg Wilson.

Although much of Rouault’s art has a religious theme, Michelle selected nine works focused on the human figure and experience.

She says the dancers first looked at the forms within the portraits and sought to sculpt their bodies into similar positions.

They also created movement in response to the names of works, which include evocative titles such as Alone, in this life of pitfalls and malice, To love would be so sweet, and The society lady fancies she has a reserved seat for heaven.

“Also, there are some paintings that have two people in them and you can see there’s a friendship, and there’s others where there’s an interaction between the people, so we then interpreted what that might have been or what feeling is evoked when you look at the painting.

“It has been quite an unusual process.”

Georges Rouault, France, 1871-1958, ‘In the winepress, the grapes were crushed’, plate 48 from Miserere et Guerre, 1922.

Restless had already done a development last year for Seeing Through Darkness, so the choreography was largely complete before the COVID-19 shutdown began. However, Hilary Kleinig and Emily Tulloch had to collaborate online to create the original score, featuring violin and cello, which Michelle says beautifully complements the different moods of the dance.

Also integral to the performance is the innovative use of light and shadows, with light arcing around the performers in a way that mimics how the sun tracks.

“The lighting is just exquisite,” Ryan says. “It sort of follows the journey we went on; it starts off dark and monochrome but then he (Geoff Cobham) is able to split the light and these vibrant colours come through.

“It’s really like he’s painting the walls himself with the lighting.”

To enter the performance space, audience members walk through a darkened antechamber where Rouault’s paintings are hung. Each performance is 15 minutes long, and although there are several each day – 45 in total – many are already fully booked ahead of today’s opening.

Social distancing guidelines mean only around 10 people can attend each session, but for those lucky enough to secure a ticket, Seeing Through Darkness promises to be something special – an exploration of human experience both intimate and immersive.

Outside performance times, visitors will be able to view the work as a projection and transform the space themselves – by means of their own shadow, cast in vibrant colour in overlapping arcs on gallery walls.

Ryan says the “imperfect form of the human body and the troubled soul” of Rouault’s works resonate with how people with disability can feel and be perceived.

“Something that I’ve always been interested in is that for someone with a disability, some people would see the beauty in the person while others would see the difference, but for me I actually see the beauty in the difference.

“It’s similar with the artworks – I feel like they’re not the perfect form, there is such emotion there. People could find them scary or confronting but actually they are very beautifully crafted.”

Restless Dance Theatre’s Seeing Through Darkness. Photograph Shane Reid.

Seeing Through Darkness is being presented at the Art Gallery of South Australia from September 4 until October 2.

Friday, September 4 also marks the return of live events at the AGSA, including a First Fridays: Revival after-hours program offering guided exhibition tours, live music in the courtyard, and a conversation involving Michelle Ryan, Geoff Cobham and curator Maria Zagala about the creative development of Seeing Through Darkness. 

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