There is nothing remotely chunky about the Australian dance troupe Chunky Move – it is both lean, comprising a half-dozen dancers, and slick, its production quality of the highest order. Founded in 1995, this Melbourne-based ensemble has made its name through Gideon Obarzanek’s works; Mortal Engine dates from 2008. It is a “dance-video-music-laser performance” in which Obarzanek takes the functional role of his dancers to its logical conclusion: they become cogs in his scenic machine, another medium to add to the roster.
Performed on a perilously inclined platform, the show’s shtick is its bravura technology which, by the use of infra-red cameras and several terabytes of computer juice, uses the dancers’ movements to manipulate Robin Fox’s light and Ben Frost’s sound around them. The effect is at times simply mesmerising, as the very surface upon which these intrepid performers move seemingly shifts and swirls, taking on a life of its own, yet clearly emanating from them. Dancers are either the light on stage’s darkness or pools of shadow, either crackling with the aura of electricity or twitching like bacilli on a Petri dish.
In a sense, the dancers’ movements are unimportant, as it is what happens around them that counts – logically, the next step would be to eschew the humans altogether and have robots do the scurrying. Only occasionally does Obarzanek allow his dancers to be human, the most notable episode as a man and a woman twist and turn against a vertical wall like lovers asleep in bed. It is 21st-century son et lumière, a breathtaking exemplar of what can be done scenically by four computer technicians (led by the hugely talented Frieder Weiss) and the extraordinary images and soundscapes conjured up by their hard drive. Nowhere is it more jaw-droppingly brilliant than in the green laser section which envelops the audience in a world of CGI, the dancers playing like aliens in the light.
Obarzanek follows in the tradition of Alwin Nikolais, Pilobolus and Momix in focusing on the shapes and forms that the body can assume rather than the human being that inhabits it, and, by his use of technological wizardry, takes it further. It amazes and ravishes the senses but it does not move. It is movement in The Matrix.