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Composer Damien Ricketson and Director Carlos Gomes’ new collaboration with the ever-inventive Ensemble Offspring has a suitably enigmatic title. The Secret Noise is an eccentric, but sensitively constructed evening that is part installation, part dance theatre and part concert. It’s a complex gambit: balancing these three potentially overbearing elements could easily be misjudged. However Gomes and Ricketson have succeeded in negotiating the potential pitfalls inherent in immersive performance to create an insightful and highly visceral evening.
Ricketson has set out to explore various ideas of secret music: music that is shielded or hidden from public consumption. This might seem like an unpromising subject matter, but the result is something far more poetic and accessible than one might expect.
In advance of the performance it is requested that the audience bring a simple prop: an abstract drawing that we are asked to customise in some way. The relevance of which is yet to be revealed, but this opportunity for the audience to engage creatively with the show sets the tone for the kind of interactive event The Secret Noise delivers.
The large room benearh Sydney Town Hall provides the perfect blank canvas for this innovative production. Upon entering the space there are five simple marquees dotted around the room. Each of these enclosures contains an opportunity for an intimate, one-on-one performance which take a variety of forms. A contortionist-like dancer who twists into astonishing positions; a tarot reading of feathers and shells; a music box playing strange and dissonant sounds. Our drawings become our currency during these strange encounters – the means by which they are constructed. Each unique drawing is interpreted to produce a spontaneous improvisation that encourages the individual audience members to reach out and contribute in the short, impromptu performance. The opportunity to experience an event in extreme close quarters like this is rare; the effect is both powerful and affronting.
This bizarre collection of performances seem fraught will symbolic mean of we know not what, but as the audience become divided into those absorbed in these one-on-one interactions and those still exploring the rest of the room, the narrative purpose becomes clear. As I catch fleeting glimpses of these strange, intimate exchanges through the openings in the tents, I become aware of the other audience members crowding around. We have been turned into voyeurs, spying on some secret ritual. The room is filled with echoes of strange sounds, throbbing silhouettes of people acting out their unique encounters, and the sound of whispering – a furious stream of consciousness like a kind of sonic back-ground radiation.
Fausto Brusamolino’s simple but effective lighting design indicates to the audience that the second part of the evening is about to begin and we take our seats around a performance space that is already punctuated with a collection of different percussion instruments. Ricketson is a composer whose skill lies in his unique control of sonority. The music has familiar references buried at its core: strains of a late 19th century Parisian salon; a jamming funk band; a gentle, soothing lullaby. This source material is transformed through Ricketson’s ingenious control of sounds, both acoustic and electronic. Dancers are woven into the fabric of the music, swinging a collection of junk-yard instruments that whirl menacingly overhead to create an astonishing synergy between what we see and what we hear. Narelle Benjamin and Kathy Cogill’s choreography is direct and dynamic, infusing elements of humour and pathos into the production. It is the range of emotional exploration in The Secret Noise which is truly revelatory, achieved by the seamless, cohesive curation that led one moment into the next.
As the piece draws to a close the audience is invited to once again engage with the production. We lay our heads down on pillows scattered across the room as Claire Edwardes duets on vibraphone with a cosmic serenade of electronic pulses that seems to take us to somewhere otherworldly.
This idea of being transported is an apt allegory for what Ensemble Offspring have begun to explore with this production. The conundrum of “audience development” is a riddle that has arts organisations scratching their heads and many have decided that dumbing down is the only way to keep their coffers loaded. But while the traditional concept of a concert is far from obsolete, exploring beyond the boundaries of this centuries old paradigm is going to be increasingly essential to ensure the longevity of live performance. Any change in the established norm must be led by trail-blazers willing to buck the trend and take a risk. Ensemble Offspring are pioneers and with this production they have left the first footprints in the sand of an exciting new territory for Australian performance.
Until Saturday 22 November. Tickets and performance times available on the Ensemble Offspring website.