Design and music in the hands of choreographer Raewyn Hill and composer Eden Mulholland is the fundamental core of Co3 Contemporary Dance Company. Together with dynamic dramaturg Richard Longbottom, lighting designer Mark Haslam, set designer Bruce McKinven and costume associates Bec Simpkins and Nora Stelter, they have spun a phenomenal work which connects with the audience through explosive energy, retrospection, and a superb soundscape, which begins like the beating of an embryo’s heart. This rhythmic heart-beat persists through a soaring tapestry of sections of Vivaldi’s visceral Gloria in D Major.

Archives of Humanity. Photograph © Chris Symes

Designed, devised and directed by Hill, Archives of Humanity had its world premiere at Perth Festival. Visually it was akin to seeing figures in the Old Masters, with their glow of slanted light, escape from their canvas. Although Hill asked her dancers to respond to works by Caravaggio it was redolent not only of him, but of the myriad sacred works depicting the mystifying beauty and pain of Christ’s crucifixion and his adoration. In one of the many memorable sequences, two lines of dancers parted to reveal a pale girl in white, hands together and outstretched – reminding one of the Pre-Raphaelite painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s depiction of Mary’s less than joyous reception to Gabriel of the news of what was about to befall her in his 1850 painting Ecce Ancilla Domini!.

The crucifixion stance and the sorrowing embrace of bodies inflicted with pain or near death was a constant emblem in the ebb and flow of isolated episodes that often ended in a mass of bodies huddled together for sanctuary. Individuals were hoisted above the groups only to fall or walk upon the hands of prone bodies or rounded backs. The rise and descent of movement was constant. This is an exceptionally challenging work for the 21 dancers, ranging in age from teens to 50 year olds. They dance on a bed of builders’ sand mixed with quartz, which shifts and mounds and flattens as they move – the exciting finale crystallising the danger of its slippery foothold.

The eclectic black and white costuming (with touches of red) did nothing to relieve the dancers of their burden. Long diaphanous skirts worn by men, ruffles around necks, wide lace collars and chasubles made negotiating lifts and escapes from huddled-bodies difficult. But they achieved it with aplomb. Mitch Harvey in a flowing black cloak, Matthew Morris in a black chasuble and David Mack in a wide lace collar and black skirt empathetically shepherded the distraught crowds and hoisted individuals upon their backs, whilst Yilin Kong in top to toe black gave a beautiful and veridical depiction of the depths of despair one can find oneself subjected to, as did the white-clad Claudia Alessi, at times left to roam in abject misery. Gestures and movements were common to all dancers yet each managed to give personal depth and drama to vignettes which afforded the onlooker a cornucopia of focus.

Archives of Humanity. Photograph © Stefan Gosatti

To add to this exploration of human endurance is a flock of 1500 black birds – made from donated clothing – which hangs from the ceiling as you wind through the corridor and enter the auditorium. It is eerily quiet whilst people read the written explanations pasted on the walls of why the clothes were donated and their history. It stems from Hill’s time in Tokyo when she colluded with the sculptor Naoko Yoshimoto who was creating birds in this way. They appealed to Hill because clothing next to your skin holds memories, be they sad or joyous. and birds can soar up and away from adversity. Standing below the installation is a strangely spiritual experience which you find incipient when you sit opposite watching the performance unfold.

Archives of Humanity is a deeply personal reflection on its creator’s life, yet it mines not only your own emotional memory but the pain and the glory of human existence ad infinitum. It is an all-encompassing, powerful and gratifying experience.

Archives of Humanity plays at Studio Underground, State Theatre Centre of WA until 27 February

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