Splashes of reflected light dance across the walls of Carriageworks’ darkened Bay 20, glistening off a hunched body as it gently heaves on a long strip of clay. The sound of breathing washes through the speakers as the curled form – soprano Jane Sheldon – moves with organic insistency, suggesting a cicada (whose song infuses Benjamin Carey’s electronics) laboriously emerging from its shell.

Jane Sheldon performs poem for a dried up riverJane Sheldon performs poem for a dried up river at the Resonant Bodies Festival in New York in 2019. Photo © Gretchen Robinette

Sheldon’s poem for a dried up river debuted at the Resonant Bodies Festival in New York in 2019 and this performance presented by Sydney Chamber Opera as part of Sydney Festival marks its Australian premiere. Best known as one of Australia’s most adventurous singers and performers, Sheldon’s poem for a dried up river sees her also in the role of composer.

Her piece sets British poet Alice Oswald’s Dunt: a poem for a dried up river – about a broken, bone water nymph straining desperately to “summon a river out of limestone” – which was inspired by a Roman figurine the poet saw in a museum. The supernatural invocation of water in times of severe drought resonates powerfully with the ever-growing environmental disaster of climate change, particularly in Australia. In this reimagining of Oswald’s poem, Sheldon gradually unrolls a long strip of clay (an installation by Elizabeth Gadsby), her Sisyphean labour (movement choreographed by Danielle Micich) as she pushes the 200-kilogram roll leaving indelible impressions and indentations in the surface of the river bed as it stretches diagonally across the space.

poem for a dried up river credit Lisa TomasettiJane Sheldon performs poem for a dried up river at Carriageworks as part of Sydney Festival. Photo © Lisa Tomasetti

An ensemble featuring violinist Véronique Serret, violist James Wannan, cellist Jack Ward, trombonist Matthew Harrison, and percussionists Claire Edwardes and Bree van Reyk, conducted by SCO’s Artistic Director Jack Symonds, plays in the darkness behind Sheldon. The music spans droning textures – the trombone an echo of the cicadas and a nod to the didgeridoo of Indigenous music – to the dry crackling of fire, the cries of strings mournful and siren-like. While soprano Anna Fraser sings Oswald’s text with crystalline clarity and hissing sibilants, Sheldon’s own song is wordless – building in intensity from the air of her breathing to ringing pitches that bounce off the ensemble.

It’s an assured, gripping performance that speaks to Sheldon’s mastery of atmosphere – indeed, the focus on breath and the gradual reveal of the lighting recall Sheldon’s incredible 2018 performance in Damien Ricketson and Adena Jacobs’ The Howling Girls – and her vocal precision, as she joins with Serret’s violin in perfect unison to give her wordless tone a razor-sharp edge.

A taut, affecting work, poem for a dried up river seems to teeter between despair and hope, Sheldon conjuring an ambiguous world where the only certainty is the intensity, and necessity, of the struggle.

poem for a dried up river is at Carriageworks, Sydney, as part of the Sydney Festival until 10 January


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