The sprawling Sunset Heritage Precinct, established on the banks of Perth’s Swan River in 1904, has been many things, including a care facility for elderly and destitute men, and a general hospital. But for more than two decades, the site has lain vacant; its abandoned buildings gradually decaying under the blistering West Australian sun and succumbing to the encroaching flora.
It’s a site that oozes with character, and that’s precisely what UK director and choreographer, Maxine Doyle, has harnessed in her new site-specific production, Sunset. Co-commissioned by Perth Festival and produced by local outfits STRUT Dance and Tura New Music, the immersive dance-theatre work invites audiences to experience a dramatic reimagining of Sunset’s colourful and complex history and the many stories it holds.
Sunset. Photographs © Simon Pynt
The show begins outside in the grounds of the heritage precinct, where a violinist (Brian Kruger) dressed in black tie plays a delicate and melancholic tune. We are encouraged to follow him as he meanders towards a large building in the distance. We do, curiously. A dimly lit entrance leads us through a warren of derelict rooms – an office with upturned and broken furniture; a kitchen filled with huge mounds of dirt. Flashes of lights spill down upon us through gaping holes in the ceiling.
Eventually we reach the main hall – a long, cavernous space with high windows and a small proscenium stage at the far end. The audience are free to roam, encountering the many characters who fill the space. A nurse in a white uniform offers tea and coffee from her trolley; a man in baggy clothes with shaggy hair drifts between chairs in a drunken stupor; a young man covered in gold glitter darts around the space with strange urgency. It’s a peculiar scene that invites the viewer to observe the performers at close range; moving throughout the hall to curate one’s own narrative.
These characters form the substance of the work. Through a series of danced and spoken vignettes, we see the people who may have lived or worked at the old men’s home, those who came to visit them, and perhaps the people its residents only ever dreamed of becoming. At times, we see these characters doing ordinary things, like celebrating a birthday or reading a poem. At other times, often abruptly, they transition to an altered state of being, punctuated by dramatic or ecstatic movement.
This oscillation between states speaks of a restlessness; a kind of existential limbo that only a place like Sunset could provoke. We see movement, but no progress. Here, Doyle makes a reference to the classical Greek myths of Demeter and Persephone, using a veiled woman in black (performed with exquisite nuance and skill by Natalie Allen) to represent the grief and endless search for reunion in life and death. It’s not the clearest of references and its specific connection to Sunset is not fully addressed.
But for all this bleakness, there are moments of absurdity and levity that border on magical. In the final scene, with what appears to be sunlight streaming through the windows, the characters perform a folkish dance, complete with hand claps, outstretched arms and twisted hips. The string quartet sits atop the small proscenium, accompanying and driving the dance forward.
As it reaches its zenith, there is a moment, beneath the hazy hues of the golden ballroom lights, when we are completely transported to another time. A time when the halls of Sunset filled with chatter, hopes and stories. We hear the pulse of the building and glimpse the faces of its past inhabitants.
As Doyle writes, the building is the ‘main character, centre stage’. Bruce McKinven’s design and installations marvellously create a room of abeyance, where dozens of chairs are endlessly rearranged next to windows overrun by native bush and mounds of dirt swept in by the wind. Matthew Adey’s clever lighting design accentuates the building’s personality and charm, and, crucially, helps direct focus.
The ensemble cast – made up of 12 independent Australian dancers and actors – exhibit maturity and remarkable talent. Each performer embodies their character with total conviction, developing an idiosyncratic and mesmerising movement vocabulary. And although there are a dozen unique stories being told, they, like the audience, are doing so through the communality of the space.
Although the work relies heavily on fictitious and mythological narrative, rather than local or site-specific histories – arguably a missed opportunity – there is plenty of magic to enjoy in this production. Doyle’s talent in bringing together performance, design, lighting and sound to activate unique spaces is both impressive and original. Sunset manages to birth new life into a dormant building in the most surprising and captivating way.
Sunset runs as part of the Perth Festival until February 17