A “curtain” of glowing green light separates the audience from the stage as we enter the Bay 17 auditorium at Carriageworks. After a burst of jagged sound, the light softens and we see through to the wide open stage, which has a number of illuminated, hanging cocoons from which 13 young bodies gradually emerge. Jerking, twisting and shaking, they shed a flimsy white covering to appear not as butterflies but as small organisms – insects or creatures of some sort in hooded brown jumpsuits.
It’s an intriguing start to The Last Season, a new work from dance theatre company Force Majeure. As it turns out, it’s the highlight in a piece in which the design – set and costumes by Marg Horwell, lighting by Damien Cooper – and the music by Kelly Ryall are the most compelling elements.
Pamela Rabe as Summer and members of the youth ensemble. Photograph @ Brett Boardman
The Last Season was commissioned by Carriageworks and is presented as part of Sydney Festival. Directed and choreographed by Force Majeure Artistic Director Danielle Micich, it was inspired by the music and themes of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons – though we only hear a tiny snatch of Vivaldi’s music near the end of the show. In fact, had you not known beforehand that The Last Season was a response to Vivaldi’s Four Seasons you might struggle to make the connection.
With original text by Tom Wright and a new score by Kelly Ryall, The Last Season features Australian performers Paul Capsis and Pamela Rabe, Irish actor Olwen Fouéré, and an ensemble of 13 young performers aged between nine and 14 from Force Majeure’s Young Company.
Micich has divided the piece into four sections. After the opening, Pamela Rabe appears, looking regal in a period gown with grey-tinged hair piled high and a long plait down her back. The way she glides across the stage in the dress is a lovely visual touch. She is teaching the young ensemble how to go out into the world and, as she says, fill it with light.
With her references to the need to hurry because “Autumn” is on the way, we infer that she represents Summer – not a blooming, vibrant summer but a summer that has been around for centuries (given her costume).
She appears to be trying to introduce order and pre-ordained movement to the ensemble, which copies what she does. But when one of them starts thinking on her own, Rabe’s character is concerned enough about the way things are changing to hang around when Autumn (Paul Capsis) appears.
Paul Capsis as Autumn and the youth ensemble. Photograph © Brett Boardman
As Autumn, Capsis is an ageing “cabaret artiste” in shorts and glittery showman jacket, coming to the end of his career. As he tells us, he longer inspires the younger generation. When introduced to him, young people show little interest in what he does, one even vomits. Autumn, it seems, is far more interested in himself and his fate than the young creatures, who eventually turn on each other and on Summer.
Olwen Fouéré, in white shirt and trousers, with black tie and glorious white hair, certainly exudes a sense of Winter, as she emits a long, bleak sigh and bursts of cold, sharp breath. Throwing chalk onto the floor from a bum bag, the creatures draw shivering lines of white, then collapse to the floor as if frozen – all but one with pink chalk who interacts with Winter. Winter meanwhile speaks about the extinction of beasts and air and water.
In the final section, the three actors sit at a table and play cards without a care in the world, while the young ensemble (finally released from their brown suits, now wearing shorts and tee shirts) faces a bleak future – expressed through a long dance sequence. The green light at the front at which they gather, peering through it, seems to suggest the future. The scene is a symbol, perhaps, of the old order doing little to address the problems it has left behind; problems which the young generation must grapple with.
The Last Season has some lovely visual elements, and Ryall’s music – performed by Ryall himself (electronic keyboard), Niki Johnson (percussion), Freya Schack-Arnott (cello), and Susie Bishop (violin and vocals) – is haunting, atmospheric and lyrical.
But the piece is so abstract that you come out trying to work out what it all means rather than pondering the issues it supposedly raises. The promotional material claims: “… this world premiere production explores ageing, environmental destruction, speculative paths to human survival, and asks: ‘How did we get here? What have we built? How can we continue?’” It also refers to “a vibrant intergenerational conversation”.
Olwen Fouéré as Winter. Photograph © Brett Boardman
The idea of changing seasons and things mutating and ending is clear but beyond that the production doesn’t get to grips with the other ideas in any real depth – though different audience members will doubtless relate to it in different ways. I didn’t respond emotionally to any of it, though others might, and at nearly 90 minutes, it felt over extended for the ideas portrayed.
The choreography, which Micich created in collaboration with the Youth Company, includes a great deal of juddering and shaking, and although the movement does develop it doesn’t change as much as it might across the show.
That said, The Last Season looks beautiful, with some wonderful lighting effects. The music is also atmospheric and the production is well performed by the three leading performers and the terrific young ensemble, who give it their all.
The Last Season runs at Carriageworks until 10 January