Australian Dance Reviews

‘Grey Rhino’: Big societal issues translated into dance

'Grey Rhino'. Photo by Daniel Boud.
'Grey Rhino'. Photo by Daniel Boud.

Carriageworks, Sydney.
20 January 2022.

Sydney Festival 2022 central theme has been “finding your Sydney” and has been an opportunity to showcase and highlight some of Sydney’s lesser known artists and performers.

After two years of interruptions and ongoing tribulations, it’s been good to see the independent dance scene receive much needed space and encouragement for such projects as Yung Lung and Grey Rhino

Grey Rhino is the latest passion project of Sydney Dance Company stalwarts Charmene Yap and Cass Mortimer Eipper exploring our flawed and mixed responses to existential threats through dance.

It’s a portentous theme, foreshadowed by a surging pandemic, erratic weather and divisive artist boycotts. Grey Rhino is a concise 55-minute work that examines how societal-wide issues such as climate change and the global pandemic are avoided, ignored or skirted around without regard to the wider social consequences. 

It begins with seven dancers, alert to an impending threat and for a moment orient themselves in unison before their actions fragment into a collective action, disputes, attempts to go solo, before their increasingly panicked stances. 

The cast is a diverse collection of independent performers that perfectly capture the everyday milieu and relevance of the themes explored. Like many ensemble works that explore contemporary social issues, the individuality of the characters seem to get lost in the collective action. 

Yap and Mortimer Eipper’s supple choreography give the dancers space to explore the odd mixture of conflicting and stereotypical responses. There is a boldness in the dancers’ attempts to respond to the ever-changing environment, as they move from confusion, to aggression, to compliance, to determination…finally, panicking in fear. There is a subtle pathos as each dancer attempts to solve the problem with hopeful, innovative but forlorn attempts. 

Alyx Dennison’s composition and sound design provided a soundscape that is haunting and emotionally draining. It is an entrancing mix of narcotizing music that draws the audience into the everyday before shaking themselves out and into a new emergency, or another oncoming assault. 

Damien Cooper’s set and lighting design provides a combination of transparency and a larger-than-life threat. While the stage is a microcosm of humanity, the lighting design gives the impression of having their responses clinically examined as if under a microscope – of dance as a diagnostic tool. Using light as both a source of enlightenment and also the cause of their doom was an apt move and gave the work a wide resonance. 

Grey Rhino is a much needed work that translates big abstract social issues into the intimate and immediate language of dance and our bodies. The only quibble with this thoughtful work was a lack of dramatic risk, real danger and uncertainty. Without a live risk or uncertainty, the dance can feel predetermined as it doomed them to go through the motions. We need the visceral feeling of a charging 600-pound rhino, not just a metaphorical one 

By Elizabeth Ashley of Dance Informa. 

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