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Review: James Batchelor's FACES at Courtyard Studio in Canberra is a typically challenging work

FACES is James Batchelor's comment on the effects of war, inspired by letters written by his great-grandfather during World War I. Like much of his work, it is highly confrontational.

FACES. James Batchelor and collaborators. Courtyard Theatre, Canberra Theatre Centre. April 6-10.

James Batchelor's works are always challenging – intellectually, choreographically, musically, and in pretty much every sense. FACES, Batchelor's comment on war and its effects, is no exception. It grew out of Batchelor's discovery of letters written by his great-grandfather from France during World War I. It helps to know this background in advance.

Performed by three dancers, Batchelor, Chloe Chignell and Luigi Vescio, it begins slowly with the three dancers moving downstage on a long strip of white, rumpled material. Their movements are small, but deliberate and precise. In a following section the dancers repeat the move downstage but this time they wear white masks and, while their movements are again small and precise, the steps are more definite and more like a march, even though progress is quite slow again. There is a Butoh-like quality to the choreography and there is plenty of time to ponder what Batchelor is driving at. Time seems to be unfolding slowly as if we are looking from a distance, through time, to the past. The soundscape by Morgan Hickinbotham has a quiet but relentless feeling to it and adds to the sense of time passing slowly. We also become aware that the faces of the dancers are changing. In fact the white masks make the human head looks faceless.

From here it is fascinating to look at what transpires next with the concept of metaphor in mind. As the dancers heave small sand bags onto their shoulders and struggle to move upstage, often throwing the sand bags in front of them, or dragging them along, those bags become heavy burdens of war. Then, as each dancer takes a turn at attaching a length of string to the stationary bodies of the other two performers, a complex string pattern forms across and between the two bodies. I see, or imagine, maps, strategies of war, defined fighting areas. But the patterns collapse as the bodies move.

The point of the work becomes clear in the final moments. One performer (Chloe Chignell) puts a large red traffic cone on her head and pulls it down so it covers her entire face. Another (Luigi Vescio) covers his head with the white, rumpled material and bunches it into a ball that totally disguises his face and removes his humanity. A third (James Batchelor) steps into a huge white bag covered with a large, printed image of his face. As Batchelor moves around inside the bag, staying crouched close to the floor, the image of his face becomes distorted and crumpled. Once again the human faces have changed and are unrecognisable and we are forced to accept that the human body is indeed fragile and impermanent.

What I find attractive about Batchelor's current approach to dance-making is the complexity of his work. It is austere and yet multi-layered. FACES doesn't send you out of the theatre with a song in your heart. It is in fact quite confronting in terms of both its staging and its theme. But it invites the deepest reflection on a very personal level.