This Poisoned Sea. Quantum Leap. The Playhouse, Canberra Theatre Centre, July 27-29. Bookings: 02 6275 2700 or canberratheatrecentre.com.au.
The studio walls of QL2, Canberra's well-established youth dance organisation, are covered with images of seascapes, melting icebergs and clogged waterways. But alongside these 21st-century, environmentally focused images, and sitting in stark contrast to them, are copies of engravings by the 19th-century French artist and printmaker, Gustav Dore. They are illustrations for an 1876 edition of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.
The poem tells of the problems a mariner faces following his shooting of an albatross after the bird had saved his ship from potential disaster by guiding it out of icy waters. When the figure of Death later visits the ship, the mariner is the only crew member to survive. But as penance for killing the albatross, he must wander the earth telling his story and passing on the message that we need to respect the natural environment.
The poem, QL2's artistic director Ruth Osborne tells me, is being used as inspiration for This Poisoned Sea, the forthcoming show from Quantum Leap, QL2's senior performing group.
"I was looking for something with a literary base for our next show," Osborne says. "One day I happened to bump into former artistic director of Canberra Youth Theatre, Pip Buining. She suggested The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and I quickly agreed."
Buining, now working as a dramaturg, says she encountered the poem at school, and for her "it whispers a timeless message to all of humanity". In the past she created adaptations of the poem for the theatre, but says she always felt that the actors weren't able to embody the physicality she felt was in the text, or the fluidity of the words.
For her, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner has become "a life work", and with the Quantum Leap experience she feels she is getting closer to the heart of the poem. "We need to go back to the Romantic poets," she says, "and honour their idea of a utopian co-existence with nature."
This Poisoned Sea doesn't follow the poem's narrative line. Instead, it has become a way for the young dancers to build consciousness of, and examine how to take responsibility for, issues affecting society. It is an evening-length work composed of three sections, each made by a different choreographer: Eliza Sanders, Jack Ziesing and Claudia Alessi.
All feel strongly about environmental issues. Alessi, for example, has recently returned from carrying out a project on Christmas Island. She was shocked by the amount of plastic waste she saw in the coastal waters there and her section looks at the question of recycling. Her notes, on the studio wall, refer specifically to the albatross in the Coleridge poem and, she says, "the reality is that we all shoot albatrosses every day": "When and how do we stop and make some positive choices about our actions and feelings? How do we move forward? How do we make reparation with ourselves, others and the planet?"
Ziesing also sees The Rime of the Ancient Mariner as a metaphor for the issues faced today.
"The Rime of the Ancient Mariner strikes me as a kind of horror story," he says. "It is a cautionary tale about the consequences we face should we choose to disturb the natural order of things.
"With this in mind, the dancers and I explored issues such as global warming, the destruction of habitats, mass consumerism, religious/gender/race persecution and war, to name a few. They are issues we are facing today that are putting us into a dangerous situation that our planet may not be able to recover from."
I am curious about the tasks Buining set for the dancers as she played out her dramaturgical role as "an objective third eye".
"I am representing Coleridge," she says. "I am the voice of the narrative and I worked to help the dancers interpret the poem. With three choreographers making separate works, I also had to ensure that there was a consistent vision throughout the program."
She says she began by assembling research material and then set out to present an accessible version of the poem to the dancers. From there she moved on to more detail, and had the dancers embody the ideas they had drawn from the poem by creating images and tableaux.
Osborne adds that Buining had the dancers look specifically at the role of the albatross in the poem, showed them that words can be brought to life, and helped them understand how to bring the story into a modern context.
As for that modern context, Ziesing adds, "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is an excellent metaphor for the issues we face today on a micro and macro scale. We are facing the great moral conundrum of 'What kind of situation are we leaving future generations to deal with?' Through the language of dance, This Poisoned Sea is a creative opportunity for the young artists at QL2 to explore these issues."
I, for one, am looking forward to taking this journey of exploration.
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