poem for a dried up river | Jane Sheldon & Sydney Chamber Opera

Image by Lisa Tomasetti

The environment and its vast network of interconnected systems often get discussed in enormous scales of time, space, and impact. For the average person, comprehending these huge scales is daunting. In poem for a dried up river, Jane Sheldon and Sydney Chamber Opera collaborate to experiment with mixing big and small in the story of a tiny creature’s Herculean task.

Sheldon embodies the “Roman water nymph made of bone” from Alice Oswald’s poem “Dunt: a poem for a dried up river” who awakes amongst the hum of cicadas to begin her task of summoning a river from limestone. Huddled in the dry riverbed, an installation of 200kgs of clay designed by Elizabeth Gadsby, Sheldon fills the darkness with her shuddering, panting breath, exhausted before the work has even begun. Her bejewelled leotard scatters fireflies around the room under Alexander Berlage’s strong lighting design. Slowly, the nymph unfolds her limbs and the tiny grand action begins with choreography by Danielle Micich.

Her attempts to unroll the clay riverbed are narrated hauntingly by a collection of live musicians from Sydney Chamber Opera, conducted by Jack Symonds. The sound design by Benjamin Carey combines Oswald’s lyrics sung by a piercing operatic soprano with traditional instruments and unusual sound devices like crumpled paper and the ding of a bike bell. These sounds fill the darkness around the riverbed, recreating the natural night but also the abstract human world that continues despite the struggles of the nymph.

The powerful balance of this performance comes from the juxtaposition between natural and supernatural, slow and fast, minuscule and enormous. In observing a tiny nymph creature attempt to rectify the destruction of climate change on her environment in minute detail, the unbearable weight of human environmental destruction becomes palpable. Her perseverance at an apparently futile task is poignant but painful. This is but one nymph and one poem but the dried up river beds are innumerable.

poem for a dried up river is running at Carriageworks from January 6th – 10th as part of Sydney Festival.

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