American policy analyst Michele Wucker in her 2016 book the Gray Rhino referred to dangers people choose to ignore as “A highly probable, high-impact threat: something we ought to see coming, like a two-tonne rhinoceros aiming its horn in our direction and preparing to charge.” Inspired by this quote Grey Rhino explores the way people deny, ignore, and procrastinate on impending problems to their own detriment.
The opening scene was immediately evocative as a group of people stood on a bright white stage staring into the sky; staring at nothing or something the audience can’t see. It was tense and eerie as the performers (Allie Graham, Anika Boet, Callum Mooney, Kate Arber, Mason Kelly, Samantha Hines, and Zachary Lopez) continued to not move or act. This still stare was a recurring image in Grey Rhino as a representation of self-distancing or recognition without engagement. Often the tension was broken as the performers dropped eye-contact and scattered across the stage like scurrying insects. But the group always reassembled to face-off another encounter.
The choreography by co-creators Charmene Yap and Cass Mortimer Eipper was mesmerising for the uncanny use of the performers bodies to create fluidity or distortion. The highly original group sequences which made ample use of bent knees, liquid spines and hips, and a kind of flaccid wrist as though the hand was a creature of its own were incredibly compelling and unexpected. While individual performances from the dancers, including an impassioned scene by Mason Kelly and a jolty, unusual scene by Allie Graham, showed off the unique styles of each dancer. The pacing was rapid and only ramped up in moments of stillness when the expectation of movement made the air taut.
In addition to the choreography, the production design astutely engaged with the production’s themes with a balance between enormity and the minute that rendered the modern world odd and unfamiliar. The costuming by Aleisa Jelbart put each performer in a monochromatic look which together created a group of people who were similar but distinct. Damien Cooper’s set and lighting design incorporated a simple white square encircled by a lighting rig that tilted and lowered to cast shadows and alter the stage space. In the centre, another lighting rig lowered in the final scene to represent the grey rhino imminently pressing down on the performer, allowing less and less room for wilful denial. Hanging the lighting rig above the performance space and lowering it also evoked a sense of the classic extraterrestrial encounter, an other-worldly force entering our world and the threat of abduction. At the same time, the sound design composed by Alyx Dennison amplified the dancers’ uncanny movements with collaged soundscapes of booming, resonant drums, creaking wood, snippets of digital sounds like static and video game soundtracks, and lines from films and music which were all jumbled together in a cacophonous representation of the modern world. Human voices, organic sounds, and inorganic digital sounds were mashed together and made odd in their de-contextualised presentation. The production design played with ideas of unity and juxtaposition to create an urgent, unsettling atmosphere for audience and performer alike.
Whether the grey rhino is a job loss or an unwelcome diagnosis or a huge systemic problem like climate change or digital surveillance or fascism, there is something very human about the desire to stay on the sidelines, procrastinate, and deny rather than face-down a solution. But our inaction won’t stop the world turning and the grey rhino will hit us whether we’re looking at it or not. Like always, there’s a balance to be struck between stillness and movement, individual and community, rest and resistance.
Grey Rhino is running at Carriageworks from January 20th – 23rd
Night Writes stands in solidarity with Palestinian people, activists, and BDS organisers as they call for a boycott of Sydney Festival 2022. Night Writes condemns the sponsorship of Sydney Festival by the Israeli Embassy as collaboration with an apartheid regime. By refusing to return the sponsorship, Sydney Festival has compromised itself and its programmed artists two years into a pandemic that has devastated the arts community. For more information and to sign the open letter, visit here.
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