REVIEW: Communal Table

Dancenorth's Georgia Rudd performing in 'Communal Table' PHOTO: Amber Haines

There was a pleasant apprehension in the air as 44 guests gathered in the foyer of Townsville’s School of Arts building last night.

We’d all been invited to witness the first preview of Dancenorth’s latest work, Communal Table, ahead of it’s World Premiere at the Brisbane Festival next week.

Dancenorth’s own description of this work is deliberately vague: “Communal Table sets out to illuminate the most basic of human desires through the sharing of four fundamental ingredients – food, wine, conversation and dance. What if we were to arrive as strangers, and leave as friends?”

In addition to this, we’d been emailed some curious instructions before our arrival: Wear comfortable shoes. Leave valuables at home. You’ll want to be hands-free when you enter the performance space.

As we enjoyed drinks on arrival, I’d occasionally overhear someone lean in to another and ask ‘So do you know what’s happening?’. In an age where movie trailers give away all the best bits and internet spoilers are near unavoidable, this general unknowing was refreshing. It bound us all together in a shared sense of mystery and mystification, and somehow leveled the playing field for everyone there regardless of age, gender, social class, sexuality, ethnicity or any other ‘box’ that we may care to put ourselves or others in.

To that end, I’ll do my best to write this review without unravelling the mystery.

When all the guests had assembled, we were ushered single file into the performance space; gently, temporarily disconnecting us from the human safety nets we’d each arrived with and plugging us in to something… else. Ourselves? The Universe? A deeper level of shared human consciousness? That’s for the individual to decide, as is much of this work.

As we found our seats and began chatting with our table-mates – with a few helpful prompts here and there, if needed – conversation flowed freely and easily. The idea of bringing people together over food and wine is not a novel one, but with a few near-imperceptible tweaks to the standard formula, Dancenorth has managed to juice even more from this age-old recipe for connection.  I quickly learned a wealth of information about my nearest two neighbours – their values, their hopes, their passions, their fears and the experiences that have helped shape them to this point. In any other setting, such willing and widespread vulnerability would be unthinkable but there, in that space so carefully designed for such a purpose, it seemed to come naturally.

Dancer, Ashley McLellan in Dancenorth’s Communal Table PHOTO: Amber Haines

As the unexpected conversations were really hitting their stride, the dancers emerged.

Communal Table comprises eight solos, borne from intense partnerships between eight choreographers and eight dancers. Only four solos were performed at last night’s preview, but they were all strikingly different despite multiple commonalities including the space, soundtrack, length and the aching intimacy between audience and performers. These pieces require a presence and an energy exchange from both parties that is often lacking in the performing arts. But when you’re challenged to hold a dancer’s gaze, when their outstretched palms pass centimetres from your face, and when their impassioned freneticism suddenly falls still and silent so that all you can hear is their breath; you won’t be able to look away.

In Communal Table, the dancers invite the audience to comment on what they see and feel in the solos. With some pieces quite literal and others incredibly abstract, interpretation can be a deeply introspective task. Every moment in the evening had been priming us for this one – the point of reflection, revelation and, quite possibly, the starkest exposure yet. Some of the interpretations offered were similar, others vastly different; though we were quickly reassured that there is no right or wrong.

For some dancers, the solos will be shaped by their interpretation of the environment at that particular moment. Dancer, Amber Haines, shared with us that there were movements in her solo last night she’d never done before; and that her own sensitivity to the audience’s response informed these changes in her. It’s a powerful thing for an audience to be made aware of their personal effect on a performer, and I hope people will consciously carry that idea with them whenever they attend live performance in the future.

No two people will walk away from Communal Table with carbon-copy experiences. That’s precisely the idea. Somehow, this show accelerates the discovery of common threads and forks-in-the-road to connect people in a way that many of us have forgotten. In one room, over just a few hours, we come to realise that none of us is different, because none of us are the same.

Maybe the world needs a little more of that.

Dancenorth will present a series of sold-out previews of Communal Table in Townsville on 10-13 September, before the work’s World Premiere at Brisbane Festival on 18-21 September 2019. For tickets to the Brisbane shows, click here.

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