The IT crowd - Mortal Engine

This article is from 2008

Mortal Engine

An enormous technological feat and huge physical challenge, Chunky Move’s new show has been universally acclaimed. Kelly Apter hears how choreographer Gideon Obarzanek’s dream came vividly to life.

Bumps, bruises and bunions. It’s all in a day’s work for the average dancer. Having your skin scraped off, however, isn’t usually part of the deal. But when Australian dance company, Chunky Move, was rehearsing its new show, Mortal Engine, that’s very nearly what the dancers got. Choreographer Gideon Obarzanek wanted his steps performed on a steeply raked stage. And, as audiences will discover when the show arrives in Edinburgh, he ended up with quite a hill.

‘It’s really steep,’ says Obarzanek of the stage. ‘At the start we did a whole load of calculations on the computer and figured that it was manageable. And then the stage was built so we couldn’t change it after that. But when we went into the studio to rehearse, we realised it was an unbelievable steepness to work on.’

So much so, that the six performers spent more time falling over than dancing. It was time for drastic measures although, at first, they were a little too drastic. ‘We changed the floor three times to more and more adhesive surfaces, because the dancers were just sliding off,’ explains Obarzanek. ‘And it was a very difficult balance to strike. We found surfaces that could grip the feet, but were so abrasive they would rip costumes and wear the skin off.’

Eventually, a compromise was reached; a shock absorbent surface that maintained the dancers’ balance without drawing blood, found in the most unlikely of places. ‘It’s actually a type of flooring normally used in factories,’ says Obarzanek. ‘It’s made of recycled tyres and corks, which works very well. But even then the dancers needed a good six weeks rehearsal time to get used to the surface.’

Obarzanek’s choice of stage wasn’t purely to give his dancers a hard time; he needed it to show off the incredible video projection and laser work which dominates Mortal Engine. As the dancers move, light scatters around them, projected onto the stage via a series of computers. It’s a complicated process which audiences don’t need to understand to enjoy the show. But here’s the science bit anyway: a series of infra-red video cameras film the stage from various angles, calculating where and how fast the bodies are moving. That information is fed into five computers which then generate video images that are projected back onto the dancers.

A seemingly lengthy process but, in reality, the loop of communication takes a fraction of a second. Unlike the original programming. ‘It took a really, really long time. I thought choreography took a long time, but programming takes a lot longer. If I wanted to make a change that seemed visually quite simple, it turned out to be very complicated programming-wise. There was a lot of trial and error, so it took months to create.’

Unlike most dance works, where lighting is used solely to enhance the movement, Mortal Engine gives equal weighting to both artforms. At one point, it even takes over the show. ‘There are a couple of times in the work when the bodies completely disappear and it’s just laser projections. They really take centre stage and have a complete life of their own, projecting throughout the auditorium.’

So much so that during Mortal Engine’s inaugural run at the Sydney Opera House earlier this year, dance fans weren’t the only ones walking through the door. ‘We had a lot of music and IT people coming to see the show,’ says Obarzanek. ‘It’s a very exciting collaboration because it doesn’t feel like one part is more dominant than the other.’

Despite lasers beaming down onto the stage, tiny bee-like images swarming underfoot, and lines of bright light criss crossing in front of the dancers, technology isn’t the only thing on Obarzanek’s mind. The gentle Australian has injected far more meaningful thoughts and feelings into the piece than would first appear. ‘Mortal Engine is about the desire to connect with another person, another body; to dissolve the barrier or shell between ourselves and other people, which very rarely happens. So there are a lot of shadows and images of bodies coming out of other bodies in the show, which can look quite spooky and gothic.’

Rather than creating a ‘them and us’ situation, where the audience sits and observes the action on stage, Obarzanek wants us to have a far more physical response to his work. We should feel it in our body, not just in our minds. ‘I really wanted to create a work that is visceral and almost swallows you up. And for all the technology we use, I think what makes the work special is the fact that it’s a very human piece.’

Mortal Engine, Edinburgh Playhouse, Greenside Place, 0131 473 2000, 17-19 Aug, 8pm, £8-£28.