Photo by James Brown
I’ve been told to disseminate only positivism about Branch Nebula’s latest performance, Sweat. Or so were the instructions of the bossy maid who opens the show, a petite woman dressed in black, carrying a silver butler tray.
Asked to leave our assumptions, judgments and bitchy gossip at the door, we enter and re-enter the large, chairless warehouse space at HKW, where we naturally fall into an open circle, waiting expectantly for the action to spring in the room’s centre. What follows is 75 minutes of humorous, high energy, interactive performance that stretches the elastic bubble dividing spectator/performer, master/servant and work/play.
The Sydney-based company, all co-performers, creators, and choreographers, lay a rainbow omelette of talent on the table: a footballer, an obstacle course-driver and parkour athlete, a performance artist, a dancer, a B-boy and an audio artist – all hailing from cultural backgrounds as varied as their skills. Wheeling in massive sound equipment, lights, table settings, and a variety of other goodies, the performers act as their own crew, proposing immediate questions about who is being served.
Wearing their ‘happy-faces,’ they get right to work. One performer prostrates, uses her long dark hair as a mop; another takes a mop-handle in his teeth, hands behind his back. Drill and hammer sounds ping from the speaker factory in one corner, while from another comes the clanging of plates and a handful of dropped cutlery. When a sweat-drenched ‘waiter’ strips down and surfs naked on the pungent, food-smeared dining table, it’s as much of a riot to watch the audience react, as it is to check out the action itself. Two spectators filch pineapple rings from a tray, while another woman sidles up to photograph the facedown-naked performer, without his consent.
Using movement, sound, light, song and text, the work attempts to discuss workplace and gender politics, the divide between the rich and poor, and the struggle to be seen from the ‘invisibles’ who perform menial, low-wage service in our industries.
I wanted more choreographed physical sequencing, whether from the existing bits of dance, kickboxing, dubstep, or from the breathtaking parkour athlete who scans walls in the show’s last seconds. The fashion-show at the mid-point is a disappointing bit of pageantry and feels unrelated to the narrative and characters. Similarly, some transitions become too pedestrian and start to lag, such as a jolly two-step parade of wine bottles and food platters.
Still, it’s not often a work succeeds in showing me something ‘made new’. By allowing the audience to move, and by serving up more than just visual candy, this a roving, physical experience that’s anything but bland.