Somewhere on a Nordic island is a vault containing seeds. They are preserved there, in the Svalbard Seed Bank, in case catastrophe were to strike. It is there that we would turn in an apocalypse for the crops we would need to progress into the future. Through a process of selection and conservation, we would have secured our collective survival.
On Reefs and Eroded Lands We Danced, a full-length work by ŻfinMalta artistic director Paolo Mangiola, opened the company’s 2022/23 season between October 21-23 at the Valletta Campus Theatre. At its centre is the question of what we would select and preserve to ensure our futures – what we would conserve as essential elements to protect life on earth. It is a work that bids us to ask: ‘if our house were burning, what would we try to save?’
It just so happens that our house is burning – our home is perhaps in imminent danger. We feel this sense of urgency the moment we step into the theatre: a countdown timer reminds the audience that tardiness is not an option. At 7.30pm sharp the production began – “we have written ourselves into the DNA of this planet,” a dancer tells us, “laced human history into the very earth”. A look at the programme reveals the dancer is quoting a line from Life in the Post-Human Landscape by Cal Flyn.
Soon after, the dancers engage in a rhythmic sequence at once harrowing and beautiful: much in the way that human beings do not tread lightly on the earth, whether to make beautiful things or ugly ones, so do the dancers trod heavily on the stage. It is a moment showing the ambivalence of our human positions in the world.
The electronic music by the Indian composer Goya was exceedingly welcome, as was the visual art of Matthew Attard, whose distinctive pieces added greatly to the choreography. Both music and art fed off each other seamlessly.
We are reminded when witnessing this that we have dishonoured our home
The choreography does not admonish the human being for his existence or his being in the world. Rather, it paints a complex picture reflective of reality.
The audience is reminded of our collective impact on the world when dancers engage with some seated figures, where the seating comprised a single file wrapping around the four walls of the stage. Dances held out their hands to invite viewers to participate; most obliged, one did not.
When in a spirit of collaboration, we can erect edifices – reflected in the wood-framed screens used by the dancers to make towering structures onstage. When fractured, we turn to violence: an ensuing scene shows dancers punching at the air, one of them engaging in seppuku – a form of ritual suicide that originated with Japan’s ancient samurai warrior class.
We are reminded when witnessing this that we have dishonoured our home.
The fifth and final part of the choreography is a litany of failures. Perhaps our greatest failing as human beings is that we have come to look at what is ugly and call it beautiful – a perversion reflected in our modern environments to no end. The same topsy-turvyness is exemplified in the dancers’ garb, all worn strangely and uncomfortably.
Produced by the ŻfinMalta company dancers, the long list of strage states disquiets us: “on ashes and bones we celebrated”; “on plastic and salty rocks we stood”; “on grass and flowers we burnt”; “on reefs and eroded lands we danced”.