Emotions run rife in this layered piece of apocalyptic dance-theatre by Rhiannon Faith Company that explores the breakdown of a coastal town in the aftermath of state neglect. A combination of writhing choreography, a claustrophobic tidal setting, and heartfelt emotional dialogue creates a curious blend of speculation and empathy that is raw, intriguing, and at times uncomfortable to watch. However, despite the daring of a piece that leans into the knottiness of its subject matter and pushes its six dancers to breaking points, I felt somehow shut out of its world.

Credit: Foteini Christofilopoulou

Each character arrives into the scene, gradually joining a powerfully grounded Dominic Coffey who sets the stage digging the soil we later learn is there to bury the dark truths of this failing town. A swimmer, a detectorist, a boyish older man — they tread softly around a set that speaks directly to the unhinged, Wes-Andersen-like location, warning off whomever threatens to climb the umpire’s chair and wondering aloud when ‘they’ — the beach’s unidentified authority — will arrive. After a red-wash announcement confirms that no one is coming and that the beach has been cut off from whatever lies beyond, we witness the breakdown of hope and humanity — from the lack of structure and purpose to the anguish of being abandoned: ‘They don’t care!’ burning loud from Shelley Eva Haden’s chest. How each of the characters responds to this uncovers some universal truths about human’s propensity towards panic, nihilism and conflict. It’s dead bleak and brims with potential.

When inhabiting its arguably more natural medium of dance, I felt like the piece is on very stable ground. The repetition of the revolving movements shows characters caught up in personal spirals of a desperate struggle — but bound by their inability to leave. These build up a reserve of feeling and momentum, with the seemingly irregular sequences of movements occasionally lapsing into moments of synchronicity and balance in a way that was both beautiful and satisfying. It speaks of a unity amidst the chaos, a push and pull dynamic that I could grapple with internally. But then the movement would stop, and another phone call would interrupt the flow, a semi-dramatic scene between two characters would take place, or one of the six would enter into a pointed, hard-edged speech on the nature of grief. I appreciate the bold formal choice to blend abstract and explicit commentary on the situation — it lends food for thought and contextualises the movement. However, sometimes the most powerful dance is that which refuses to tie itself down with explanation, that simply presents us with the textural dynamics of its choreography without then having to tell us what it means. ‘Sickness’ presages a building routine where the six freeze up, fall to the ground, and shiver. How much stronger would this sense of contagious and febrile stagnation have been had they let us find its contours ourselves?

Credit: Foteini Christofilopoulou

At times the meanings do emerge more organically: desperate leaps across the ground land with thuds and judders, and the occasional lift wobbles with the precarity of a group so clearly on the edge of sanity and safety. Some of this feels so full of uncontrollable dark emotion, I found myself almost worrying for the dancers’ safety. In a way, this is something of a triumph within the choreography: to show the body at odds with itself, thrashing and twisting around with jerky spasms to show the futility of people wrestling with their fate. Why not simply dive into the poisoned sea and end it all? But for all of the moments of — at times — audible gasps, the company maintains a truly laudable degree of discipline and poise, not exiting their world for a moment, and switching between a more muted theatrical physicality and the wilder excesses of dance with shocking grace.

I thoroughly applaud the choice of subject matter and the readiness to plunge the depths of the precipice we’re currently on. However, I do think it’s possible to explore this territory with humour and levity alongside the brutal conclusions of an uncaring government. In Drowntown, many moments of glimmering humour fall prey to an all-consuming intensity of feeling, which, while powerful and poignant, gives the piece a weightiness that makes it hard to fully embrace. The emotions are full and true — capturing real tears as they fall between words and moments of genuine connection with the cast — and yet I still somehow felt left out of it, like I was watching something take place, rather than being involved and invested. What is the role of the audience in this story? What do they want us to feel? The staging has us floating beyond the shore — does this make us the dead and lost, those who can no longer answer the cries of the living as they beg for help? If so, chilling. But it’s a difficult relationship to engage with.

Credit: Foteini Christofilopoulou

Overall, while Drowntown fully embraces questions of an urgent and timely nature, they never quite managed to turn the waters in my own body. I wanted to be dragged by the waves into a turbulent world of danger and drama. Instead I felt like only the dancers were being shaken up, and the result left me feeling a little bit lost at sea.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

{🎟 AD – PR invite – Tickets were gifted in exchange for an honest review}

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