Review: Sick

BalletLab-SICK-photo-by-Jeff-BusbySick takes us on a chaotic, deeply personal, and at times uncomfortable journey through the layered implications of disability and how it is perceived.

Beyond the many meanings of the word ‘sick’, some examined with humour and others with menace, we find an ambitious multimedia blend of metaphor and movement that explores the interface between social perceptions of disability and the individual’s experience of difference and the consequences of that ever-present external appraisal.

Visual artist Jake Preval’s set design is elegant and simple, situating us quietly but firmly within a world of clinical scrutiny and containment, but seemingly removed from the social gaze that informs those ideas.

We are seated as impartial spectators but that illusion crumbles rapidly and we are made to admit that we have smuggled our preconceptions in with us and that they are as much the subject of the performance as the stories being told. A diverse array of props is used to great effect in this interrogation and they quickly begin to quite literally pile up.

The lighting could have added a more effective sensory element to accent the unfolding story, but the two Hammond organs provide a powerful sonic dimension (ear plugs optional and kindly provided) that functions like a cochlear palate cleanser, subsuming us immediately into the environment and giving voice to the characters’ internal state of mind.

As the performance unfolds we weave unsteadily between retro-pop and cacophony as dancer-choreographers Ryan New and Phillip Adams invite us into a world of struggle and triumph where memory, internal monologue and shifting awareness combine, layer and, at times, shatter into shards on the scarlet carpet, defying outside logic but evoking the common struggle to define oneself in a world of imposed limitations.

This is the piece’s real strength and it is at its absolute best when it lays bare the vulnerability of the performers. The personal experience on which it is built is unmistakable and freely shared by New and Adams so that as we watch them move and sweat (and even bleed) we begin to understand that this is a story being told on its own terms.

Preval’s costume design is joyous and augments the excellent work of the cast, presenting New and Adams as hybrid ballet dancers/biker dudes/court jesters and heightening the magnificent presence of Bo Svoronos. In a piece that explores what it means to be an artist with disability, the visual encapsulation of potential is empowering and uplifting.

Sick asks some important and uncomfortable questions of the audience, chief among them being ‘well, what did you come here expecting to see?’ However, it is not a question the performance itself sets out to answer. Instead, it generously shares what can feel like an overwhelming mosaic of impressions, sensory jolts and interactions that leave one dizzy and disoriented.

In the end, Sick leaves us sitting in the dark, New and Adams perched triumphantly atop their instruments, a fractured projection of Orson Welles’ intoning over and over “no wine before its time”, having achieved exactly what it set out to do.

Temperance Hall, 199 Napier Street, South Melbourne
Season: 9 – 12 February 2022

Image: Phillip Adams BalletLab presents Sick – photo by Jeff Busby

Review: Daniel Townsend