Chunky Move & Restless Dance Theatre: Rewards for the Tribe

Warwick Arts Centre, University of Warwick, Coventry
October 6, 2022

Commissioned by Warwick Arts Centre and Coventry UK City of Culture, and directed and choreographed by Antony Hamilton, Rewards for the Tribe is an unusual collaboration between Melbourne-based contemporary dance company Chunky Move, where Hamilton is artistic director, and Restless Dance Theatre from Adelaide, Australia’s premier dance company for dancers with and without disability.

Over an hour, it sees five dancers attempt to achieve perfect form, as represented by the geometric image that is Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man while interacting with colourful Mondrian-like objects. Whether such perfection is achievable is debatable. Perhaps reflecting its impossibility, over the cast’s multiple attempts never quite get there.

Costume and set designer Jonathon Oxlade’s giant geometric shapes enter and leave the space by means of a system of pulleys and ropes. At the back, a white curtain rises and falls at intervals, hiding and revealing, and providing a secret spot from with cast members occasionally observe what is happening downstage as they peek through it.

Rewards for the Tribe by Chunky Move and Restless Dance Theatre
Photo Jeff Busby

The performers mutter and ramble incoherently as they try to deal with the objects, adding another layer to Aviva Endean’s strange, other-worldly atonal electronic soundscape of clangs, clicks and thuds. Dressed in costumes that seem to include a dash of everything including a giant faux fur coat, the various shapes are manipulated, arranged and rearranged.

Throughout all of this, the stage resembles a young children’s playroom. At times, the movement suggests it should be playful. Indeed, some moments are accompanied by shrieks of excitement. But there’s a contradiction. It feels like they are struggling to understand the objects, let alone how to achieve their aim. Faces are invariably serious and it all seems very earnest.

It doesn’t help that, while Rewards for the Tribe is packed with ideas, for a long time it feels like a random set of ideas with connections often tenuous, and not all developed or realised as much as they might be. There’s also little in the way of dynamic contrast in tone, movement or sound. All taken together, for a long time it made for a piece that felt direction-less, that was difficult to get and handle on and that felt rather flat.

Chunky Move’s Cody Lavery and Benjamin Hancock (inside the cube)
with Michael Hodyl, Jianna Georgiou and Charlie Wilkins
of Restless Dance Theatre (right)
in Rewards for the Tribe
Photo Jeff Busby

But then, out of nowhere, the work seems to find its mojo and gets more interesting. Various cleverly formed tableaux appear, all quite striking. The shapes are assembled to form an animal, and then what looks for all the world like a raft, the dancers huddled on top like migrants trying to cross an ocean. More pictures are created upstage, each looking like a modernist, surreal version of one of those old sepia family portraits. There are a couple of appealing, but naturally less than flawless, movement chains too.

Elsewhere, duos and trios emerge as the dancers, now in all-black, try to reproduce their own perfect geometric lines. The best moments come in and around a suspended flexible cube-shaped frame that, like the other objects, contains hidden microphones that amplify the sound as bodies thud against it. There’s an angular duet by Chunky Move’s Cody Lavery and Benjamin Hancock that’s full of excellent synchronicity as limbs slice through the space and crash against the cube’s framework while Restless dancers Jianna Georgiou, Michael Hodyl and Charlie Wilkins create their own geometry-inspired dance to the side. The highlight comes when the others exit, however, leaving Hodyl dancing alone and on an otherwise bare stage. There’s almost a sense of awe as he dances what feels like a duet with hanging object in front of him. It was a special moment and the one time in the piece when I felt a true connection.