The Pulse Reviews

IN DAILY – JO VABOLIS – 26th Feb 2021

The Pulse, the latest production from Adelaide’s Gravity & Other Myths, is a show born of catastrophe.

Like every other touring arts company, the group suffered the complete collapse of their performance schedule when the arrival of the pandemic caused all travel to halt early in 2020. What to do? In the months that followed, they came together to conceive a work that aims to show “how we as people, communities or clusters of particles, respond to the subtle or significant changes that are continually happening around us”.

The performers, with director Darcy Grant, designer Geoff Cobham and composer Ekrem Eli Phoenix (the creative team responsible for the company’s Helpmann-award-winning Out of Chaos), have created a work that is thrilling and visually compelling.

On the bare stage of Her Majesty’s Theatre, acrobatic performers (dressed simply in white and grey) and a choir (in black) meet and begin to connect as movement and song repeats and layers, bodies rising and falling while bathed in shafts of light, vibrant colours, soft washes and shadows. There is frenetic energy interspersed with more subdued strength and stillness – a fluid match between movement, song and chant, each scene highlighted by changes in lighting and a soundscape that melds electronica with snatches of vocal samples.

The 30 acrobats – circling, pacing and spinning as they form complex human geometry and fling themselves into impossible positions – interact with the 30 singers who are also constantly on the move. Stretching and catching, performers stack themselves one on top of another to form towers that merge into even larger constructions.

A girl is suspended high above the group, positioned head down before being dropped and then saved just before reaching the floor. Long white cords drop from the stage ceiling and from the dress circle. They are lashed together and later reconfigured to create giant cat’s-cradle webs that capture the light and add structure to the space behind and between the performers.

Since forming in 2009, Gravity & Other Myths has steadily and spectacularly achieved success both locally and abroad. Anyone who witnessed their first show, A Simple Space, would have realised they were destined for big things. The company has won multiple awards and toured internationally with their ensemble works, gathering fans across the globe for a high-energy blend of acrobatics, physical theatre and circus skills that is jaw dropping in its bravery and technical perfection.

The group’s partnership with Aurora for The Pulse is inspired and results in a theatrical experience that induces plenty of goosebump moments.

Aurora, directed by Christie Anderson, is the senior vocal ensemble of the South Australian youth choir Young Adelaide Voices. The choir is no stranger to boundary-pushing works, with a diverse performance record that includes former Adelaide Festival productions, sharing the stage with the Rolling Stones and appearing as guest artists at the Desert Song Festival in Alice Springs. Aurora’s commitment to performing contemporary Australian music means they’re a perfect match for The Pulse.

This all-Australian production marries brute strength with intricate choreography and singing that at times elevates the work to the sublime. The solo and group sequences, at times wild and loose, at other times restrained and tightly controlled, sometimes evoke a sense of ritual.

From the show’s beginning until the standing ovation at the end of the performance, there are spontaneous gasps and cries from audience members unable to muffle their responses. "I feel like they’re gonna do something dangerous." This vocal snippet comes in the later part of The Pulse but it perfectly describes what we’ve all been thinking since the start, as soaring bodies fly through the air, relying completely on each other to avoid wrong moves that could very likely result in serious injury or worse.

It’s nail-biting stuff delivered with elegance and it’s a joy to experience.

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As live theatre and music performance emerges in this country from the prison of Covid, the Adelaide Festival emerges as one of the driving forces. The previous Festival finished within one hour of the first lockdown last March, and the present one, despite being beset by enormous difficulties in preparation, is being staged just as restrictions are being eased enough to make it viable.

If you wanted to make a statement about the defeat of the disease you couldn't find a better show than The Pulse, by the Adelaide company Gravity And Other Myths. This company, formed relatively recently, has already achieved an international reputation with tours abroad. In this show the thirty acrobats were complemented by 30 singers, the Aurora women's voice choir, also locally based, who took part in the event physically as well as musically.

Darcy Grant, its director, puts it succinctly: "From the sobering scenario of being an acrobatics company who couldn't touch each other, we conceived The Pulse".

It was an extraordinarily liberating experience as an audience member, being in Her Majesty's Theatre wearing masks and attempting at least a modicum of social distancing, to see these thirty bodies, throwing each other around, sprawling on top of each other, piling up in patterns resembling the Eiffel Tower and standing on each other's shoulders, while a 30-voice choir, also on stage and indeed participating fully in the action, sang Ekram Eli Phoenix's music in full voice.

It was also a relief not to be blasted by techno-ish sounds, but instead to be able to relish Phoenix's inhabiting the world of a cappella singing. The choir was miked, but still sounded natural. He wrote the score specifically for this show, and one of the pieces was medieval in spirit, another renaissance, honouring what the choir would be used to singing in their offstage life. For a number where the choir was especially integrated with the acrobats, he used the passamezzo bass from Monteverdi's Lamento della ninfa as a matrix for a fabulous, partly improvised interplay between the acrobats and the conductor, Christie Anderson, who is also the spectacular mezzo-soprano soloist.

But what a Pulse the acrobats exhibited! What unanimity, what complicity in their formation and deformation of their complex body structures! And the company played with expectation delightfully. The opening number involved the choir singing 'One! Two! One!' At Two, the acrobats were two-high; at three they were three-high; and then the choir sang One Two Three Four, and we all gasped at the prospect of them going four-high. They didn't. Yet. Then half an hour into the show they did. And at another moment they formed themselves in two improbable towers of flesh, which were quite far apart and with a single acrobat on the top of each tower. Those pinnacle acrobats looked at each other and a voice came over the PA, 'It looks as if they are going to do something really dangerous'. But then the towers dissolved.

Gravity & Other Myths occasionally took us backstage, in a figurative sense. At a certain point the acrobats needed to change the scene, and came into the audience to ask the crew to throw down ropes. Of course we all thought they were going to use the ropes for circus tricks, but, no, they were just to create a lighting pattern which changed from time to time. But this was an example of the connection they established with everyone in the theatre, which started onstage with the choir.

I am a musician, not an expert in physical theatre. But this show was a gob-smacking experience.

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Gravity defied in spectacular fashion.

When border closures made it impossible for Gravity & Other Myths to come to the Sydney Festival in January, Sydney audiences missed out on something really special. The Pulse is the best yet of the group’s self-made productions, giving its premiere season on home ground at the Adelaide Festival.

It’s the most ambitious piece for a company that describes itself as "an acrobatics and physical theatre company pushing the boundaries of new circus", and director Darcy Grant has assembled a huge cast of 30 acrobatic performers plus 30 singers from the Aurora choir.

Action on the big, bare stage starts slowly. Performers in plain clothes walk in a steady rhythm, criss-crossing it to the mostly wordless singing of engrossing music by Ekrem Eli Phoenix. The action builds in short phrases that have the audience applauding their virtuosity. But there is so much more to come.

The central movement theme is making human structures that often look like craggy rocks after one performer has used the crooks of knees and backs, shoulders and handholds to climb on to another. They might reach a peak in a handstand, an off-centre balance or an upturned splits three or four people high.

Then, even more impressively, they make their way down the way they came up, smoothly and skilfully. Or they fall individually several metres into waiting arms – or the whole structure topples spectacularly into a line-up of their colleagues grouped to catch them.

Sheer numbers are part of the impact. So is the effect of Geoff Cobham’s lighting, which turns the empty space into a magic cave of changing patterns that amplify and dramatise the intensity of the human activity.

The piece is choreographed from start to finish, with a couple of ensemble sections that could grace a major dance work, and it is thrilling to see the singers involved in the action.

While The Pulse has moved on from the more homespun humour and interaction of the company’s earlier Backbone and Out of Chaos, there is still a strong sense of community threading through the action. The feeling of trust amongst the cast is palpable, along with enjoyment and achievement.

Just as I was wondering if this display, although spectacular, was going to turn into a one-trick circus, it moved into a fast and flourishing finale featuring an amazing willowy figure – and it was all over in a roar of applause. Perfect timing to the end.

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We acknowledge the Kaurna Miyurna (People) upon the Yarta (Land) which we make our work.

With our respects we honour their Elders, past, present and emerging, and acknowledge the first artists of Australia.

It is our privilege to live and create on their country.

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