Force Majeure again proves itself to indeed be a superior force in dance-theatre, if not the pre-eminent one. It’s new work, Not In A Million Years, directed by Kate Champion (assisted by Roz Hervey), debuted in CarriageWorks’ cavernous Bay 20 to an exceedingly warm reception. In contrast to so much abstract, conceptual work in this genre, FM deploys spoken word, projected text, music, sfx, dramatic lighting, literalistic and figurative stage devices to explicate their ideas and themes.

The result is almost immediate identification and recognition: accessibility is a distinctive hallmark of their repertoire; whether, as on occasions past, collaborating with the likes of Sydney Dance Company, or standing on its own eight feet (Vincent Crowley, Sarah Jayne Howard, Elizabeth Ryan and Josh Tyler’s).

The work focuses on a set of unbelievably true human, bordering on superhuman, triumphs. These feats and accidents are so outrageously improbable they tend to imply an element and raise the spectre of a force beyond our knowing. This implication imbues the hour-long piece with a haunting, magical ambience, enhanced by Geoff Cobham’s design, the omnipresent Max Lyandvert’s composition and sound, as well as Tony Melov’s audiovisuals.

Many beanbags must have died to provide the massive expanse of snow-like styrofoam pellets assembled in a way that seemed to resemble the shape of Tasmania; partially appropriate, since one of the narratives centred on Todd Russell and Brant Webb, with Crowley and Tyler carrying on a comedic conversation while buried beneath the featherweight whiteout. In reality, of course, the pair were trapped in a tiny space nearly a kilometre underground, for two weeks. They could neither stand nor sit. They kept busy cracking jokes at each other’s expense, harmonising on Kenny Rogers songs and fantasising about beer, footy, tropical paradises and being pleasured. For a dance company to have the tongue-in-cheek temerity to devise a work utterly devoid of movement is piquant and the stasis is entirely arresting.

A man desperately tries to pull a woman from knee-deep snow. Strangely, she’s attired as a flight attendant, right down to the characteristic kerchief tied in a casual not ’round her neck. Indeed, Vesna Vulovic has ‘flown’, for a full three minutes, vertically, downwards, unhindered by parachute, plunging 10,000m over Czechoslovakia, after the aircraft she was aboard exploded mid-flight. To choreograph a rescue, transforming it into a mode of fluid, elegant dance, as has been achieved here, is something of a creative miracle in itself. The result is tender and heartrending, the rescuer caressing her broken body and forming a bond of the most pure, elemental nature. It is transfixing.

In a similar feat of aerial survival, an experienced paraglider, Ewa Wisnierska, was sucked into a thunderstorm and propelled to an altitude of around 10,000 metres, a literally stratospheric height. Unconscious, she was held, in a state of cryogenic suspended animation, before regaining consciousness and heading earthwards at 200km/h. We see her swinging from her parachute, then spiralling, suspended on the shoulders of another dancer, towards an almost certain death, which she cheated, landing frostbitten, but completely intact.

Bob Beamon long-jumps an unprecedented 9 metres, outclassing all previous attempts by a veritable country mile. It doesn’t matter that a broad-shouldered female dancer fulfils this role, coached by a no pain, no gain’, old-school trainer, who pommels ‘him’, in a gruelling, make-or-break regimen that, despite the violent physicality it represents, has rhythm, line and a rough-edged, raw beauty about it. Again, bodily endurance is called into question, tested and the transcendence of the spirit and its capacity to triumph celebrated in a moving way.

Philippe Petit steps off the south twin tower, long before 9/11 rendered it and its sister rubble, into thin air. Well, almost. All that separates him from oblivion is his hire wire, a 3/4-inch cable. He walks to the north tower and back no less than eight times. To a chorus of cheers, a dancer carves a symbolic, pioneering path through an expanse of nothingness, and history.

Donny Herbert is 43, but was 10 years younger when he lapsed into a coma. His wife caresses, cajoles, prods and ‘manhandles’ him, in a desperate attempt to bring him back to her. Finally, he awakes but, after 16 hours of catching-up and failing to come to terms with his 10-year absence, including a son he doesn’t even recognise, he relapses, taking a further two years to pass away. The verbal and physical ‘dance’ between the couple is wrenching and, yet again, the Champion, Hervey and dancers succeed in choreographing the unchoreographable.

As above, not all our stories end happily. Angela Kelly, a single mum, has, you’d think, struck it exceptionally lucky in winning about $70 million, such that she becomes one of the richest women in the UK. Yet she becomes paranoid, incapable of sustaining relationships of any kind due to her suspicions. As is portrayed by her limited movement around the stage in a kind of cage, her life (played by a male), far from expanding to meet the opportunities afforded her, has shrunk and withered and subjected her to a whole other form of poverty.

Force Majeure finds a depth and poignance in reality and does us the profound service of reminding us it’s there, if we take the time to look and reflect; to engage our whole being in so doing. Simplicity, accessibility, humanity and improbable events can help us find the extraordinary in the everyday, right where it lives. For any work, or company, to reinvigorate that sublime awareness is something for which to be profusely thankful.

Tour de Force Majeure?

Curtain Call rating: A

The details: Not In A Million Years plays CarriageWorks until Saturday, November 27. Tickets through Ticketmaster.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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