Premiered at Malthouse Theatre, Melbourne, October, 2006.
The collapse of the West Gate Bridge in 1970 is a tragic event in Australia’s history that is etched in Melbourne’s public psyche. Not only did this event cause significant structural damage, including the collapse of 2000 tonnes of steel; it also resulted in a private and public outpouring of grief following the deaths of 35 construction workers. Premiering as part of the 2006 Melbourne International Arts Festival, Structure and Sadness is a performance that explores this tragic event through the medium of dance.
In developing Structure and Sadness, Lucy Guerin undertook extensive research into the event and investigated Royal Commission papers, Public Record Office documents and personal testimonies. For her, “the difficult part was to extract from this compelling story the elements of a dance piece” and to create a piece that responded sensitively to the tragic loss of life (Making Structure and Sadness Program, 2006). The resulting work does not attempt to explain the factual or personal elements of the event but rather explore the visual, sensory, physical and emotive aspects of the bridge’s collapse. According to Lucy Guerin:
“The dancers and I spent a lot of time finding a movement vocabulary for this work. After a while it became clear that the physical forces acting on the bridge and the emotional impact on those involved, both had a similar movement vocabulary… so it was the two interpretations of collapse – structural and emotional – one a result of the other, that became the central themes of the work” (Structure and Sadness Program, 2007).
Structure and Sadness is in two parts. The first part focuses on the concept of ‘structure’ and is ushered in with a soundtrack that features the sounds of materials – wood, concrete, steel – creaking under stress. Six dancers perform solos and duets based on the work of construction. Their movements are both fluid and resistant and embody structural principles such as tension, compression, gravity and shearing: “Weeks and months were spent figuring out how the body might conform to bits of wood, boards, elastic under tension, a painter’s plank”, reflected Lucy Guerin (Structure and Sadness Program, 2007).
As these dances unfold, the performers simultaneously work patiently at constructing a large-scale ‘house of cards’ – the metaphoric West Gate Bridge – consisting of small and large plywood pieces. “We know it will fall down”, wrote critic Alison Croggon in 2009, “but when it does it is wholly unexpected: one little piece is knocked over and the whole thing folds like a row of dominoes, amplifying disaster until the whole stage is covered in litter” (Theatre Notes Blog, 2009).
The latter part of Structure and Sadness deals with the aftermath and emotional responses to the collapse. A woman singing along to the radio is interrupted by a news report about the collapse of the West Gate Bridge. Three women clad in long black dresses dance with the heaviness of sorrow under flickering fluorescent lighting. Finally, a wooden plank is placed on top of the dancers and the last dancer walks over them before vanishing side-stage. “Grief is physicalised”, wrote critic John Bailey, “not as an abstract notion but rather as a thing inextricably bound to the sequence of cause and effect that reduces the bridge to rubble” (Structure and Sadness Program, 2007).
Following on from successful shows at the 2006 Melbourne International Arts Festival, Structure and Sadness had subsequent Australian performances in Sydney, Perth and Melbourne as well as touring internationally in Ireland, Germany and the United States. In 2007, Structure and Sadness was awarded a Helpmann Award for Best Dance Work and an Australian Dance Award for Outstanding Performance by a Company.
Premiere – 19-21 October 2006: Melbourne International Arts Festival, Merlyn Theatre, Malthouse, Melbourne.
9-12 January 2007: Sydney Festival, Sydney Opera House.
8-12 February 2008: Perth International Arts Festival, Perth.
22-23 May 2009: Dublin Dance Festival, Ireland.
25-29 May 2009: Malthouse, Merlyn Theatre.
30 September- 3 October 2009: Dance Theatre Workshop, New York City.
12-13 June 2009: Kunstlerhaus Mousonturm, Frankfurt, Germany.
9 June 2009: Schloss Festspiele , Ludwigsberg, Germany.
18-22 August 2010: Jacobs Pillow Dance Festival, Doris Duke Theatre, Massachusetts.
30 September- 1 October 2011: Edison Theatre, Washington University, St. Louis.
6-7 October, 2011: Walker Art Center, Minneapolis.
REVIEW | PREMIER SEASON
“Guerin has a unique capacity to illuminate deep human emotions through abstract choreography.”
Hilary Crampton, The Age, 2006.
Images by Jeff Busby