Review: Daybreak Estate – last drinks at the end of the world

Erin Harrington reviews Daybreak Estate, presented by All You Can Eat Productions at Little Andromeda, 17 March 2022.

Choreographer Jessie McCall’s hour-long work Daybreak Estate is a wickedly funny, provocative and ultimately profound piece of dance theatre. It invites us to a bougie influencer retreat at the end of the world, where the only things on the menu are benzos, Lindauer Fraise, and the dull EDM thud of existential terror.

The work, which initially premiered in Experimental Dance Week Aotearoa in 2020, showcases four terrific contemporary dancers – Terry Morrison, Olivia McGregor, Sharvon Mortimer and Liana Yew. They emerge from a large, semi-opaque mesh greenhouse, lit from within, which dominates the stage at Little Andromeda. They pop a bottle of bubbly, hit a pose. Together the four are the elite: they move together, love themselves, justify one another, pour champagne down the line, knock it back, and start again in a series of increasingly unkempt narrative loops. They couple delightfully bland faces and detached Kardashian half-smiles with movement that ranges from ironic gestures and understated pop and locks, to parodic loose-limbed 2am dance party realness, and energetic precise phrases in which bodies bend and twist, carving out space.

There’s a comic but unsettling juxtaposition between powerful bodies and botox-blank faces. There’s also a killer soundtrack: dreamy LCD Soundsystem, portentous Funkadelic, and Yoko Ono demanding a bowl of cherries while she waits for the rain, all punctuated with unsettling pulsed calls like whale song, or cosmic death.  We’re offered a picture of joy and decadence as denial, but we also see that the insularity of their world is frequently punctured. We must watch how they respond to unavoidable evidence that the world we share is dying – and reflect on our own complicity too.

The production is extremely well-designed, creating impactful tableaux with light, smoke and bodies. Costumes in black, white and millennial pink quickly evoke the dreamy, luxe banality of a beauty salon or wellness centre. There are enough individual differences to know that the dancers’ personas – Tiffany, Sally Ann, Coco and Bernard, introduced with ‘hi my name is’ stickers – have that magical cool kid ability to discern what’s on-trend and how to work it. (Will white sneakers still be in when we’re drowning? Hmm.)

I laugh at some of the props, including potted cosmos flowers – ha ha, very funny – that the dancers bring forward to hold up and celebrate, in a performative act of eco-awareness. The pop-up greenhouse infers a place to grow and be nurtured, but also evokes a hiding place, a medical tent, a body bag.  And in the background, sitting on the drinks cart that gets wheeled out at the top of each cycle, a pink jellyfish in a glittery tank acts as a surreal guru, a sci-fi prophet, and a potent embodiment of the world we’re successfully fucking up.

The lighting is also well-appointed. It creates complex and unexpected effects with a limited rig, including a remarkably effective repeating strobe sequence during a manic, distressed ‘running man’ sequence that creates a deep sense of unease.

It’s a funny work – but brutally so. Through the work’s cyclic acts, we are asked to negotiate where we ourselves sit in relation to the elites partying their way, blank-eyed, through the end-times. They are compelling; they are repulsive. But moments of confusion and vulnerability peek through as the characters find themselves slipping quietly out of their stupor, paying more mind to the elephant in the room (or the jellyfish in the corner). At the end of each cycle, too many drinks in, they move against the floor in an embrace, in frustration. The dancers push and slide against the ground, at times in unison, with determined, angular full body movements, only to slip down again and again to an Earth that can’t and won’t let them go. It’s weighty, uncomfortable. The façade is dropped: it feels like a private, simultaneous act of refusal and supplication. Then there’s a gag – and a black out – and we start again, another day, and another party in which the disjuncture between apocalyptic reality and blithe denial is all the more apparent.

Noise pollution, in quiet moments, adds an unwelcome but nonetheless appropriate layer of meaning. Little Andromeda usually doesn’t have this problem, but its soundproofing can’t stand up to the ruckus of St Patrick’s Day on The Terrace. At times there’s the muffled drift of drunks bellowing out the greatest hits of the 70s, 80s and 90s while they guzzle green beer in the middle of a pandemic, no doubt waiting for a push notification about World War 3. Apt.

But in the piece’s moving climax there is still a sense of hope. We are asked to look past the dancers (and ourselves) and think about the world itself, which now has a more obvious voice and sense of agency; we can’t live if it’s dead. I feel like someone’s pressing down on my throat. In its conclusion the work demonstrates a masterful control of tone and narrative. It’s also highly recommended.

Daybreak Estate runs at Little Andromeda from 17 – 19 March, 2022.

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