Following the devastating summer bushfires that swept over Australia in 2019/2020, a sense of pessimism and despair provided the trigger for one of the most unique and ambitious works likely to be seen at this year’s Sydney festival.
Legs on the Wall, a physical theatre group headquartered in Sydney, has been on sabbatical for the last two years, like other cultural organizations.
Due to Covid-19, two national tours of Man with the Iron Neck (tackling the sensitive issue of suicide among First Nations males) came to an abrupt stop in early 2020 after highly lauded seasons at four major Australian festivals in 2018 and 2019.
Legs on the Wall artistic director Joshua Thomson spent the downtime in contemplative and emotional turmoil, attempting to come to terms with the environmental devastation and national trauma of black summer, which claimed 18.6 million hectares of land, destroyed nearly 3,000 homes, and killed at least 34 people.
“I was affected, helpless, and even a little furious… Thomson adds, “I just felt like there was nothing I could do to help.”
“But then I started thinking about what I’m good at and how I could continue to push the climate change conversation and awareness forward.” Then I began to consider the polar opposite of fire, which led to the concept of ice.
“Australia is the driest continent on the planet… and I wanted to put something delicate in such a hostile environment,” says the artist.
Thomson’s Thaw will take place over three days in January, starting on Friday, and will include three female performers acting simultaneously on a 2.5 tonne block of ice hung 20 meters over Sydney harbour in a work that will last nine hours each day.
A human figure dangerously navigating the slippery and ever-dwindling surface of an airborne iceberg melting in Sydney’s midsummer heat; a metaphor for the delicate and decreasing natural world melting under the load of humans.
Thaw’s creative producer, Cecily Hardy, provides the link between Thomson’s artistic vision and the venture’s practicalities.
Each of the four icebergs (one was used for practice) needed roughly 2,700 litres of water to construct, and each body of arctic blue-tinted water took about 10 days to freeze in a custom-made $30,000 steel mould. In November, the freezing process started.
On the 14, 15, and 16 January, a crane positioned on the western walkway of the Sydney Opera House will dangle a new 2.5 tonne iceberg over the water each morning.
Isabel Estrella, Vicki Van Hout, and Jenni Large will each work a three-hour shift on top of the iceberg each day. Victoria Hunt was originally scheduled to perform, but withdrew in solidarity of the Sydney festival boycott; she will be seen later this month as part of Thaw’s Mona Foma event in Launceston.
The dance was co-created by the performers and Thomson, and it is accompanied by an original composition by Alaska composer, sound artist, and eco-acoustician Matthew Burtner, who is also the director of EcoSono, Alaska’s environmental arts non-profit.
How long will it take each day for the iceberg to melt? That is, according to Hardy, the million-dollar question.
Some weather conditions may cause the ice to melt faster than others, perhaps dissolving the iceberg by more than half over the nine-hour show.
“We found that the combination of wind and sun caused the most erosion on the iceberg,” says Hardy, who affectionately refers to her icebergs as “she.”
“Of course, the heat melts her, but it’s the wind that speeds up the melting process. Surprisingly, when she’s only [exposed to] direct light on a quiet day, she melts up a lot slower than you’d expect.
“That’s part of the point: that depending on the weather, she might look quite different on some days after a long day than she did the day before, and that in and of itself is quite exciting.”
Working on a cultural site that attracts thousands of visitors in a single day presents a unique set of occupational health and safety problems, according to Hardy.
The firm had to overcome a number of obstacles, which it did in collaboration with Sydney Opera House management, the crane company, riggers, and engineers, and which were then independently peer-assessed to assure maximum safety.
“What appears to be a quite simple and beautiful thing has had so many layers of consideration, planning, and technology,” Hardy adds.
Aside from the forecourt of the opera house, the three performances of Thaw will be visible from the Cahill Expressway, Circular Quay, the MCA and international passenger terminal, and Lavender Bay, as well as a slew of other vantage locations around Sydney’s waterfront.
The performances will also be in full view of Kirribilli House, Australia’s prime minister Scott Morrison’s secondary official house, who has become worldwide notorious for his inactivity on climate change in the aftermath of Cop26.
Thaw is undoubtedly political, according to Thomson, but not in a didactic way.
“This work has an opportunity and a responsibility to say something… and yes, there is an element of spectacle,” he explains.
“However, we hope that through the spectacle and scale, we will draw people in, capture people’s minds in awe, and deliver this message through a thought, not a slap in the face.”