Mortal Engines of Chunky Move

By Isabella Rotti
Photos by Vincent Tong

What happens when a globally known fantasy novel is put on stage by one of the most revolutionary contemporary dance groups at the moment? Take the steam punk apocalyptic world of “Mortal Engines”, the first of four novels in Philip Reeve’s quartet of the same name, and the provocative strength of Australian company Chunky Move. What you’ll get is an extraordinary dance-video-music-laser performance using movement and sound projections as an expression of a shifty world in which the limits of the human body are just an illusion.

Chunky Move has been proposing many contemporary dance performances for the stage, site specific performances, new-media and installation work. So what is the connection between the two?

Apparently: the constant change of a new unexpected world.

Reeve’s novel – the title is a quote from William Shakespeare’s play Othello (“And O you mortal engines whose rude throats / Th’immoral Jove’s dread clamors counterfeit…” – Act 3 Scene 3, Line 352) – is set in a post-apocalyptic world, partly destroyed by a nuclear holocaust known as the “Sixty Minute War”. Earth’s geology has been completely upset and the planet is being devastated by earthquakes, volcanoes and natural disasters. It’s up to hero Nikolas Quirke to solve to the problem with the conception of a new system, ‘Municipal Darwinism’. Cities are turned into huge vehicles, consuming one another in order to maintain themselves in a world deprived of most natural resources.

Consequently, Chunky Move’s choreography is focused on the movement of unformed beings in a disturbing landscape, searching to connect and evolve in a constant state of becoming. Echoes of Momix and Parsons’ experiments are not far during this journey that forward a permanent reality. But the work is peculiar for many reasons.

As a matter of fact, “Mortal Engines” (which premiered on January 17th 2008 during the Sydney Festival at the Drama Theatre Sydney Opera House) is not simply a dance performance. It is a show of lights and shadows, expressive forces portraying the multiplicity of the soul. It also conveys the energy of the human body, of its continuous metamorphosis created by lights and sounds. Beyond the group of extraordinary dancers, a large and talented creative staff make this fascinating sensorial travel possible. These important ‘behind-the-scenes’ artists include interactive system designer Frieder Weiss, laser and sound artist Robin Fox, composer Ben Frost, costume designer Paula Levis, lighting designer Damien Cooper, set designer Richard Dinnen, multimedia engineer Nick Roux, and of course, Gideon Obarzanek who is the artistic director, choreographer and founder of Chunky Move.

“Mortal Engines” won the 2008 Live Performance Australia Helpmann Awards for Best Visual or Physical Theatre Production, and was the recipient of an “Honourable Mention – Hybrid Art” in the Prix Ars Electronica, the most important international award for creativity and spirit in the field of digital media.

Obarzanek explains his artistic creation: “Mortal Engine looks at relationships, connection and disconnection, isolation and togetherness, in a state of continual flux… Mortal Engine has no pre-rendered video, light or laser images…  This essentially means that there are no fixed timelines and the production flexes according to the rhythm of the performers. While the scenes are always in the same order, the work is truly live every night, not completely predictable and ever changing.”  For more, watch our interview with Obarzanek on