Losing your bearings in darkness and silence is one of the powerful ways Australian artists Helen Herbertson and Ben Cobham’s show Morphia can grab you. Described as a set of visual haikus with dance, light, and movement, this twenty-minute piece envelops the twelve seat audience and offers them a highly crafted sensory experience for mind and body.
Designed for a small audience with delicate precision, the show begins with an offer of a shot of wine and a tiny, dainty sculpted square of passion fruit polenta with mascarpone cheese, topped with a rose petal. Entering the space in the dark (guided by flashlight) and taking your vittles in hand, this all feels ceremonious. Though the instructions are eat and drink whenever you want, there is a strange, religious connotation (though the quality of wafer and wine surpasses any Catholic church I’ve been to).
Some people eat and drink immediately. I wait until nearly the end. But once I drink I start to wonder if it is the wine or the work that is making me lose touch with reality. These artists bend your perceptions with lighting, sound, and space. A welcome fuzziness of time, space, and purpose descends.
There is a voice in the rich darkness. As the lights come up on the show I’m struck by how the “stage” in front of me, a smoldering, orange cube, feels like a larger version of my passion-fruit polenta treat. There is intention and care in each small gesture of the work.
This glowing jewel box draws you in in this otherwise dark cavernous space. Moments before, you had no idea it was out there. Now with light and smoke and a dancer within, it lives. As your eyes adjust to the space you begin a negotiation with bodies and space and bodies in space, including your own (fear not there is no audience participation unless the eating and drinking count). But you will think about your corporeal and spiritual self in relation to the show.
The piece is constructed with three tableaux performed by Herbertson and at some performances by Michelle Heaven. Whether silhouetted in stillness, or shifting with rapid, brisk flourishes, or existing in a shadowy, vague and lugubrious netherworld, their movement in this changing lightbox is mesmerizing.
Because of the haiku nature, the work allows for some loose interpretation and a personal reckoning in what the light, dark, and words mean to you. Cobham’s lighting and design pushes at the very edge of our senses. For me the less I could see the more it drew me in. Even in the absence of light, there was a vivid sense of life in darkness. Whether it is your breathing or your neighbours’, or simply the humming potential of what is to come next, the show pulsed with expectant energy even in stillness. Eventually the piece escalates to an unexpected intimate crescendo.
Because of the thoughtful nature of the movement and design, nothing feels wasted. The twenty minutes zoom by and it may be hard to leave this dream world to return to reality.