by Isaac Rathbone · June 3, 2014

Playwrights on New Plays #83 Isaac Rathbone shares his thoughts on Saltbush at New Victory Theater

SALTBUSH: A journey through Australia via Mid-town

A Saltbush is a native plant that can be found in pastures, on beaches, as well as deep within the forests and jungles of the Australian bush. It is a shared symbol among the country’s aboriginal communities and is an apropos title for the show currently running at the New Victory Theater. Through dance, music and an interactive performance space, Compagnia T.P.O and Insite Arts present a journey through the outback that all ages will be wowed by.

The essence of the piece is discovery and this starts the minute you enter the lobby. Patrons are asked to remove their shoes and are told that they will be able to walk on the actual performance space. So the imaginative wheels start to turn before the lights even go down. Entrance to the space is a long bridge down the center aisle of the theater and onto the darkened stage. Again, the audience is venturing into an unknown place, even though it should seem very familiar to them. Curiosity is peaked through this quirky manipulation of theater convention.

The premise of Saltbush continues this motif of the journey. Two dancers of Aboriginal origins make their way across the various habitats of Australia. They venture through jungles, rivers, beaches, deserts and even major cities. The dancers play, swim, hunt, encounter deadly creatures, and camp out under the stars. Their journey is a celebration of a homeland and teaches a respect and love for one’s natural environment.

The playing space is a large white dance surface, referred to as the Children’s Cheering Carpet. The audience sits around the perimeter while animated images are projected onto the floor, reacting to those who dance on its surface. So the elements of nature are all created using advanced technology. The dancers and narrator, through movement and song, give the piece its heart and soul. It is clear that Rosealee Pearson, Sani Townson and Jada Nampitjinpa Alberts are presenting a labor of love as they teach the audience about their homeland. Their performances are the right mix of reverence and playfulness. There are times throughout the performance when they should be in somewhat brighter light, so that we can see their body and facial features just a little more clearly. But their ability to connect to both the playing surface and the emotions of the performance are a joyful success.

What really sets this show apart from any other you can take your kids to, is that the audience is invited to participate in the dances at certain intervals (thus the removing of the shoes). Not only do the children interact with the dancers, but the projections on the floor are moving around them, sometimes even responding to their own movements. They are now part of the journey and the message of Saltbush is able to really set in. And it is an absolute joy to watch unfold. Again, the performers show us a lot of heart and patience as they seamlessly (and delicately) are able to bring kids in and out of the story, all while maintaining their focus and the seriousness that underscores the piece.

While Saltbush teaches the audience about the variety of eco-systems of the Outback, it is not concerned with being a direct geography or ecology lesson. Instead it is an introduction to the spiritually of the country’s diverse landscape and the Aboriginal communities respect and sentiments about their homeland. Though this passage is not actually heard on-stage, the message of the piece is beautifully presented in one of the first stage directions of the script:

The woman touches the land not wanting to wake the land but to indicate she is going to walk across her.

One leaves Saltbush with the glimmering hope that the young minds in the audience have grasped this important life lesson.





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