It’s not a normal theatre experience. The audience sits in a circle, on wooden stumps that swivel 360 degrees. There’s red dirt underfoot. The screen is a VR headset that takes you on a virtual odyssey across the country, told through dance and movement.
Your journey begins with a lone man somewhere in the sandy reaches of outer Alice Springs. He’s an outsider. An American in an unfamiliar land trying to find a connection with the country. Then you meet another – an Indigenous man trying to reconnect after a lifetime in the city.
Via Alice is by director and producer Pete Keen. It received rave reviews when it played in Sydney last year, and now Keen is bringing it to Melbourne as part of Sugar Mountain, a festival he co-curates.
Your guides through this eclectic journey are two dancers: Waangenga Blanco of Bangarra Dance Theatre, Australia’s acclaimed Indigenous performing arts company, and New Yorker Khalif Diouf, who you may know by his rap moniker Le1f, with a score by Daniel Stricker (Midnight Juggernauts) and John Carroll Kirby (who played on and produced Solange Knowles’s latest album).
Along with Keen, they travelled for a little over a month meeting locals everywhere from northern-most Queensland, through to Cape Tribulation, the Tiwi Islands, across to Darwin, to the Central Desert, Alice, south to Arrernte country and finally to Redfern in inner Sydney.
“Everywhere we went people were warm,” says Keen. “People I’d only met on email welcomed us into their communities.”
Keen uses virtual reality to embed his audience in the land: sitting in the desert, or on a riverbed, guided only with movement, and few words in Aboriginal dialects, with no subtitles.
“We want people to have time to feel and experience these vast spaces,” says Keen. “We want you to have an emotional tie to the land.
“It’s very much about trying to remove any kind of whitewashing of language ... If you go to a non-English-speaking country, if you don’t know enough local language to get by, body language takes over.”
Keen, like many of us, has a complicated relationship with the idea of home. “In some ways I do feel like an outsider in this country,” he says. “In the desert in particular.” Even with this project, he felt at an arm’s-length from the story.
The film does have a narrative, but not in a traditional sense. It’s a story of identity and its relationship to geography, told in 360 degrees. (The camera used for the film captures everything in sight, so Keen found himself running and hiding to get out of the shot.)
In a way, the process takes away authorial control. But that suits this context. These stories aren’t Keen’s to direct, he just has to capture them.
“There’s a moment when Khalif is with the members of [the band] Kardajala Kirridarra (Sandhill Women) being welcomed to their land. They’re rubbing clay from the riverbed on his body. I have no right to tell them how to do that, or what I want it to look like. It’s not my place. I just put the camera in the right spot.”
It was a learning experience for everyone. Particularly Diouf. He’s been to Australia a number of times, and met Keen when he played Sugar Mountain in 2016. The pair stayed in touch, and Diouf expressed an interest in gaining a greater experience of black Australia.
“We were out there for the better part of a month, and we didn’t exactly have a lot of money. We were camping, sleeping in swags in backyards, and he loved it,” Keen says.
“I must say, the vision of a tall, beautiful man from New York City navigating all sorts of desert terrain in thigh-high boots … That’s something that will stay with me for a long time.”
Broadsheet is a proud media partner of Sugar Mountain.