BÁRBAROS establishes its tone before it even begins.

The set – which, in its jagged inhospitality created by designers Thom Buchanan and Renate Henschke, recalls out-of-this-world places from the collective imagination (think Mordor or Arrakis) – rustles unnervingly. As the lights come up, it shoots out a single black tendril that snakes around the bottom edge of its mountainous form, propelled by something unseen, looking for something to invade.

Abstract and unsettling images like this are the constant tonal return point throughout the journey of two dancers – Anton and Jana Castillo – as they slide through various forms. Starting off as marionette-like puppets acted upon by an unseen force, they eventually transform into various embodiments of the very force that once held them captive.

BÁRBAROS is from the Ancient Greek for barbarian. The word was used as an antonym for citizen. As this stage work blends elements of physical theatre into its dance foundation, director and choreographer Lina Limosani calls this distinction into question. She layers the performers’ motions with symbols of supposed civility, from tea sipping to a romantic kiss on the hand, that co-exist with far more violent actions.

These metaphorical juxtapositions are effective enough, if a little blatant, but the show’s true power to invoke the underbelly of horrific acts lying beneath our everyday is elsewhere. The costuming of a third dancer – Rowan Rossi – is one key. Covered always in a sinuous black head-to-toe shroud, through which costume designer Henschke occasionally allows the vague shape of a face with yawning mouth and eye sockets to appear, Rossi is an insidious and aesthetically arresting presence. Even when not visible, the power of this non-specific entity vibrates around the stage.

The jaggedly inhospitable set of BÁRBAROS evokes out-of-this-world places. Photo: Alexander Waite Mitchell / supplied

The score from composers Sean Williams and James Oborn works in concert with Henshke and Buchanan’s living set and the performers. The cleverly-conceived and perfectly executed set breaks apart, evolves, and is cannibalised as Anton and Castillo lean into their learned violence. Meanwhile, the music alternates between staccato, dissonant peaks and bass-y ominous troughs that bring useful legibility to the action. But, while the familiarity of every sound makes the composition highly instructive, it also blunts its depth of feeling.

The true hero of the work, though, is the performance of Castillo and Anton. Anton creates a frenetic and physically unsettling energy that sets the audience permanently on edge, while Castillo’s arc is more subtle. Her ability to pull the shape of the show into her body and to wear its slow transformation with simultaneous intensity and nuance is astounding. And while the show’s physical theatre elements sometimes border on clowning and could be in danger of jarring the audience out of the work’s flow, Castillo manages them with a languor that brings the contrasts of the work into balance.

Commissioned by the Adelaide Festival Centre and Brink Productions in recognition of the Centre’s 50th Anniversary, BÁRBAROS is a timely reminder of the potential that can be realised when independent artists are supported to explore their creative impulses.

BÁRBAROS is showing at the Space Theatre until July 1.

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