Black Milk

Opera House, Wellington

12/04/2006 - 13/04/2006

Production Details

Director/Choreographer/Writer: Douglas Wright

Composer and sound design: David Long
Set and costume design: Michael Pearce
Lighting design: Robrecht Gesquière


“This work has been coiled like a snake inside me for so long now I feel a slightly shivery joy in knowing that soon it will completed by your gaze. (Caution – it may bite.)” – Douglas Wright

Black Milk began as a seed that germinated and grew while Douglas Wright drafted the manuscript for Terra Incognito, his latest literary offering. He described the ideas as haunting him, begging to be created. The result is a provocative, profound and physical exploration of the intangible boundaries of love, death, fear and memory.

Dance , Contemporary dance , Theatre ,

1 hr 45 mins, no interval

The Wright Stuff

Review by Deirdre Tarrant 19th Apr 2006

"DON’T be afraid to feel something" – Douglas Wright’s words in the Welcome to Black Milk programme notes.

A work by Douglas Wright comes with its own brand of hype and the publicity for this short tour has been amazing, with high interest in a very personal new work by this enigmatic, dark dancer, acknowledged as one of our most talented artists.

Wright writes. His first book Ghost Dancer still stands as an amazing insight into the life and mind of an outstanding "imagineer". His new book, Terra Incognito (an interesting twist of transgender mis-grammar) that promises insight into the processes and thoughts that resulted in Black Milk.

I have yet to read the book but the dance work has been and gone leaving images imprinted on my mind – images that connect and disconnect thoughts and pull the safety net of our lives into extraordinary perspective.

The ventriloquist, brilliantly played by an almost automaton Brian Carbee and his doll, provides a vehicle for voices. Those dark secrets, controlling words, doubts and dissonances that sit behind our thoughts and intrude to create imbalance in our selves are conjured up.

A lascivious Sarah-Jane Howard falls from luscious red drapes wearing only red shoes and loose long red hair that somehow should set us in the comfort zone of a pre-Raphaelite painting. But she has scissors slicing the air where soft hands should be and thus begins a series of extraordinary images punctuated by desperate and disparate flying dancers.

It was intense and it was personal. The genius of the work was that many paths met, and it was a sweeping visual statement that seemed to both validate and disallow reality in its darkest moments.

Death was ever a shadow but the red, white and black of the costuming and the crimson staging and writings kept life and birth within reach.

The dancers were wonderful, each going deep into themselves and giving electric and emotive genius to the work. Sarah-Jane Howard, Claire O’Neill, Helana Keeley, Craig Bary, Alex Leonhartsberger, Jessica Shipman, Taiaroa Royal and briefly Douglas Wright himself held mirrors to our selves both literally and metaphorically.

The music, some collated and some original by David Long, was perfect and Michael Pearce’s set kept the deceptively soft exterior and Freudian interpretations never far from the mind.

Naïve and child like writings, a doll that had a personality, provocation, rivers of black and Dali-esque tongues that talked and fell away. Words, words, spoken, screamed, silent and scrolled on black panels and the sides of a garden shed. The images will persevere.

"There is no hidden meaning, unless you’re hiding it!" completes Wright’s welcoming quote and sets the seal on an extraordinary and triumphant theatrical tour de force.


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Darkness and life in Black Milk

Review by John Smythe 13th Apr 2006

There are a lot of words both, written and spoken, amid the dance and other visual language of Douglas Wright’s Black Milk. The seed for this powerful work, about power, was sown as Wright wrote his new book, Terra Incognito (Penguin). There is eloquence without voice too and the most shattering sequence shows the degradation of having no voice at all. The man with the words is the one with all the power.

As the title suggests, paradox is paramount. Wright’s pre-show installation has a pneumatic female form inflating and deflating on a bed of nails beneath a sign that reads: "Pain examined without prejudice is metamorphosis". A recurring mantra suggests that death brings life.

Spoken word, written and recorded by Wright in technologically enhanced voices, is ascribed to a Ventriloquist (Brian Carbee) and his Dummy, who wants to be born so he can have life. This he achieves, to the extent of giving birth to a Mummy, the bandage-wrapped cadaver sort, who turns out to be a still-born mini-Ventriloquist. Then, to escalate the bizarreness factor, the process is reversed.

Later, when the Dummy – who has taunted his manipulator for his mortality – is stabbed to death for his pains, helped on his way to eternal sleep by an injection from "Morpheus", he ascends into the nipple of the pendulous black breast that has hung over proceedings through much of the show. Breast-as-womb, nipple-as-birth canal: both give life and succour.

The dance proper begins with a naked woman (Sarah-Jane Howard) in long red hair and bright red shoes hanging from the nipple until she frees herself to flamenco dance to a recorded clapped rhythm, using scissors as castanets. Her waif-like vulnerability metamorphoses into the epitome of female power. She too will return, to become the manipulator of the bereft Ventriloquist. Who’s the Dummy now?

The black breast also gives birth to a man who is adorned with foliage. Later, herbaceously hirsute, he is trimmed with hedge clippers: an escalation of weaponry.  

My natural inclination to find meaning in the rich and multi-layered imagery is challenged by an hilarious scene where the Dummy comments on what’s happening in a dance sequence and quizzes the Ventriloquist about its meaning. But can it just be what it is? The notion of a simple, objective reality is in turn subverted when the Ventriloquist denies the existence of things that are plainly visible.

A sequence that could be a dancer alone on stage in Wellington or a princess lost in an enchanted forest plays out through a number of iterations then literally sets tongues wagging and flapping. And some of them are forked. There is always a vein of comedy through the drama and much of it has bite. The "Yes" to death-in-life that the Dummy succumbs to is countered constantly with a joyous "No" that reclaims the life force in vital explosions of the apparently limitless capacities of the human body.

Solos from Howard, Craig Barry, Claire O’Neil and Helaina Keeley are highlights amid strong ensemble work, with Alex Leonhartsberger, Jessica Shipman, Tairoa Royal, Guy Ryan and Kelly Nash completing the company: each one a star. Especially spectacular is a variation on a well-known trust exercise. Shipman stands on dancers’ shoulders, is held by the ankles. To the mantra "he loves me, he loves me not", she falls forward to be caught by colleagues then she’s flung back up to rise and fall backward into the arms of another group, and so on back and forth.

Black Milk is, inevitably, a make-of-it-what-you-will experience. Mirrors often appear to demand we look at ourselves while judging others. This point is especially made when a peeping Tom masturbates (his back to us) at the stolen sight of the Ventriloquist abusing the Dummy (they’re in a dark hut, we only hear their increasingly climactic dialogue) while he in turn is watched and wanked over … And as we watch the watchers watching the watchers, a woman ambles across the stage and flashes us with a Polaroid camera.

The show comes with a warning that it "contains nudity and some scenes may disturb" – but it’s not the nudity, per se, that does it. Most disturbing are the atrocities of Abu Ghraib prison, played out as they are beneath a sign that reads: "Somewhere – now". Naked bodies with bags on their heads – the women made male with prosthetic penises – have numbers sprayed on their backs by Douglas Wright himself. White-suited and silver-fanged, his relentless voice barks amplified orders to the prisoners, demanding they commit ever-escalating indignities upon each other. He finally presides in KKK-style robes and a white Christian-cross head.

Now the mirrors give way to stock-like boards with prisoners’ heads trapped in them – trophy heads mounted to serve their hunters’ egos – while a hating voice lists all the despicable types of so-called humanity … This where Keeley’s solo comes in, putting her in a spin as she resists the demands of an American military band.

And this is where the Dummy – who has earlier regaled us, in a stand-up tragedy routine, with the tale of a river-woman who gives birth then consumes her young – makes his exit. Again, energy and the life-force return in those trademark running, leaping, falling, rolling sequences, capped with the extraordinary image of the entire ensemble rolling across the stage like tumble-weeds.

Written signs suggest a world in disarray yet somehow life is reclaimed. With Black Milk Douglas Wright and his team eschew dance-for-the-sake-of-dance to explore, challenge and provoke our thoughts and feelings at personal, social, political and metaphysical levels.

David Long must also be commended for his compositions and sound design, Michael Pearce for his set and costume designs – huge but light red curtains wonderfully used, the black fabric breast especially memorable – and Robrecht Gesquière for a lighting design that brings it all to life. All the elements conspire to produce a richly stimulating work. For each moment I’ve mentioned, there are at least as many I’ve left unacknowledged.

Out in the foyer and on the street animated groups exchange responses. From where I stand these tongues are not flapping randomly. Nor are any forked. I have a sense that the more people talk about it, the more they’re appreciating what they have experienced.

In Terra Incognito, Wright says "art born of cynicism is poison to my spirit." He revitalises himself with "books, films, paintings and photographs … that marvel and question, rage, lament and celebrate." In turn, with Black Milk, he and his company revitalise us.


Martyn Wheeler April 14th, 2006

I experienced Black Milk in Christchurch, images still haunt me now. What a powerful insight into Wrights mind. The performance kept me upright in my seat,some people left the theatre. It would have been extremely challanging for some.

Michael Smythe April 13th, 2006

I saw Black Milk last week in Auckland and the reverberations continue. It is one of the most powerful theatre experiences I have ever 'enjoyed'. I am sure it was only the sobering implications that left the audience seated rather than rising as one to acclaim the world-class event we had just witnessed.

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