As the lights dimmed before the curtain rose on Saturday night, there was a palpable sense of expectation in the Dunstan Playhouse.

Vessel is a collaborative abstract sculptural dance piece from Belgian choreographer Damien Jalet and Japanese visual artist Kohei Nawa.

Before the curtain has even finished its ascent, the soundscape from Marihiko Hara and Ryuichi Sakamoto has begun to liven the senses and tingle the nerve endings.

Once the stage is fully opened and lit, the scene is that of a pond, a reflected surreal bodyscape to be more precise. Tiny movements in the three sculptures create ripples in the otherwise flawless pond of water on the stage floor. It’s as if we have been transported to a strange primal jungle, watching an alien birthing ritual. Slowly legs emerge and the complete body forms, and takes on a life within the shallows of the primordial pond.

Shapes unfold; are they human or not? These shapes contort and writhe to a primal rhythm that is tangibly visceral. Gradually we discern pairs of bodies.

It is difficult to discern where one body ends and the other begins. These are faceless shapes. A dramatic splashing interrupts the heavy silence as the pairs of bodies tear apart.

In what could be the most realistic portrayal of humans, the dancers are all perfectly straight upright, their faces hidden in the shallows and the legs pointing high into the sky. The bodies are otherworldly, they look human but are behaving in a far from human way.

The skill of these dancers is incredible, the strict poses in uncomfortable positions seem careless and natural, yet the contortions are difficult, not to mention the fact that the show is almost completely in shallow water. When the dancers become pairs, the two become one; it is almost impossible to visually separate them. The movements become as if we are viewing a kaleidoscope as arms and legs perform arcane ritualistic movements. Life forms as if at the very beginning of time. Fractals beget more fractals – arms become legs, backs become faces; with a guttural musical sound as the overarching score.

Gradually these emerging forms become land dwellers on a large floating moonscape and the white clay of life is poured over the bodies. The music becomes more alive and glitchy. The virtually monochromatic scene has white clay, black hair and brown skin mingling to create a physical person emerging from the morass. In a mighty crescendo, the dance is over and life begins.

Vessel is truly an astonishing and powerful performance, and the dancers highly skilled and masterful in their restraint and control, even during the most difficult postures. The lighting, stage set and music blend seamlessly to create an alternate universe that is both comforting and disturbing at the same time. Truly a performance that will leave memories and thoughts with the audience for some time to come.

By John Goodridge