by Urszula Dawkins
While Homer’s Odysseus begins his epic journey after a devastating war, many odysseys start relatively small, kicked off almost accidentally in the flow of everyday life. The seemingly ‘big moments’ we experience can turn out to be storms in teacups; while chance events can become the foundations for major events in our lives.
In a sense, the formation of rawcus began in that accidental way – something small that grew into an adventure, and continues from strength to strength after more than a decade. The company was formed when director Kate Sulan was asked to put together a short opening piece for a conference, performed by artists with disabilities. The 15-minute piece generated incredible energy, says Sulan. “We thought, we just have to keep working together.” So they made another show and that felt ‘right’ too. And so they made another show, “and here we are eleven years later as a company, keeping on making work together.”
Sulan was keen to build a professionally focused company, recognising the need for artists with disabilities to develop their practice and take it to the next level. Today’s rawcus includes artists both with and without disabilities, around a third of whom are founding members.
The idea for Small Odysseys, says Sulan, “grew out of a conversation that we were having around moments in your life when you feel really big and powerful and strong, and moments where you feel really tiny and fragile – or conversely when you feel really big and awkward, like you want to shrink into nothing.”
“The show is like an odyssey…it’s a series of glimpses of people on their journeys. In terms of scale, we’re talking about when the everyday fuels the epic…or when, in the everyday, you feel like a hero battling.”
rawcus often takes inspiration from the work of visual artists, and as Small Odysseys developed, the sculptures of Ron Mueck began to resonate – both larger-than-life and tiny human figures that exude a potent mix of pathos and vulnerability. “When his exhibition came [to the NGV in 2010] we were so excited, because we’d been working with his imagery for about six months,” says Sulan. “So we went as a company to the exhibition, and that experience has really had a profound effect on the work.”
“We were also working with another book, Little People of the City, by an artist called Slinkachu – he makes tiny figurines and little scenarios that he places in an urban environment, so they’re tiny in this massive urban landscape. We’d been looking at them and talking about our experiences, and the idea of bravery and epic journeys, and that’s how the work began to grow.”
While “real Odyssey buffs” might see some references to Homer’s epic text, Sulan says Small Odysseys is much more about the feeling of being in an odyssey, or being lost at sea. Over the two years of development – all rawcus’s work, she says, is the result of long development periods – all the company’s members, from performers to lighting, set and sound designers, have responded to the idea both individually and then together, creating solos, soundscapes, texts and other elements that ultimately become the ‘epic’ of the finished work.
“We worked in Williamstown boat shed, and then at the Meat Market for our second development, and the space had a huge effect on the making of this work… how we inhabit a huge space, and how we negotiate… How you can be dwarfed by an enormous performance venue, and when you can actually claim it. We move between using the whole performance space, which is like the whole 50, 60 metres, to reducing the space to these little floating islands…”
On life’s various journeys, fraught with the trials of the everyday, some events strengthen us, while others cast us adrift on impossible seas. But somehow, a story forms from the sum of the parts, and somehow, the journey makes sense in the end.
“That’s what I think life is – it’s messy and it’s complicated, and when you look… You only see the narrative of life when you look at it from the end.”
The odyssean journey seems also to reflect the making of the work, finding the threads that run through different experiences and shaping them into a story that, as Sulan has said elsewhere, falls into place perhaps only at the conclusion of the piece. It’s a risk that also reflects the choices we make every day.
“When you’re in the middle of those moments, you don’t go ‘oh well, that leads to that leads to that’ – but you see it on reflection, and so that’s why I like to make my work like that, but it is very risky. I guess that’s our odyssey now, that’s our heroic gesture, to share it and see what comes.”
Auslan-interpreted performance Friday 22 July, 7.30pm