Marina Mascarell’s dazzling dance extravaganza finally sets sail

Marina Mascarell is not afraid to challenge her dancers. The Spanish choreographer has created works in which dancers unfold and fold pieces of carpet, wobbly sticks and once even 200 kilograms of dried lentils that were shipped onto the stage.

“And with each piece, the bodies adapt to it,” says Mascarell. “It’s a nice challenge for me.”

In her latest work, Mascarell has dancers work with moving fabric sculptures. In The Shell, a Ghost, the Host and the LyrebirdIn a new production co-commissioned by Sydney Dance Company and Canberra Theater Centre, dancers interact with large ships’ sails and patched pieces of silk attached to harnesses and pulled with ropes.

Mascarell has fused choreography and installation art to create a work that continually shifts in front of the audience: dancers pull and hold on to the ropes as they slide across the floor, angling the fabric sculptures into different formations as they do so. They pull the silk through their hands, wrap themselves in sails like a child playing hide-and-seek, or cower under the huge folds. It’s a visually spectacular work, but the intention is to do more than inspire awe.

The Spanish choreographer Marina Mascarell.

The Spanish choreographer Marina Mascarell.Credit:Louise Kennerley

The sails are hard and heavy, meaning dancers have to move up to 20 kilograms of weight up and down. But they also have to work with weightless and fragile pieces of silk, which require a very different approach to handling. For Mascarell, how they learn to navigate both objects is a way of reflecting on the issues that interest her as an artist: resistance, pushing back against the status quo and posthumanism, or the idea that humans are no longer at the top of the moral hierarchy. “It’s a way of decentralizing humans as the model of creation and learning from other sources,” she says.

When creating The Shell, a Ghost, the Host and the LyrebirdMascarell was inspired by Donna Haraway’s ecofeminism theories and Mark Fisher’s critique of capitalism. The play does not tell a narrative story, but explores how bodies are changing in relation to other beings and nature, and how they will be related to technology in the future. Coping with the climate crisis is of course part of this. These are topics that Mascarell has long been interested in.

“I’ve always been triggered by universal justice,” she says. “Coming from a very politically active family, I would say at home that 95 percent of the conversations at home were about this topic. I grew up in an environment where literally everything is questioned, so it’s my nature.”

Her work has long delved into feminism and the smashing of gender binaries – you’ll never see a woman being lifted into the air or presenting her body as ‘beautiful’ in her productions, for example, and the costumes to go with it The Shell, a Ghost, the Host and the Lyrebird is intentionally genderless. But Mascarell thinks the best way to break stereotypes is behind the scenes.

“My way of working is very horizontal, not imposing,” she says. “It’s about creating a work atmosphere where everyone feels vulnerable and has a place to play and can be ridiculous at times. So I think [challenging gender identity] Often there is more than me [directly] am I talking about feminism, or am I talking about queer theories.”

Set designer Lauren Brincat.

Set designer Lauren Brincat.Credit:Louise Kennerley

When Mascarell “fell into dance” as a student, she began to translate these ways of thinking into movement. She rose to fame in the 2010s and has worked worldwide – from Taiwan to The Hague, the city where she now lives, although she will be relocating to Copenhagen in April to take up a new position as Artistic Director of Danish Dance Theatre. The Sydney Dance Company first invited Mascarell to create a work for them in 2020, but the pandemic forced a pause on those plans. Now the vision is to be realized with a triple calculation rise, opens next week at the Sydney Opera House, making Mascarell the first international choreographer the company has worked with in more than six years.

Having a choreographer of her caliber is a coup, but Shell, A Ghost, The Host and The Lyrebird was very cooperative. First, Mascarell teamed up with Sydney-based composer Nick Wales to create the score – an electronic-classical piece of music peppered with birdcalls that instinctively transports audiences to the world of nature. She next sought out a visual artist who might be interested in working on an ambitious, interactive set – one that might still be portable enough for touring – and Wales introduced her to Australian Lauren Brincat.

“He said you’re going to love her,” Mascarell recalls. “And it was like a crush!”

Brincat’s work includes sculptural installations, moving images and performances. Lately, she’s been working with painter’s drop sheets and giant canvases, which immediately piqued Mascarell’s interest. The pair first met in Europe, hit it off and then spent eight months discussing ideas for the Sydney Dance Company production between continents. They say their collaboration felt happy.

“I didn’t know Marina well but I had looked at her work and I feel like we have a very similar way of working… there’s a lot of improvisation, a lot of play with what things are supposed to do or how they’re supposed to move,” says Brincat.

Brincat brought in textile artist Leah Giblin and together with Mascarell they designed the costumes for the dancers and the sculptural set. Brincat says she always thought of the sails and pieces of silk as instruments that the dancers could use during the performance.

Mascarell with dancers Emily Seymour and Jesse Scales.

Mascarell with dancers Emily Seymour and Jesse Scales.Credit:Louise Kennerley

“My vision was, here are five additional dancers – because sometimes I think so [the sculptures] are dancers on stage. And then sometimes there is an inversion and the dancers become the sculpture.”

The play has constantly evolved.

“It really feels like there’s no main character in this play,” says Brincat. “In fact, everyone’s contribution has really improved the work. It was a collective gathering of minds to make it happen.”

The dancers also played a key role. Instead of a top-down approach, Mascarell involved each of them in creating the choreography.

“[Marina] He’s fantastic to work with – super collaborative and loves to play to find instinctive moves and ideas,” says Jesse Scales, one of the seven dancers on stage in the work. “We had no preconceived notions of how we would work with the sculptures. So when we walked into the studio and saw them all, we were like, ‘Hey, maybe I could do that? Let’s see if that works. If I drag this, what does it do with it? And how can I reflect that through my body?’


“Because we have to pull very heavy sails, it basically does strength training all day. We’ll work with them on a section and they’ll end up getting tangled up. So to go back and try again, you have to reset everything,” laughs Scales. “But we chose this job because we love it.”

So, now that Mascarell has added large scale moving sculptures to the list of objects she has built choreographies around, will she ever work with an empty stage?

“I did a play in Barcelona last year and that was my goal – I’m going to do a play with nothing [on stage], as a challenge because I feel very comfortable with the things around me. And it ended up being the busiest play ever, with millions of things on stage,” she says, describing the abandoned objects found in the Spanish countryside around which she built the work. “But one day I will!”

rise will be on view at the Sydney Opera House from March 15th to 26th. Marina Mascarell’s dazzling dance extravaganza finally sets sail

Jaclyn Diaz

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