Three women dance on an iceberg in the sky. They don’t know how fast it will melt | Sydney Party 2022

A The sense of pessimism and desperation following the Black Summer bushfires that swept Australia in 2019/2020 became the catalyst for one of the most unconventional and ambitious productions likely to be seen at this year’s Sydney Festival.

Like most arts organizations, Sydney-based physical theater company Legs on the Wall has spent the better part of two years on hiatus.

After critically acclaimed seasons of Man with the Iron Neck (dealing with the raw subject of First Nations male suicide) at four major Australian festivals in 2018 and 2019, two national tours of the production came to an abrupt halt at the start of 2020 due to Covid-19.

Legs on the Wall Artistic Director Joshua Thomson chats with Issy Estrella, one of the performers on the show. Photography: Shane Rozario

Legacy on the Wall artistic director Joshua Thomson spent the downtime in introspective and emotional trepidation, also struggling to come to terms with the environmental devastation and national trauma of the Black Summer, which cost $18.6 million hectares of land, destroyed nearly 3,000 homes and claimed the lives of at least 34 people.

“I felt emotional, desperate and maybe a little angry…I just felt like there was nothing I could do to help,” Thomson says.

“But then I started thinking about what I’m good at and how could I continue to push the conversation and awareness around climate change forward. Then I started thinking about the opposite of fire – and that’s when the idea for ice came.

“Australia is the driest continent on Earth…and I wanted to put something fragile in that kind of harsh environment.”

Held over three days in January from Friday, Thomson’s Thaw will see three female artists perform back-to-back on a 2.5-tonne block of ice suspended 20 meters above Sydney Harbour, in a play that lasts nine hours each day.

Issy Estrella in rehearsals.
Issy Estrella in rehearsals. She and Vicki Van Hout and Victoria Hunt will each spend three-hour shifts at the tip of the iceberg. Photography: Shane Rozario

The flying iceberg melting in the Sydney summer heat, a human figure precariously negotiating its slippery and shrinking surface; a metaphor for the fragile and shrinking natural world melting under the burden of humanity.

Cecily Hardy, creative producer at Thaw, is the link between Thomson’s concept art and the company’s logistics.

It took approximately 2,700 liters of water to create each of the four icebergs (one was used for rehearsal), with each body of arctic blue-tinted water taking approximately 10 days to freeze in a custom-made 30-meter steel mold. $000. The freezing process began in November.

A crane positioned on the western promenade of the Sydney Opera House will suspend a fresh 2.5 tonne iceberg above the harbor each morning on January 14, 15 and 16.

Each day, Isabel Estrella, Vicki Van Hout and Jenni Large will spend a three-hour shift at the top of the iceberg. Victoria Hunt was originally scheduled, but pulled out in support of the Sydney Festival boycott; she will perform later this month in Thaw’s show in Launceston, as part of Mona Foma.

The choreography was co-designed by the performers and Thomson, backed by an original score by the Alaskan composer, sound artist and eco-acoustician. Matthew Burtner, who is also the director of the nonprofit Environmental Arts Organization of Alaska, EcoSono.

How long will it take for the iceberg to melt each day? That, says Hardy, is the million dollar question.

Certain weather conditions will melt the ice faster than others, eventually dissolving the iceberg by more than 50% over the nine-hour performance.

“Our tests showed that the combination of weather conditions that caused the most erosion on the iceberg was wind and sun together,” says Hardy, who affectionately calls his icebergs “her.”

“Of course the heat melts it, but it’s the wind that melts that surface faster. Surprisingly, it melts a little slower than you’d imagine when it’s just [exposed to] direct sun in calm weather.

“That’s part of the problem: that on some days after a long day, she can look very different from what she looked the day before depending on the weather, and that in itself is pretty exciting.”

Artist Victoria Hunt performing for THAW at MONA FOMA.
Victoria Hunt will also perform for Thaw at Mona Foma in Tasmania. Photography: Shane Rozario

Working at a heritage site that can be visited by thousands of people in a single day presented a unique set of occupational health and safety challenges, Hardy says.

There were many hurdles that the company – working with Sydney Opera House management, crane company, riggers and engineers – had to overcome, which were then independently peer-reviewed to guarantee maximum security.

“There are so many layers of consideration, planning and technology that have gone into what seems like a pretty simple and beautiful thing,” says Hardy.

Along with the Opera Forecourt, the three Thaw performances will be visible from the Cahill Freeway, Circular Quay, MCA and International Passenger Terminal, and Lavender Bay, as well as a myriad of other vantage points clustered around the Sydney Harbor waterfront.

Performances will also be on view at Kirribilli House, the second official residence of Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who – following Cop26 – has become internationally infamous for his inaction on climate change.

Development artist Gabreille Nankivell during THAW training.
Development artist Gabrielle Nankivell during Thaw training. Photography: Shane Rozario

Thomson says Thaw is undeniably political but not in a didactic sense.

“There is an opportunity and a responsibility for this work to say something…and yes, it has an element of spectacle,” he says.

“But hopefully, through spectacle and scale, we’ll bring people in, capture people’s minds in their wonder, and deliver that message through a reflective moment, not a slap in the face.”

  • Thaw will be performed in Sydney Harbor next to the Sydney Opera House from January 14-16 and streamed live as part of the Sydney Festival’s At Home digital program and on Sydney Opera House’s Stream platform. Saturday’s entire performance can be viewed as a live video stream on January 15 from 10 a.m. to 8:30 p.m.

Corina C. Butler