Very loosely based on the curious tale of ballerina Marta Becket, who established an opera house in the middle of Death Valley, this beguiling piece of dance theatre combines some well-judged gimmicks with a strong and straightforward plot. It’s an innovative work – but it begins, ironically, with a Hollywood cliché: a woman stranded on a desert road, at the wheel of a broken-down car.
And for the first few minutes, the car’s the star of the show. A life-sized chassis forms the centrepiece of the set, and there are some neat technical tricks hiding within its dilapidated exterior. The indicators flash in time with footsteps; the numberplate falls off on cue. There’s a little bit of chicanery under the cover of a blackout, too, and all of these surprises make for a cleverly arresting opening.
And it’s not long before the eponymous Dust Devil comes to call. A physically imposing man with a wrestler’s gait, the cowboy-like figure might represent a force of nature – or perhaps he’s something summoned from the ballet dancer’s own mind. In any case, while he’s never threatening, he embodies quiet menace, with his implacable calmness proving just as disturbing as an outburst of fury.
But the artist reasserts herself. When first she confronts the man, he seems entirely unconcerned; but soon the two are circling in a cagey dance, enjoying their mutual performance but unsure of each other's next moves. Before long, it’s the woman who calls the tune – and when they finally square up for an inevitable struggle, it’s unclear who’s truly won.
Amy Gale is impressive as the stranded dancer, bringing a quiet gravitas and a sense of maturity to some sensitive physical work. Perhaps she could make more of the drama of the breakdown; even if the devil is a product of her imagination, her situation is still a genuinely perilous one. Oscar Siegelaar, meanwhile, is stunning as her antagonist: his performance is domineering yet understated at the same time, and he somehow manages to do all this while playing a flamenco-inspired soundtrack live on his guitar. It seems that the devil really does have all the best tunes.
Theatrically speaking, the narrative is slighter than I’d like it to be – nothing that happens has any very obvious consequence, and the relationship to Marta Becket’s real-life story remains entirely obscure. But nothing detracts from the defiant beauty of Gale’s dance, nor the muscular drama so quietly delivered by Sieglaar. And there’s one last cunning trick, a truly magical piece of projection, to top off this memorable and haunting show. It’s a low-key piece which leaves brasher rivals in the dust.