A Stroke of Luck

Chloe-McDougal-and-Gretel-Burgess-in-A-Stroke-of-Luck-photo-by-Andrew-SikorskiOn 14th September 2014, at the age of 42, Gretel Burgess, an enthusiastic dance practitioner, was struck down by a catastrophic stroke while on a camping holiday with her family in the Daintree Rainforest. Her daughter, Chloe, also a dancer, was just 8 years old at the time and witnessed the event.

Gretel’s road to physical, mental and emotional recovery has been long and arduous. A curious liability of her stroke has been that she has become an impulse shopper, scouring the internet and purchasing unwanted garments, even booking family holidays, on whim.

However rather than going down the path of self-pity, Burgess has channelled her energy into creating this enthralling dance work which she performs with her daughter Chloe, charting her experience as well as exploring the causal factors of stroke.

During her research she discovered that fear and anxiety actually affects the blood and that screams literally do curdle our blood. Recalling episodes of workplace bullying leading up to her stroke, Burgess uses this knowledge as the catalyst for her work which is presented in three sections, without interval.

The first section, Coagulation begins in a setting crowded by piles of large files and racks of clothing. The colour red figures prominently in this scene in both the lighting and the costuming. A figure in a red dress (Chloe) slowly pushes a loaded shopping trolley around the tightly lit space. While she’s performing this task, Burgess emerges unexpectedly from the onstage pile of files and begins to mechanically sort and pack them.

Eventually she becomes annoyed and frustrated with her efforts until a tiny finger-puppet with a red umbrella calmly traverses the files leading her to the trolley into which she climbs and they swirl deliriously around the stage.

For the second section, Diversion both performers are costumed in apple-green. Chloe sits on a seat slowly eating an ice-cream. A flash of lightning signifies the catastrophic event, and while her mother lies powerless on the floor unable to communicate her situation, Chloe sits frozen on the seat seemingly unable to comprehend her mother’s predicament.

Throughout the work Burgess draws upon an eclectic choreographic repertoire to tell her story. She also makes extensive use of props and spoken word, including an excerpt from a speech given in Parliament by Federal MP, Hon. Warren Entsch quoting statistics regarding the prevalence of stroke in Australia. Family photographs and a selection of carefully chosen background music provide context and ambience.

Green apples feature prominently in the final section, Liability which depicts some of the after-effects of Burgess’s stroke. She doesn’t shy away from the frustrations inherent in her long recovery journey, or the effect this had on those close to her, particularly Chloe.

Events involving a single green apple which attracted the attention of the New Zealand Biosecurity Agents, and her proclivity towards impulse buying, are depicted frankly and amusingly in sequences that are light-hearted, moving and optimistic.

Central to the success of the work is the superb performance by Chloe McDougal, a gifted young dancer with a rare talent for stillness and authenticity.

Despite the seriousness of the subject matter which is depicted clearly and unflinchingly, the audience is not left focussing on the events that led to the creation of this work, or even to wonder at the strength and resilience of Burgess herself, but rather, uplifted and thoroughly moved by the delicate and unsentimental depiction of the loving bond between this remarkable mother and daughter.

This is an extraordinary work which deserves to be seen by a wide audience. With a running time of slightly less than an hour, and with its excellent performance and production values, A Stroke of Luck would make a stunning keynote event for a major health conference.

A Stroke of Luck
QL2 Dance Theatre – Gorman Arts Centre, 55 Ainslie Avenue, Braddon
Performance: Saturday 25 February 2023 – 1.00pm
Season: 24 – 26 February 2023 (ended)

Image: Chloe McDougal and Gretel Burgess in A Stroke of Luck – photo by Andrew Sikorski

Review: Bill Stephens OAM