First impressions of ‘On Reefs and Eroded Lands We Danced’

We were lucky enough to glimpse a run of Paolo Mangiola’s new full-length work, On Reefs and Eroded Lands We Danced…

ŻfinMalta's On Reefs and Eroded Lands We Danced by Paolo Mangiola

Still in creation, and weeks away from production, the full effects of this collaborative work have yet to be revealed, but already a powerful choreographic composition, we can’t wait to watch the final production at Valletta Campus Theatre. Read on for some initial insights and what we took away from our first glance…

The work emits a powerful and raw element of humanity and relatability, in a piece otherwise constructed of abstract contemporary vocabulary, felt viscerally by our proximity to the ever-changing landscape composed in front of us. There is a juxtaposition between beautifully simple scores, which highlight this element of deep human connection, and complex choreographic structures; Paolo Mangiola’s choreography weaves between them seamlessly.

There are pertinent moments of silence and stillness, accompanied by the sounds of building breath and the rhythmic unison of bodies. A sense of competition is evoked, for survival or natural order. There is a heightened urgency created by the gradual build of encounters, and increasing frequency and volume of unified feet landing more and more erratically. These gentle encounters subtly shift towards hostility, dramatised and framed further by the prolonged stillness in the soundscape.

ŻfinMalta's On Reefs and Eroded Lands We Danced by Paolo Mangiola

Amongst so much movement, there is an abundance of striking still imagery. 

Matthew Attard’s physical structures create images of shelter, of division, and of hierarchy: projections reflecting briefly off their surfaces as they move with dancers, their identity and purpose shifting between that of objects, of barriers, and as further bodies, whose journeys and configurations are composed as intricately as the dancers themselves. There is an interconnectedness of all bodies and structures on stage in harmony, posed in striking opposition to their earlier function as objects of separation and division.

The collaborative elements of this multi-disciplinary work are intelligently arranged. We are introduced to each slowly, and each has its dominant moment in the choreographic structure:

These elements seem to hesitantly compete, in a gradual rise and fall of intensity, until both dancers and music, are finally matched in a poignant and intimate duet section, which feels like the satisfying resolution of conflicting elements up to this point. It is at this moment when the work accelerates without further interruption, and music, visual art, and movement are increasingly and skillfully woven into the composition, overlapped in unexpected ways and with increasing frequency, to create a fast paced structure that continually gains momentum until an inevitable climax.

At one moment, our perspective is radically changed, and audiences are brought physically into this carefully composed and newly created environment, amongst structures, images, lights, bodies and movement. The work, viewed by audiences from four sides, is already an immersive experience, and yet the landscape, and our perspective continues to shift. We physically move into their territory, and as spectators, we become enclosed by habitats created by Matthew Attard’s structures; They move around us, and we are taken on a journey through a transforming space, surrounded by movement and affected by human touch. 

There are strong ideas of renewal, cycles of growth, and decay, reflected in every level of the composition, both in individual movements, and overarching narratives of the choreographic structure, visual aspects, and musical arrangement. 

The work feels divided into three sections:


Explorations and encounters

Nostalgia and wishing

Survival and resilience

On Reefs and Eroded Lands We Danced Photo by Camille Fenech
  • Spoilers ahead...

The audience is caught off-guard by the placement of Vera Lynn’s ‘We’ll meet again,’ with its connotations of war-time effort and struggle for the greater good. Our focus is entirely directed to the nostalgic soundscape as the busyness of movement on stage gradually settles, and there is an absence of physical objects and bodies in the space. 

‘On Reefs and Eroded Lands We Danced’ is summarised by a final chapter which retouches on the themes of struggle and nostalgia. Goya’s music reaches its intense climax, and with the introduction of a darker tone, the dancers are tentatively re-introduced to the space to begin a final score, one which unnoticeably builds in intensity, demonstrating extreme physicalities not yet reached in the work, and overlapped with urgent and poetic text. The off-load of a final line (title), which despite its desperate delivery, still makes reference to hope, spurs a moment which should be predictable, and yet is overwhelmingly moving when it finally appears, perhaps due to the way the anticipation, and the dancers exasperation is so prolonged. The dancers seem physically incapable of continuing further, their physical struggle apparent, yet on cue, they reach even greater limits of movement. Their movement is suddenly sparked with joy and and sudden release of gripping bodily tension; a moment that we wish will continue slightly longer. 

This collision of both desperation and joy, which has been slowly culminating throughout the work is overwhelmingly moving, and a beautiful end to a work which could have easily been left on a mournful topic of reflection.

The performance is a masterful arrangement of all collaborative elements commissioned, each positioned carefully and given adequate space, to enhance the others full potential. As viewers, we are taken on a momentous journey which appeals to our sense of empathy, pride in humanity, and bond to those around us.


For further information and to discuss the ŻfinMalta Artist in Residence programme, please contact our Education & Outreach Officer, Martina Zammit on