Often you’ll pick up a book, or a dvd, or something, and see a snappy quotation on there, drawn from a review in the such-and-such Times or the so-and-so Herald. And when the quotee wishes to lend a particular air of grandeur to the book or dvd or whatever it is, they may speak in emphatic, final-sounding terms of approval: “A triumphant success.”

When we talk about a work of art as a “success,” I wonder what we mean? It’s some kind of praise, clearly, but all of a sudden I feel unsure about the word. Sitting down to write about Aimee Smith’s latest dance work, ‘Wintering,’ I’m tempted to call it a success – but “success” seems to imply “desired outcomes A and B”, achieved through “effective elements X, Y and Z.”

The best art has always eluded and transcended such a straightforward relationship between intent and content, drawing squiggly and overlapping lines at best. Often, the greatest results aren’t yielded from a rigorous creative check-list so much as a kind of freeform intuitive approach. The latter leaves room for the work’s initial impetus to be totally be usurped by something less tidy – but ultimately more intriguing and profound.

So it went, apparently, with choreographer Aimee Smith’s remarkable new work, ‘Wintering.’ Initially inspired by environmental imperatives and a desire to push certain political didactics, Aimee Smith set out in late 2010 to explore the high arctic. Joined by a group of fellow creatives, Smith spent 18 days and nights on a boat with stints on shore, immersing themselves in the icy, ancient terrain. Smith describes the experience less as one of political galvanisation, more of deep-hitting personal sadness and enigmatic hope. From this departure point – an intersection of feeling, not a statement – we enter the performance.

The room is silent, but full: it’s closing night. The lights dim ceremoniously. From behind the large screen – which forms an entire rear wall – a slim, black-hooded figure emerges. It’s CRAIG McELHINNEY. Craig is, of course, best-known for his work in Perth’s live (and recorded) music scene – his engrossing, out-of-body-experience-inducing sets of dense noise and misty, mystic harmony are staples of local experimental evenings and grace a good quota of the town’s better international shows. He’s collaborated before – as a member of Eleventh He Reaches London, with Camryn Rothenbury as Splendid Friends, with various buddies as Melted Desert Trio – but this is, I believe, the first time I’ve seen him create music expressly as a component of a larger audiovisual work.

Craig remains still, stood behind table and laptop, his focused face lit by the blue glow of a screen. Though his hand movements are almost imperceptible, the enveloping sonic blanket he’s producing betrays the scope of what he’s doing. He forges and warps hulking masses of sound, channeling them down echoing funnels and along crackling rivulets. There’s always been an elemental, and at times glacial and icy, quality to McElhinney’s music (see 2009’s “Drift Slowly Down The Frozen Lakes Through The Ice Caves Of Your Mind” from Craig’s debut album “You And Me Are Young And Brutal” for a case in point: its frostiness goes well beyond the title). When these soundscapes meet the oblique, haunting visuals prepared by audiovisual artist Kynan Tan, the result is truly engrossing and evocative. Monolithic icebergs dissolve into view as Craig’s tones arc and sweep; low, gurgling drones underpin digital collages of darkness and light, and crystalline ambience rings out as a sunrise fades up over arctic mountains. There is a sense of the sublime here; the timeless, the infinite, the beautiful and the unknown. It’s a fittingly awe-inspiring preface to a dance work that channels and responds to the very feelings such a landscape provokes.

It begins: one of the dancers, alone, still, in a void of sheer blackness. She approaches you, slowly – unnaturally slowly, as if digitally decelerated. The lights dim and she reappears, several metres from where she stood a moment prior – still approaching you at an eerie, glacial pace. It is a dream-like opening: tremendously impressive, enigmatic, and wonderfully subtle.

From this bold and idiosyncratic opening grows a dance performance that feels consistently unique. Soon we have two dancers on stage – Rhiannon Newton and Jenni Large – and the dialogue of movement between them is vital to creating the tensions and confluences that drive the work. Smith had found herself inspired by both the transcendent, humbling fortitude of the vast arctic and equally its fragility in the face of climate change; here, she creates a visual vocabulary of dualities, symmetries and counterpoints that allude to the complexity of emotions she experienced.

There are moments of lucidity and strident purpose: Newton and Large, well lit, moving quickly and economically in perfect synchronicity to either mirror or bounce off one another in mutually supporting systems. At other times, the overwhelming mood is one of doubt – where movements are laboured and tentative, sometimes with one body frozen in time, or with both floating and shrinking from the spotlight. The volatility of sentiment here feels distinctly contemporary: we live in a world of unprecedented dangers and delights. We in the first world are more comfortable, more knowledgeable, with more at our disposal than ever before; arguably (and David Malouf does argue it in his essay ‘The Happy Life’), the human race has never been this content. But for all our advances, we are haunted with portents of doom: global warming being the key one here, but notably too the impossible-to-ignore undercurrents of social tension, economic devastation, the general unsustainability of our existence. Smiths’ choreography foregrounds the feelings of confusion, sadness, helplessness and – in spite of it all, hope – that such a world imbues in us.

All the while, Newton and Large’s compelling and mysterious movements swim in the rich and eerie atmosphere of Ben Taaffe’s soundtrack. Strange drones and synthesized swells move in and out of what you might call harmony; the sounds here aren’t entirely abstract either, painting imagery with their associations. We hear what might be meditation bowls and ship’s bells; or perhaps they’re cold winds and funeral knells. The sounds coalesce into an ambiguous mood of contemplation, peace and paranoia, perfectly framing the multiplicity of ideas unfolding onstage. Hitherto unaware that Taaffe (who I know as one of {move}‘s ultra-funky DJ personnel) composed work such as this, I’m impressed to say the least; it strikes a beautiful balance between distant, measured texture and thought-provoking injection of feeling.

There are moments are of staggering technical achievement – like when the pair of dancers freeze in an entwined pose before the lights dim and we’re exposed to the sound of them running ferociously around the stage – before the lights return and they’re exactly where we left them. But for the most part, this isn’t a performance about “wow” factor so much as nuances of emotion expressed through nuanced motion, light and sound. As it concludes, the dancers roll slowly, one by one, sideways off stage, and we roll wide-eyed and contemplative out of the state theatre. Was the work a success? In the sense that it was very good, yes, certainly; but still I’m hesitant with that word which implies a finite task that can be said to be complete. With its environmentally conscious creation process (using recycled materials, rewarding bike-riding attendees with free wine), thought-provoking backstory and deeply moving content, this work feels less like a self-contained thing and more like a component of a practice, a community and a worldview. Without a doubt,‘Wintering’ is a chapter in an ongoing process of negotiation, exploring in more ways than one how art can contribute to – and effectively convey part of – our experience in this strange, scary, and nevertheless beautiful modern world.