2015 Wrap Up

I will open this long awaited blog with both a g’day and goodbye for another year. It really is true that as you get older they roll by faster than a pinball flying past ineffectual flippers that herald the end of a game. Bad analogy betraying my age? Probably, but an honest sentiment all the same.

It has been a big year for indigenous contemporary dance, which began for me with a long awaited presentation of Long Grass as part of Sydney Festival at the Seymour Centre and finished with the dual presentation of both NAISDA’s end of year show production titled Kamu and the 21 year remount of Bangarra Dance Theatre’s seminal work Ochres, effectively usurping the Carriageworks venue just last week. All three works consolidated the inner city of Redfern as a place of continued indigenous theatrical importance.

This was a mere snippet of the plethora of dance on offer in our great city. Highlights included FORM’s presentation of Raghav Handa’s inaugural full length work titled Tukre’, as part of the Dance Bites program. Dedicated to honouring his family and cultural heritage, Handa simultaneously addressed shifts in the cultural fabric through the depiction of the significance of the passing down of patrilineal heirlooms, upon a same sex marriage that isn’t yet officially sanctioned. The delicate melding of his dance language with his private predicament created a poignant picture.

This was followed by Shona McCullagh’s patriotic work Rotunda, which venerated the young soldiers of WW1 through the use of a marching band in conjunction with a bold physically virtuosic movement vocabulary, deployed to emphasise the gravitas of the original event one hundred years on. This work also marked the creation of The New Zealand Dance Company to address the lack of full time dance employment opportunities in NZ.

Branch Nebula provided a memorable contribution through the inception of their production Artwork, in that it inadvertently celebrated the mastery of the behind the scenes creatives, by producing a singular performance without the usual inclusion of a stellar cast to promote it. By finding their performative talent through a well-placed online want ad, and structuring the work through a series of physically based tasks, Branch Nebula were able to successfully challenge traditional theatrical frameworks and the demarcation of the audience/performer relationship.

Kay Armstrong’s work An Hour With Kay was a testament to the gumption and necessity of the independent self-produced performer, especially when considering the current volatile artistic climate. Kay’s surrealist stylings had the audience in stitches, and connected them through participatory acts only Kay’s imagination could conjure. As we made the world and saw a topographic version of it through tufts of fluff, we were made all too aware of our collective responsibility toward a shared environmental future.

I had been asked to remount a work titled Les Festivities Lubrifier, which was reworked for Performance Space Liveworks Festival and directly influenced by two other performances I attended through FORM. These were Martin del Amo’s showing in development of a work in progress titled CHAMPIONS and Ahilan Ratnamohan’s presentation of Drill. It is these last two works that I will share in greater detail as they provided inspiration through the use of multiple performative voices within a single work.

From the outset I was captivated by Ahilan’s latest offering, as short bursts of unexpected rhythms were repeated and augmented, to provide the opening sound score. I felt a visceral connection to expectation, to the idea of potential, expressed through the visibility of taut legs in muscular contraction, waiting for the right time to move from stillness. The musicality of the bodies was borne from an innate behaviour of survival, of flight or fight, transcending the performance of the game of football from which this show was overtly derived.

Not until about half way through the show did I begin to fully appreciate Ahil’s subtle absurdist stylings. Large bags of ice were unceremoniously set as if they were part of a pre-set and then used to cool the bodies’ core temperatures and soothe soreness. It was the escape and gradual scatter of ice, which began as a broken bag, torn as the result of fatigue from the seemingly nonsensical act of feet shunting forward whilst atop one such plastic filled pillow, which afforded the first clue to the surrealist shift that was to ensue. This was followed by a round robin of tag, consisting of progressively comical tugging of clothing to impede progress, to the unselfconscious dressing and undressing by teammates throughout. This culminated in an example of friendly competition gone awry, as ridiculous physical feats of machismo were conducted while locked in a continuously morphing contorted sculpture, reminiscent of Greco roman wrestlers.

It was the interplay of pure physicality, expressed through increasingly complicated rhythmic interludes, with the enactment of abstract narratives, consisting of commonplace occurrences taken out of context, which both disoriented and enhanced the engagement of the audience. Ahilan described the procedure of changing of clothes from a compliant/submissive character by another cast member, explaining that this occurs in reality when a player is bleeding and is simultaneously receiving medical attention, but sub-sequentially assumes an absurdist perspective in performance.

Martin del Amo also used the sporting arena and the game of football as the subject of his latest work, by utilising the inherent drama of both the action occurring during a game, melded with a commentary to include the ancillary contribution of the expert spectator. Martin also demarcated the essence and the absurdist aspects of the game, thereby providing a more pronounced exploration of contrasting performative modes within one event. By utilising a large female cast Martin added gender politics into the mix.

Martin has openly acknowledged and referenced the role of the dance and the dancer in his work. The fact that his performers are dancers and athletes in their own right has become a part of the narrative. This required the dancers to perform the simultaneous duality of artisan and crafts(wo)man, to act in earnest the earnest commitment they make to their craft, by portraying the physicality of the sportswoman, while being and possessing the knowledge of the performativity of the dance.  The interest lay in the fact that the dancers had to portray a heightened version of a lived reality, by playing down the stylistic characteristics normally associated with their craft – which is dance; a premeditated ‘act’ from the performer with a set dramaturgical arc. This is opposed to the sporting event, consisting of physical variables that incite drama from within the spectator, as a relatively unpredicted result unfolds.

The complexity and sophistication of approach in both del Amo’s CHAMPIONS and Ratnamohan’s Drill, in melding the several gradations of performativity, were exhilarating to watch unfold. The nimble execution of intellectual, as well as physical virtuosity required from the casts of these two works was apparently so infectious, I decided to give it a go myself. Hence in my work my cast were required to simultaneously rehearse and perform the rehearsal, with an awareness of the audience that was alternately acknowledged and dismissed, as the performative self was imagined alone and simultaneously ‘on show’. (Yes, even I am and was slightly confused.)

As I bid farewell to what remains of 2015 I am reminded all is not done dance wise, as Sydney Dance Company’s current instalment of New Breed commences next week. It features new works by emerging choreographers Kristina Chan and Bangarra Dance Theatre’s Daniel Riley McKinley as well as the company’s in house performers Bernard Knauer and Fiona Jopp.

See you in the New Year.

by Vicki Van Hout