An October jam-packed with embodied representations on stage

Just when I thought October was looking to be a month devoid of any compelling dance activity of note, the dying days couldn’t have been more jam-packed with embodied representations on stage.

Here goes-

I managed to squeeze in a first stage development for a new work at Legs On The Wall with five amazing First Nations dancer/collaborators; attend Eliza Cooper’s Bat Lake as part of FORM’s Dance Bites program; contribute a bit of last minute dramaturgical repartee with Raghav Handa for his Follies of God, as part of Performance Space’s annual Liveworks lineup;  conduct another spot of dramaturgical to and fro with Thomas ES Kelly on his well-trodden work,Silence, being fine-tuned for the Australian Ballet’s inaugural DanceX festival, only to return to Sydney for the premiere of Sydney Dance Company’s Resound season, and then to come full circle by capping the month off with Amrita Hepi’s performance of Rinse, also performed as part of the Liveworks program.

Eliza Cooper’s Bat Lake was the culmination of three years development, and was seeded while taking a science course at Sydney University which featured the accidental but crucial pollination process conducted by bats feeding on the flowers of fruits.

Bat Lake began with a stunning inverted solo whereby a compelling idiosyncratic language for busy hands, performed in a shoulder stand, was enacted and later replicated. The solo was curtailed all too soon to be replaced by a duet reminiscent of other reptiles, before the remainder of the ensemble cast joined the first two males.

Cooper’s choreography was enhanced by the costuming, also conceived by Cooper, consisting of voluminous layers of translucent black fabric which billowed and undulated, serving to obscure the increasing virtuosic shapes and lines within the sequences. I was simultaneously reminded of the ink blots used in old psychiatry tests whereby patients were asked to decipher the ambiguity created by their amorphous form and the plumes of smoke utilised by magicians to hide the machinations of their chicanery. The opportunist in me saw Bat Lake as the perfect vehicle to vie for a return to Cooper’s old stomping ground in Sydney Dance Company’s pre-professional course, as a choreographer for their annual end of year presentation, or as part of the company’s annual New Breed season featuring emergent choreographers.

Raghav Handa’s Follies of God has enjoyed a relatively quick turn around since opening as part of the most recent Keir Choreographic Award event. It was lengthened from a twenty-minute format to a full length work with a duration just shy of an hour. The longer presentation shifted the underlying theme, which originally highlighted the machinations of war in relation to the epic narrative of the Gita, to one which shed light on the imposition of the isolation of war from the life affirming aspects of everyday existence. This rendering was definitely more shocking and more bleak than its preceding incarnation, and a stark reminder that war is predominately the making of men.

Thomas Kelly’s Silence was third on a triple bill, which was also the second of three programmes constituting the DanceX Festival curated and presented by the Australian Ballet. The first act began with the Aussie Ballet’s performance of I New Then, which was originally performed by Nederlands Dans Theater 2 in 2012 and was a well executed piece which strongly resembled a lyrical jazz number, in the physical close relationship to a suite of songs by Van Morrison’s from his album Astral Weeks. The work was poignant and simultaneously light and uplifting in emotive tone. The opening was simply beautiful as one dancer was emulating a perambulation whilst another shadowed him under an overhead light from which we caught glimpses from the peripheries of the first dancers outline.

I am always interested in the ways the classical form is currently stretching to accommodate 21st century audiences, and I can’t help but compare this self determined process to the vehement and often stark architectural earnestness of the Modernists, or the complex fractured gestural busy-ness of the Jazz movement, and the subsequent paired back pedestrian approach by the Post Modernists and somatic dance practitioners. However, the big difference is that this pursuit of relevance by artists from within the form does not involve railing against the coalescing socio- political implications of colonialism associated with Classical Ballet’s inception, and subsequent installation as the hegemonic form to which all mainstage theatrical dance is measured, and what made the Queensland Ballet’s contribution crucial in this DanceX context, whose motive was to rebrand the classical form and the Australian Ballet as but mere players within the current concert dance ecosystem.

Li Cunxin’s decision to present Greg Horsman’s Glass Concerto aptly choreographed to Philip Glass’ Violin Concerto was a perfect choice for this event by unapologetically maintaining a strong relationship to classical form in comparison to the contribution by the Australian Ballet, which eschewed many of the trappings of the idiom, including the donning of pointe shoes and ballet slippers and the upright upstanding locomotive driven language that particular accoutrement promotes. Horsman’s choreography set a relentless pace, in sync with the music, gaining momentum as the work progressed, consisting of six dancers predominantly performing as three duos. The set was crafted from lighting which delineated the stage space and haze created added depth for the dancers to intermittently emerge from and disappear into upstage.

Whereas the Australian Ballet’s I New Then tentatively addressed a contemporary coming of age narrative arc, the Queensland Ballet’s representation of gender and relationships firmly adhered to the balletic romantic realm, demonstrated in the partnering whereby the female is a thing to be beholden, held aloft, held and manipulated by the strength of the male.

The inclusion of Thomas ES Kelly’s Silence in the program served as an unlikely yet perfect foil in that Kelly’s Australian Indigenous dance theatre contribution included attributes of the classical dance canon in his utilisation of a narrative format, and a complex language of locomotion with which to deliver it. While Kelly’s message was impassioned and politically pertinent the work safely adhered to theatrical convention. This is not to say that SILENCE is not strong nor compelling, with the loud immediacy of the live drumming component, or the deployment of seemingly benevolent humour directly aimed at the non-Indigenous audience to address an appalling history of apathy in relation to Aboriginal rights. The Australian Ballet’s director David Hallberg’s curation of the event however sound, was deceptively conservative in this instance. Albeit the inclusion of Marrugeku’s acclaimed Gudirr Gudirr in the third program would have pushed the envelope a little further as the choreography within it exceeds the confines of movement to include acrobatics which utilises the space’s verticality along with its topography, and to include the elastic use of sound, in particular Dalisa Pigram’s voicework, as both text and musical utterance, to deliver her confronting insight into the inevitable plight of Indigenous inequality.

Sydney Dance Company’s Resound featured a triple bill in the remount of Ocho, so named for the number of dancers on stage. Along with a new Bonachela work titled Summer and The Universe is Here by guest choreographer Stephanie Lake.

What’s with the neo-classical canon in that representations are compelled to be performed at the speed of light? After watching all three works on this bill I was exhausted as there was little reprieve in the frenetic velocity dominating all three works.

I will admit the first offering opened at the pace of a meander as the eight dancers draped themselves in a series of assorted arrangements like the trinkets of a glass menagerie in a walled-in enclosure upstage left. As the piece unfolded, I discovered the world the dancers inhabited was a somewhat ambiguous dystopian environ in that their lounging embodiments were simultaneously eroticised and discordant.

As each dancer left their confines by stepping over the threshold of the sliding doors, they eschewed their pedestrian selves and assumed the dance with gymnastic fervor. The dance became a game of this side/that side until the track changed and the Aboriginal voice of Rrawun Maymuru​ of the Mangalili clan precipitated an even uniformity of shape in sequence which I assume symbolised a reprieve or an antidote unrelenting unrest. In the original version the separate cast members came to the fore, whereas in this iteration the movement language spoke louder than the egos performing them, which I found interesting. Not lessened in value.

Summer, Rafael Bonachela’s second piece was unrelenting. There was no reprieve. It was go go go. The movement was busy and Ken Done’s brightly coloured costuming equally so. I didn’t pay much attention to the music as my capacity to hold the shifting bodies was running at its peak.

Stephanie Lake’s The Universe is Here opened to the melodic sound of a harp being played. The harpist promised something different until she left the floor, and then it didn’t. Much. However, there were a few distinctions in that in Lake’s choreography the musical accompaniment represented more than an indication of metronomic speed. Unlike Bonachela’s previous two works, which were reminiscent of the busy action captured within a Bruegel painting, Lake’s choreography had the feel of a choir as much of the choreography was performed in unison by comparison. There was even a moment of indeterminate choral verbiage directed to the audience, which performed with accompanying facial activity, gave the audience an indication that what we were watching was funny, or that maybe the universe is not much more than the sum of experiences ‘in the moment’.

Lastly, I return to Liveworks for Amrita Hepi’s Rinse. Like Handa and Kelly I have witnessed Hepi’s work evolve and her craft grow in rigor. In Rinse version two point zero, as this was also a work which premiered via the Keir Choreographic Award, I have seen a clarity, a refinement of purpose emerge from her partnership with director Mish Grigor. In the marketing paraphernalia I am informed that this show is about beginnings and Hepi prefaces each new spoken interlude with, “In the beginning…” as a reinforcement. Almost as a mantra.

But this show is not about beginnings, it is about the relationship between temporality and ownership. About metered chronology and who ultimately determines packages and labels its confines. This is big stuff to grapple with and I applaud this choreographic venture for it.

However, I also have trouble with the term decolonization and instead prefer to use the term post colonial in terms of developing a praxis for the future in relationship to Indigenous dance and identity. We can’t go backwards to a time before seconds and minutes and the Post Modernists, Modernists, damn it even the colonialist arts expressionists weren’t all evil. It’s not that simple. In terms of morality and worldview those ‘guys’ were mere infants on a pathway to today’s consciousness.

In contrast to Hepi’s stage persona, my embodied experience, which coincidentally is also the result of extensive training in the Martha Graham and Horton Techniques, with a trace smattering of Trisha Brown thrown in from a few workshops attended in New York in the 1990’s, which has afforded me the chance to be a part of those communities searching for alternative pathways in which to express themselves. For Graham it was the emotive sensibility which was brought to the fore in the deployment of her contraction and release, for Lester Horton it was the body’s state of readiness, and for Trisha Brown (although I can’t be too certain) I vaguely remember feeling that I was trying to make my body an egalitarian vessel, accessible yet still finely tuned.

In Australia I always feel that as a woman I am still trying to jump out from the shadows. It was while in New York that, like Hepi’s stage persona, I was singled out by former Graham principal Donlin Foreman in a workshop for my ability to embody a ‘primitive’ walk, and that experience gave me the courage to come back to Australia and unashamedly explore the idiosyncrasies that are the sum of my experience, not exclusive or confined to or attached to any one stylistic period in time.

It is for Hepi’s ability to provoke this rumination on the significance of the colonialist praxes on my art that has elevated her work Rinse’ value for me.

That about wraps it up until next month.

Vicki Van Hout