Choreography by Circuitous Means

Yet again, just when I feared there would be a dance drought I was inundated with invitations to attend a variety of gambollic themed events this past month, to which I can recall only a few in the immediate. This is why I have to be more vigilant about carrying around my diary. Ah my diary, that tactile paper bound tome which holds thoughts and dates, doodles and plans, private grievances, whimseys, fantasies, observations and judgement. I have learned never to underestimate the power and general handiness of a diary and ensure my sister gets me one each year for Christmas. She thinks I am entertaining her, but I assure her each year that I am not.

‘Why the seemingly mindless natter about my diary?’ you may well ask. Well, because this month dance has not presented itself in the neat confines of the western performance arena that is the black box theatre. No. Instead, just as the contents of my journal, my experience of dance this month has been bandied about in many guises. In rehearsal rooms, and on paper, cardboard and industrial strength glad wrap and outdoors on the unforgiving ground normally reserved for pedestrian perambulation. Yes, the dreaded C word that is… concrete. And so, I will regale you with said chosen reminiscences and in no particular order.

HYPERLOCAL: ERKO THEN AND NOW promised to be a bustling festival but it transpired as an intimate gathering conducted mostly under several big white tarps care of PACT Centre for Emerging Arts located in Erskineville. Picture weddings and extended family gatherings with food. Yes, there was free food!

I rocked up on my bike post contemporary class at Sydney Dance Company and managed to catch the second half of a panel discussion featuring local Aboriginal elder Aunty Rhonda Dixon, Laila Ellmoos, historian with the City of Sydney’s History Program, Brian Obiri-Asare (chair) and local Indigenous independent contemporary dance practitioner Aroha Pehi.

From this esteemed panel I gleaned that Erskineville has transformed itself from a working-class neighbourhood which lived on the noxious fumes of domestic industry, which has since moved offshore, to become one of the most affluent suburbs in Sydney’s Inner West. In fact, Aunty Rhonda Dixon informed us she and her family were once employed in the very building that now houses the emergent voices of innovative arts expression that is PACT. And yes, the irony of making art in a place which is cost prohibitive for said artists to actually inhabit was not lost on any of us in attendance.

The day was book ended by another panel which was chaired by Justine Shih Pearson, current director of PACT herself. Together with NSW State Councillor, union delegate and current president of Friends of Erskineville Andrew Chuter, senior lecturer in theatre and performance studies in the School of the Arts and Media at UNSW Dr Bryoni Trezise, and Graham Simms aka Nana Miss Koori born on Gadigal land, also of the Jerrinja Clan & Wandi-wandian, Yuin Nation from the south coast of NSW with strong bloodline connections and affiliations to Bidgigal Country at La Perouse and Dharug Country in Western Sydney, they unpacked the ways art has acted as a socio-political mobilizer for change.

But the meat and potatoes draw card event for me was the promised presence of renowned tabla player Maharshi Raval who would be accompanied by his son Devasya Raval. Performers Aroha Pehi, Vishnu Arunasalam and Phaedra Brown were billed as well but knowing this was a more inclusive semi-formal affair I had decided beforehand that I wasn’t going to miss the opportunity to dance to Raval myself. You see I have followed Raval through his collaborative association with dancer Raghav Handa (who incidentally just received a Green Room Award for his performance with Raval in their critically acclaimed work TWO) and each time have lamented the fact that I have been confined to my seat when the complex rhythms being played were inciting me to bomb the stage. And so, on Saturday March the 23rd, a day before my 56th birthday, I did just that. To my surprise I was not admonished or advised against my not so cunning plan, instead encouraged to do so – and it was great fun. (As a word of caution, you must generally take stock of your situation before executing such reckless behavior.)

The second extraordinary dance experience I will endeavour to impart to you is Azzam Mohammed’s artist residency showing. Incidentally, this was chronologically my first movement themed encounter for the month, also held at PACT and conveniently left up for attendees of HYPERLOCAL to see the next day. As you can guess it did not involve the corporeal dancing body per se, but the vestiges of action in paint. For in his residency Hip Hop devotee Mohamed was researching the interdisciplinarity of his chosen genre.

In a previous blog titled September Moves I wrote about Mohamed’s collaboration with musician Jack Prest as part of the 2023 triple bill for Dirtyfeet titled Out Of The Studio. In that blog I wrote of Mohamed’s interplay between movement and vocalisation scores, of their gradually increasing speed and complexity. In this, the black box theatre, it was all about the pictorial busyness of Hip Hop dance business. The stage space was converted into a maze of black plastic, stretched taught, cutting the room in crisscrossing diagonals. On several lengths a series of characters was depicted much like a flip book, except each image was laid side by side, instead of in front of, or behind, one another. Mohamed explained his tactile and kinesthetic relationship to the images, one series being produced by the repetitious spraying of a small circular blob whereby each dribbling dot was then embellished with the refined scribble of a marker pen. Another series was painted and subsequently smudged by spray stencilling in monochromatic contrast to the lurid doodles on the reverse side.

In his talk Mohamed spoke of being inspired by the dancing graffiti graphics of pop artist Keith Haring. When I think of Keith Haring I think of the rise of the AIDS epidemic and his fight to educate the public after his diagnosis. In reading up about Haring after attending Mohamed’s showing, I learned that he was also passionate about the introduction of ‘crack’ cocaine on the streets and then spying a small insertion of Arabic calligraphy on Mohamed’s ‘canvas’ I wondered if Mohamed has an interest in layering his work with agenda pertinent to him which may lie outside the Hip Hop cultural ethos.

While Mohamed’s work in progress showing did not include a live danced component, I found myself reading and responding to his pictorial efforts in movement as a kind dance manual. And again, I gave into my urge.

The last dance initiative I will reference in this blog is Constant Relay facilitated by Readymade Dance in Ultimo. This was my first time participating and yet again it was by circuitous means through Karen Kerkhoven.

First up I’ll supply the names of the artists participating in this year’s roster which included Remy Rochester, Leah Landau, Ashleigh Veitch, Charlie Trier, Renata Commisso, Lizzie Thomson, Noha Ramadan, Martin del Amo, Maddy Backen, Madeline Harms, Jaslyn Broughton, Sheanna Parker Russon, Alana Yee, Karen Kerkhoven, Lauren Warburton, Emma Riches and Momoko Matsuzaki. The reason for my shameless cut and paste here is because I rubbed shoulders with many of the aforementioned artists as we participated in the uncurated, first come first served basis series of short course residencies of the three weeks involved. However, I am hopeless with formal attributions and so being able to simply replicate the list does away with that necessity while also giving you an indication of the scheduling gymnastics needed to slot each artist in.

The research goal for Karen was to recreate the dances of her youth. From a choreography made while she was nearer to single digits in chronological years on the planet about the seasons, to recalling and revisiting exercises given to her by her first dance teacher Jean Dembitzka.

My interest is always piqued when Karen mentions Dembitzka, a polish immigrant who grew up in Vienna and who studied with Harald Kreutzberg, who in turn studied under Mary Wigman and Rudolf von Laban who spearheaded the expressionist or Ausdruckstanz dance movement in Germany.

In the first few pages of Dembitzka’s book The Element of Moment Dance and Choreography it is revealed that Dembitzka came to Australia in 1947 and that Karen took classes with her within a decade of her arrival. As a graduate of American Modernist Martha Graham, I am always interested in the concepts and concerns underpinning the methodologies of that period and so I jumped at the chance to participate in Karen’s project.

I don’t know how much new information I learned about Kerkhoven’s, hence Dembitzka’s, artistic lineage through this iteration of Constant Relay but I did observe this idea of passing on ideas by circuitous means expand exponentially as our rehearsals alone were conducted in person in the studio, in the park up the road from Readymade before getting rained on by a sprinkler system, by Zoom, through a group WhatsApp application, by phone and text and incorporating a variety of mediums including paper, cardboard, chalk and costume design. It was heartening to witness so many other project developments had similar navigation paths, culminating in a very diverse work in progress sharing.

So that’s about it for this blog. If there’s one specific message here it may be that the opportunity to experience dance, particularly choreography can be found in abundance. It may not be what you are expecting, but it can be satisfying all the same.

Vicki Van Hout
FORM Dance Projects
Blogger in Residence

“Five Things to Know: Keith Haring | Tate”