Dance Dance Dance

It has been a busy month for contemporary dance in Sydney. Spring Dance alone presented six dance works, stretched across two weeks. But then there was also the premiere of Lucy Guerin’s new work, Conversation Piece, at Belvoir Street Theatre, and Shaun Parker & Company showed The Yard at Parramatta Riverside as part of a NSW regional tour. This week there is the rare opportunity to see the renowned Belgian company Rosas perform live. Twice even. They have not only brought one but two pieces to Carriageworks. Sydney, however, is not the only city in the country that boasts an abundance of dance at the moment. Perth recently saw the inaugural edition of the MoveMe Dance Festival, presenting a combination of international and local work.
So, for this blog, let’s focus on the festivals . . .

Spring Dance

Over the last three years, Spring Dance has become somewhat of a fixture on the Sydney dance calendar. Now in its fourth year, this year’s festival was the first under its new curator Rafael Bonachela.

When Bonachela took up his job as director of the Sydney Dance company in 2009, I interviewed him for RealTime and I remember him saying that he was a choreographer who liked other choreographers’ work and that one of the reasons why he was interested in the position as SDC’s artistic director was because it would allow him to commission choreographers, both international and local, and introduce their work to Australian audiences. After more than three years, it is fair to say that Bonachela put his money where his mouth is, regularly presenting work by choreographers as diverse as Adam Linder, Emanuel Gat and Jacopo Godani. Admittedly, international choreographers were given most of the attention but local artists were also represented, as in the New Breed program at Spring Dance 2009 – Emily Amisano, Craig Bary, Connor Dowling and Larissa McGowan.

During the 2012 Spring Dance launch, Sydney Opera House’s Executive Producer Jonathan Bielski revealed that it was Bonachela’s assured and adventurous programming at SDC that made him a frontrunner for the job as the new Spring Dance curator. Bonachela, in turn, stated that his curatorial decisions are often driven by the passion and joy he experiences when watching dance. If he likes a particular dance piece, he wants everybody else to have the opportunity to see it as well. Luckily, Bonachela has an eclectic taste and his first Spring Dance proved that audiences could relate to it.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to see the shows that were presented in the first week, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s and Maria Pages’ Dunas and Tao Dance Theatre’s Weight X3 / 2, due to performing in the iOU Solo Dance Series, alongside local choreographers/dancers Anton, Craig Bary, Narelle Benjamin, Kristina Chan and Timothy Ohl. I did, however, catch all the shows that were on in the second week.

For Contemporary Women, Bonachela chose four female choreographers from four different States to create 20-minute works for the Sydney Dance Company. It was an opportunity for Sydney audiences to be introduced to the work by up and coming Stephanie Lake (Melbourne), recently awarded the inaugural Peggy van Praagh Choreographic Fellowship and Brisbane’s Lisa Wilson, the 2011 recipient of the prestigious Hephzibah Tintner Choreographic Fellowship. Contemporary Women also offered the chance to see pieces by Emily Amisano (Sydney) and Larissa McGowan, who had both shown works as part of SDC’s 2009 New Breed program.

What I enjoyed most about Contemporary Women was that dancers in the company were able to show a side of themselves that Sydney audiences had not seen before. Janessa Duffy and Bernhard Knauer, for example, shone. They are both excellent dancers but have rarely been given the opportunity to stand out during their time at SDC, one realises. Thomas Bradley, who entered the company only recently and performed in both Wilson’s and McGowan’s work, proved that he is a dancer to watch, displaying great charisma and remarkable versatility. Natalie Allen starred in the Sigourney Weaver/Ellen Ripley role in McGowan’s hilarious take on the youTube warfare between movie fans of Alien and Predator. She is vampy and has got great comic timing. Plus she gets to lipsync the iconic Sigourney Weaver line “Get away from her, you bitch.”

Also on in the second week, were two works that couldn’t have been more different – Correria Agwa, a collaboration between hip hop dancers from Rio de Janeiro’s slums and French choreographer Mourad Merzouki, and Clouds Above Berlin, a double bill by Melbourne-based Antony Hamilton and Berlin-based Melanie Lane. Whereas Correria Agwa was a crowd pleaser, seducing audiences with spectacular moves and irresistible energy, Clouds Above Berlin was a gift to those who like their contemporary dance concept-driven, experimental and exploratory. Hamilton and Lane are both masters in creating mysterious worlds that surprise and baffle.

In terms of audience numbers, Spring Dance was a huge success. At the Opera House wrap drinks, Jonathan Bielski announced that the box office target was met after the first week. He also had a Juan Antonio Samaranch moment and cheekily declared this year’s Spring Dance “the best ever”. Those who were fans of last year’s Pina Bausch-themed Spring Dance, presenting epic works by DV8 Physical Theatre and Les Ballets C de la B, might dispute that. But there is no denying that this year’s program was fun and diverse. It was great to see that practically all the works presented attracted large crowds.

One thing that was striking, though, was that apart from Dunas, all shows presented short pieces rather than full-length works. Granted, bringing together works by multiple choreographers was the premise of shows such as iOU Dance Solo Series, Contemporary Women and Clouds Above Berlin but even Correria Agwa and Weight  X3 / 2, created by only one choreographer, were double bills.

Is this a new trend in Australian dance programming?


One might get that impression . . .

Among the works presented at the MoveMe Dance Festival in Perth, again, there was only one full-length piece – Alice Lee Holland’s Tiny Little Tragedies. The other works were double bills and a mixed program entitled MoveMeMix – short pieces or excerpts from longer works by various Western Australia’s independent artists. Oh, and there was also Life in Miniature, a work by Perth-based company Anything Is Valid Dance Theatre , performed inside a caravan to an audience of 5 people at a time.

For me personally, the two double bills were the highlight of the festival. One was Cheap Lecture & The Cow Piece by Jonathan Burrows and Matteo Fargion. The other one brought together Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s Faun and Didier Theron’s Harakiri.

Cheap Lecture and The Cow Piece, both created in 2009, were originally made independently from each other but are now often presented together. It’s easy to see why. They seem to be natural companion pieces, perfectly complementing each other. Cheap Lecture, in many ways, is a tribute to John Cage’s 1959 Lecture on Nothing. It has the two performers – Burrows the choreographer and dancer, Fargion the composer and musician – recite an intricately scripted manifesto about rules, scores and audience expectations and responses. It’s philosophical and extremely funny at times.

The Cow Piece, performed, without an interval, straight after Cheap Lecture, begs to be read in relation to the previous piece. It becomes a guessing game – which of the rules outlined by Burrows and Fargion in Cheap Lecture have been applied in the making of The Cow Piece? And which haven’t? The piece takes its title from the 12 model cows that Burrows and Fargion work with. They are placed at adjacent tables, six cows each, operating as if in parallel universes, following inner rhythms that happen to coincide occasionally.  They serenade the cows and abuse them. They sing, play music and speak. There isn’t all that much dancing, hardly any at all, and yet, with its attention to rhythm, structure and composition, Burrows’ and Fargion’s work feels intrinsically choreographic.

As for the other double bill, Faun and Harakiri, it’s a feast of contrasts. Faun, performed by Perth native James O’Hara and US-born Daisy Phillips, was originally created by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui for a dance evening called In the Spirit of Diaghilev at Sadler’s Wells in 2009. It’s a rather spectacular reimagining of Nijinsky’s famous Afternoon of a Faun, celebrating its 100th anniversary this year.

Cherkaoui gives his choreography a decidedly animalistic touch, showcasing the extraordinary talents of his dancers. The piece is as much a tribute to Nijinsky and Diaghilev as it is to O’Hara and Phillips with whom Cherkaoui frequently works and for whom the piece was created. Virtuosic in every way.

Didier Theron’s Harakiri had its Australian premiere in Perth in 2009. This remount was performed by some of WA’s most well known dancers including Michael Whaites, Sue Peacock, Matthew Morris and Aimee Smith.  The work centres on the Japanese notion of self-sacrifice and takes on the form of a mesmerizing choreographic ritual. Geometric patterns, on repeat, are executed relentlessly by the outstanding dancers. It is an absolute pleasure to see ‘veterans’ of Australian dance such as Morris, Peacock and Whaites perform together in such a powerful piece.

The MoveMe Dance Festival was presented by Strut Dance, WA’s choreographic development centre. I very much hope that this is only the beginning and that the festival will become an annual event.

Martin del Amo

Image: Spring Dance