Dance is the the hardest medium to sell

This past week marks what would be a rare event, a decision to forgo this year’s Australian Performing Arts Market, APAM. This was accompanied by an inevitable recurring pang, like missing a really rocking party that you were invited to, just to make a point. Except I wasn’t making a point. I didn’t prepare a plate for this particular gathering and didn’t feel like freeloading or spruiking some stale product that had passed its use buy date a couple of years previously. Better to hold on and hope my out-of-date wares might come back into fashion in the not-too-distant future.

That is not to say that I didn’t have eyes and ears on the ground. One of my closest compadres did indeed have something viable and yet another was relaying the event through her usual merry chaotic engagement with the world. It is through her fresh and optimistic eye that I chose to engage peripherally. From my proxy’s anecdotal accounts there were meet and greets, ten minute speed dates, pitches and random deep and meaningfuls after featured presentations. There was one statement which really resonated – dance is the the hardest medium to sell. As I sat in the Lennox Theatre waiting for Omer Backley-Astrachan’s new double bill, which would kick off the  2018 Form Dance Bites program, I had to agree. Both works, Wildebeest and Valley, one a world premiere and once a remount, were accompanied by short descriptive bi-lines.

Wildebeest/The Venus Flytrap opened with a cast of five who lay in languid repose on different parts of the stage as Sharon Backley-Astrachan commenced to seductively crawl over Chimene Steele-Prior’s supine form. The women (and one fella, Mason Peronchik) looked slick and polished, instantly reminding me of the Robert Palmer’s music video track Simply Irresistible. Like Simply Irresistible, Wildebeest puts the female gender on display by scrutinising social behaviour accompanied with a not-so-subtle tongue-in-cheek daring. Another friend of mine leant over to whisper that the work reminded her of Dadaist photographer Man Ray and my bruised ego was kicking itself for not recognising this first. In hindsight I suspect she was alluding to the overall aesthetic (which I had accredited to whomever had directed that Palmer music video) as I obsessively googled Man Ray afterward. The lighting was used sparingly, softly illuminating the predominantly women’s bodies, like Man Ray’s fashion pics of long time lover and French muse Kiki de Montparnasse, who was a painter in her own right. When my friend had made her Man Ray observation I had agreed, but not because of Blackley-Astrachan’s ability to behold the women with a curious (and nostalgic) mixture of dangerous beauty, but in light of Man Ray’s filmic collages.

Backley-Astrachan used broken silences in the soundtrack, coupled with a phrase where the women moved in an en masse entreaty of hissing vocals, both imploring and alluring, immediately followed by a unison group section consisting of static standing bodies, with slavering tongues circling the periphery of cosmetically coloured deep red open mouths. This prompted me to remember accidently wandering into the Dadaist/Surrealist film section of the (George) Pompidou Museum of Modern Art in Paris. The exhibition was prefaced by the earliest examples of photography, whereby flat images of everyday objects were somehow seared onto treated paper. These early photographic examples gave way to films consisting of a montage of images similarly seared onto the celluloid as flat silhouettes, cut with short scenes taken from disorienting angles, which were rendered alien until the brain duly adjusted.* This surrealist montage/collage aspect of Backley-Astrachan’s work I am slightly familiar with, having seen Blinders, an earlier work choreographed for NAISDA’s 40th anniversary celebration, whereby Backley- Astrachan mashed a similar mixture of short arresting aural and visual vignettes to highlight current and ongoing racial stereotypes in relation to Indigenous Australia.

The second piece on this Dance Bites bill, Valley, is well trodden, having recently enjoyed an international season in Israel. I had seen this work in development at Readymade studio in Ultimo last year. I remember dancer Allie Graham’s prolonged mesmeric undulating form emulating a powerful force of nature. I remember Backley-Astrachan’s single prop of clear fishing twine momentarily demarcating the stage space, and a partnering section consisting of an embrace that was constantly broken and replenished. What I didn’t quite catch was the ‘Sisyphean cycle’, the doomed looped action of desolation.

I constantly reiterate my preference for watching works in progress because of the opportunity it affords the audience member to meet the maker’s intent. In this case I preferred the final outcome as I was able to recognise in the repetition of motif the profound solitude that Backley-Astrachan had first aspired to achieve.

In both works the dancers acquitted themselves well. In the first by lending the right amount of their individual selves. In the second by sheer physical virtuosity.

Back to APAM.

For all Backley-Astrachan’s pieces’ merits, including the fact that this was a relatively low budget lights and tights production, events like APAM rarely cater to these types of makers, the promising up and comers who have actually been chipping away at their craft for a decade. Even my works which came with readymade gimmicks such as a 16 metre river of playing cards one year and a ridiculously clumsy but popular similarly oversized woven property up for sale at yet another (see Create NSW online marketing copy) couldn’t catch a nibble.

The thing is, dance often requires engagement which sits somewhere between the gallery space and the conventional theatrical space. Dance work often has trouble competing for attention with standard plays which is why we (namely me) end up resorting to gimmicks to prolong the life of a work in the first place. This is why I found myself at Riverside instead of listening to key note speakers up north and why I am buoyed by Backley-Astrachan’s humble wish to simply be in the moment, to be ‘witnessed and reflected.’

Man Ray short