E D E N Parramatta

G’day readers. No live performances were actually witnessed on my behalf this last month because I was up to my eyeballs in creative developments. It is both the pleasure and curse of the erstwhile writer of all things dance who still has pretentions toward the activity herself.

So, I will share with you one such experience. Not because it was the best experience, I am overjoyed to be invited on any project these days and regularly pinch myself that my use by date has not come. Yet, I have also found that it is those workshops, residencies, and developments which are particularly challenging that have been the most instrumental in propelling my art forward.

Last month I had the honour of working with six of my peers: Dr. Julie-Anne Long, Raghav Handa, Ryuichi Fujimura, Rhiannon Newton and Cloé Fournier on a creative initiative titled “EDEN” (Ethical Durable Ecology Nature). Seeded by visual artist and mathematician, Olga Kisseleva, at the Sorbonne University in Paris, the EDEN research project involves the mapping of data related to selected trees from around the world, including the Australian Wollemi pine. [1]

Kisseleva was first inspired to embark on her study when commissioned to create an artistic tribute to a dead elm tree situated in Biscarrosse, 40 km from the French city of Bordeaux. Instead of creating an artistic curio as was expected, Kisseleva contacted the country’s National Institute of Agricultural Research and by crossbreeding sprouts from the dead elm with a Siberian elm, resistant to the fungus which caused the demise of the French species, the tree was resurrected. Since then, Kisseleva’s research has been focused on learning about the life of plants.

Previously working with predominantly visual artists, Olga had decided to literally move in a different direction. And a different direction this collaborative endeavour definitely traversed. You may well ask, “How did a room full of comparatively speedy operators effectively express themselves in relationship to the incredibly slow-moving flora Olga Kisseleva has been communing with?”

The EDEN project was prefaced by a walk around Parramatta Park with local Dharug representative Chris Tobin who shared knowledge of the topography’s pre- and post-colonial histories. Tobin began by taking us to a creek to share his knowledge of the patterns of foliage density leading up to a significant water source and finished by inviting us to leave our mark in ochre upon one of the trees outside the Old Government House, cum museum. Tobin’s demonstrative ‘welcome to country’ would turn out to be instrumental to the direction my creative input would take.

The first day of the creative week we were re acquainted with the MARCS Institute for Brain, Behaviour and Development, where most of our creative research would take place. The sound proofed studio which was to be our creative incubator was so new it came with the smell of the interior of a car that has just rolled off the factory floor and as far removed from the subject of our study as one could get. This olfactory onslaught combined with Kisseleva’s preoccupation with the extensive numerical values of data she has amassed, and her initial idea that we might develop a unifying movement language in which to express those numbers, was met with equal measures of curiosity and bewilderment. I kept thinking about Chris Tobin’s declaration that there were no words for numbers exceeding five in the Dharug language and that any number past five is simply referred to as ‘many’. I chuckled to myself as I read Kisseleva’s aggregates through a Dharug lens, which inevitably translated to, “ Many, many, many…” You catch my drift.

We did briefly commune with nature with Emanual Esperon-Rodriguez who shared his research which is focussed on the ecology of trees growing in urban areas. He used what appeared to be an oversized screwdriver to take a core sample in order to ‘read the rings’, the circular markings which are used to calculate the age of some trees. I jumped at the chance to give it a go and upon drilling realised why Emanuel had suited up with every possible joint guard known to man. I needed the help of Raghav Handa to exert adequate pressure in order to penetrate the tree and was fatigued after grabbing just five centimetres of the tree’s history. We learned that the patterning of an evergreen’s rings are dependent upon the changing conditions under which it grows but appear as regular intervals on a deciduous (one that loses its leaves annually) tree.

Dr. Julie-Anne Long, as facilitator of the EDEN event crafted a series of improvisation workshops based around the concept of communication. Our responses were tempered by Olga Kisseleva’s assertions that the trees do indeed speak to one another, but in almost imperceptible increments, not readily visible to the naked eye.

On the second day, I led a short workshop based on the premise that science, in an Australian Indigenous context, is held within Dreaming narratives. I began by reciting a story I had devised whereby the framework underpinning Olga’s data became magic surrealist features within my narrative. The choreographer collaborators were then invited to respond through improvisation and from their responses they were asked to craft their own narratives. Through this process I was aiming to create a rudimentary song cycle.

Like me, each choreographer had a unique approach to the environmental provocation the EDEN project presented. As this is an ongoing creative study, I will not disclose the other participants processes in detail, but I will share that my responses ran the emotional gamut, from curiosity to resistance, to compliance and finally to a renewed sense of curiosity at the possibilities this project still promises. Kisseleva is definitely tapping into the environmental zeitgeist of which I, along with all of the other participants, am invested. However, it remains to be seen if we are all headed in the same direction. Although, even this ponderance is exciting.

Watch this space for further developments as this is a long-term collaborative initiative between FORM Dance Projects, The MARCS Institute and Olga Kisseleva and French Embassy in Australia, of which this experience represented a mere icebreaker.

‘til next month

Vicki Van Hout
FORM Dance Projects
Blogger in Residence

[1] The Wollemi pine dates back to the Jurassic era and was discovered growing in the Blue Mountains in 1994 however it has been beleaguered by threats including bushfire and contamination of one strand by a deadly fungus.