More dance on offer than my eyes could view

I guess this is the last post for twenty twenty-two and as usual there was more dance on offer than my eyes could view. I saw two works in development, sat down in a plush chair to hear snippets from the biography of the illustrious career of a justifiably revered Australian dance icon and took in the Sydney Dance Company Pre-Professional annual extravaganza always suitably titled Revealed. So here goes…

Chronologically this month’s dance began with an evening with Meryl Tankard. This event was billed as a silent auction to raise additional funds for FORM Dance Projects to continue their critical work in supporting independent dance artists and young dance talent of Western Sydney. Tankard and her partner, photographer and digital media artist, Régis Lansac and composer Elena Kats-Chernin generously donated their artworks for the cause. It was also an opportunity for Tankard to share insight into her latest choreography, titled Kairos, from the Greek translation meaning the right, critical or opportune moment, featuring collaborative contributions from both Lansac and Kats-Chernin and premiering in the upcoming Sydney Festival season.

The event was held in the 3Danks studios in Waterloo. We were given a short tour of the facilities before the bulk of the attendees arrived and boy what a set up! The studios more than rival the Sydney Dance Company digs down by the wharf. A far cry from the dusty old church hall I trained at in Glebe as a student of NAISDA.

I discovered Meryl Tankard was born in Darwin and spent a portion of her formative years in Penang, Malaysia before settling in Raymond Terrace, approximately 26 km north of Newcastle. Of course, this is nothing you couldn’t glean from a Wikipedia search.

What you can’t glean from Wikipedia is Tankard’s formidable dance experience as told by her. I was particularly interested in her artistic process which she couldn’t keep under wraps. And an as yet unpublished screenplay she has just completed, which she could. Ah well.

Of her choreographic process Tankard stated, “It starts with a question.” Rather than spewing forth a torrent of meaningless steps and sequences, Tankard’s interrogative initiation invites the dancer to respond in any capacity, or discipline, they choose. This results in a to-and-fro communiqué of sorts until the work is complete. ‘This process is not new,’ I can almost hear you say. No. Not now. However, this collaborative technique was novel when Pina Bausch, Tankard’s former boss and mentor rose in prominence to become Europe’s most lauded dance theatre proponent, instigated it to create some of the most memorable works in Café Müller and Kontakthof, in which Tankard featured.

Tankard’s life and life’s work was curated by journalist Caroline Baum who facilitated the event so well it felt spontaneous and intimate despite having confessed to culling what Baum commented seemed like hundreds of Meryl’s accompanying photographic images to distill the collection down to approximately seventy. This final edit included the stunning photo of Meryl from her solo performance of ‘Two Feet’, which was the prized item up for auction, taken by her partner Régis Lansic.

The interview culminated in a description of the upcoming presentation of Kairos for which several of the cast members were present and favourably mentioned, including Cloé Fournier of whom Tankard’s influence does not go unnoticed in her own choreographic contribution to the Sydney Dance Company’s PPY annual program.

The second event I attended was Back to Back Theatre’s Elephant (in the making), produced in conjunction with PACT Theatre for Emerging Artists in Erskineville. As the title suggested, this was a work in development. I have often remarked that I prefer to see a work mid-process as the audience members are called on to imagine how the finished product might appear. In this respect the audience members were very much active participants instead of passive consumers of entertainment. However, as a three-handed solo performance led by writer Sarah Mainwaring this work was already inherently imbued with the power to actively draw us in. Like the master teacher who doesn’t shout or commandeer assembled students, Mainwaring’s movement score was both considered and superbly commanding.

The previous evening with Meryl Tankard proved to be serendipitous as Mainwaring’s multi-disciplinary creative synthesis was instigated by the question ‘Can emptiness be beautiful?’  proving an interrogative process can be harnessed as a vital tool for inclusivity. Beginning with Back to Back’s director Ingrid Voorendt, Butoh dancer and devisor Alana Hoggart with Mainwaring this was followed by a three-day movement lab with a collective of eight dancers of varied embodied arts backgrounds to refine a score for the performance, rather than amass a collection of premeditated embodiments in exactitude.

Mainwaring is a stunning dancer who utilises physical limitations as a device to advantageous effect. Her performance was harnessed in conjunction with several framing devices to portray a depth and breadth of movement not witnessed in many of the gymnastic efforts I’ve regretted attending over the years. From a glimpse of menace in the roiling back and shoulders in tandem with furtive sideways glances captured by video camera, to the unrelenting shudder of her right arm until the lights dimmed, I confess I am more than a little jel-jel of Mainwaring’s rigour, her pacing and delivery and can’t wait to see the next iteration.

Every year I eagerly anticipate the Sydney Dance Company’s PPY end of year production and this year did not disappoint. As usual PPY Revealed 2022 appeared as a mixed bag of initially disparate offerings that somehow managed to thematically coalesce. Like magic.

The first piece titled arrival in s.a.r.s.h. (sentient artificial recreation for humans) by Sam Coren was playful. The dancers appeared in silhouette and in magnificent metallic micro-accordion pleated jumpsuit ensembles which changed hue in accordance with the lighting, kind of like Christmas baubles or, more accurately, the inner circuitry of computer hardware. Coren incorporated humorous text to represent the successive entry into enclosures designed to induce an imagined human state of existence from future millennia. Although much less foreboding, the text was reminiscent of his influence by Hoffesh Schector in the opening of his work Sun, in which he ominously declared, “We are all sons and daughters of murderers”.

arrival in s.a.r.s.h. was a true reflection of the cast ensemble. It was young and brash. A highlight of note was a dig at us oldies in the audience, when a song from a back catalogue circa 1980 or so was played in a section dedicated to harnessing outmoded feelings of nostalgia. Another highlight included the rapid-fire disclaimers after each ensuing spoken segue, exonerating the unseen facilitator from culpability and therefore reducing each experience to a unit of data.

A stand out performer in this work was Audrey Goth-Towney, not just for her height (although that did help) but for the playful arrogant attitude with which she performed throughout.

The second work IVY by Melanie Lane was nothing if not stunning. From the tempo voiced in percussive choral sound, to the movement which reflected the infectious dramatic sound score. The opening made me sit up, sit forward and want to rush on stage to join in. What more could you ask of a dance?

Utilising all of the first-year cast, the sheer numbers are what made the work feel like the folk dances it was drawing from. Like the folk dances I have experienced, Melanie Lane’s IVY, like Sam Coren’s arrival in s.a.r.s.h. was a true representation of the PPY community. However, unlike the folk dances I have experienced the work did not reflect the breadth of age, experience and ability, including disability, fallibility and vulnerability of the folk within its community. But who cares, a work imbued with a physicality that makes you want to get up and be a part of it is a rare and wonderful thing to behold.

A standout performer in Lane’s work would have to be Samuel Osbourne who embodied pure energy in a mesmeric solo performance.

Next up was an excerpt from Rafael Bonachela’s Variation 10. The manipulation of cloth in the costuming by Toni Matikevski reminded me of internationally renowned couture designer Issey Miyake with Miyake’s signature pleating. The formal neo-classic physicality of Variation 10 reminded us which overarching arts organisation was housing this event.

As is customary for Rafael Bonachela, this work was instigated by the choice of musical score. This time it was Benjamin Britten’s Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge which was composed in 1937 as a tribute to his mentor. I have to admit that it was refreshing to see an aerial component in Bonachela’s dance as this component of contemporary dance has so often been replaced by increasingly intricate gestural vocabularies and in turn it is the rhythmic link to musicality which subsequently suffers as a result.

A duet, which was indeed intricate, took up a considerable portion of the excerpt and was well executed by Ronan Armstrong and Carmelita Buay, aptly showcasing their technical prowess.

I remained seated during intermission and watched a solitary dancer set the stage for Cloé Fournier’s piece Tout Çe  as the audience returned in dribs and drabs, which immediately lent an air of accessibility, momentarily breaking the boundary between observer and performer. Like Mainwaring of her work Elephant, Fournier was utilising the audience as a momentary framing device.

There was much in common with Lane’s work and Fournier’s in their eclectic relationship to folk dance forms. This was signified in the electrifying heavy metal hair thrashing which emulated an ecstatic state in Lane’s work and was also present in Fournier’s, albeit in a slightly more subdued context. There is also a strong choral aspect to both Lane and Fournier’s unison work. A device which both choreographers use to dynamically or conceptually offset or frame other solos and duets.

Fournier’s work is a nod to the influence of two of her mentors in outside eye, Michelle St Anne whose multi disciplinary performance work The Foul Of The Air I covered in a past blog as part of the March Dance festival, and Meryl Tankard, both of whom place theatricality very much front and centre in their pieces. Tout Çe  unfolds at what seems like a meandering pace compared to the other works and it requires concentration to follow. The concentration you would pour into solving a complicated puzzle as quirky gestures, textures and intricacies are layered within small vignettes which demarcate the mysterious piece. For it is right at the end whereby three dancers slide down chairs like Dali’s melting clock in his famed Persistence of Memory, whilst slowly munching on carrots that we are able to fully apprehend the alternate sur-reality that Fournier has created for her dancers to inhabit.

I felt as if three of the works, Melanie Lane’s IVY, Fournier’s Tout Çe  and the next piece by James O’Hara titled we have been here before but never like this could have shared the same marketing description. For even Sam Coren’s arrival in s.a.r.s.h. has tuned into the current zeitgeist in wanting, no – needing, to reconnect, to rebuild community in real-space. This need to come together was so simply (if not a tad didactically) demonstrated in the holding of hands which opened and closed O’Hara’s work. The uplifting tone to this piece marked the perfect end to the evening’s proceedings.

Oh, and watch out for a show called Beetle by Legs On The Wall in the coming months. I was wrangled at the last minute to write a few lines for the character of a tree who houses the ensuing high jinx between a young girl, a Christmas beetle and a myriad of creatures she meets along the way. I was impressed with the performance of Olivia Hadley who captivated us all with her portrayal of a praying mantis, a worm and a bush turkey. P.S. Hadley was also a collaborator/performer in Mainwaring’s Elephant (in the making) in the same week!

That about wraps it up for another year. Adios amigos. Until 2023.

Vicki Van Hout
FORM Blogger in Residence