On View: Icons and Sharp Short Dance Film

I will preface with profuse apologies dear readers as I did not ante up with this blog within the week in February as promised. I would normally bore you with a detailed excuse summarising the details (in excruciating minutiae) of my helter-skelter existence as an independent dancer, which hindered my endeavours, but no, I will have to cut to the chase.

This blog is about film. More specifically Sue Healey’s presentation of On View: Icons in triptych in Sydney Dance Company’s Neilson Studio, as part of Sydney Festival, in tandem with FORM Dance Projects’ most recent annual Short Sharp Dance program film finalists.

I think we have Covid to thank for the sustained upswing in dance on film. Not just for its continued presence, it’s ubiquity on the airwaves, but also for the subsequent increase in technical literacy. I can still remember having arguments with my digital media artist and collaborator Marian Abboud over my dogged insistence that she render one of my earlier works in the 4:3 aspect ratio instead of the current 16:9. Again I am still a tad red-faced about wanting to cross-fade certain shots, instead of jump cutting, from one to the next. Yes, I AM that dated.

Today we think nothing of creating a collage of seemingly disparate images to introduce and address another context altogether. Take Motel Land by Short Sharp Dance finalist Phillipa Keogh who utilised the busy-ness of her choreographed body, including placing herself in triplicate, against a series of geometric urban utilitarian backdrops, to unpack our human predilection for selective apprehension, of unconscious bias. Or RUN by Jade Howe with the slick editing of a music video clip. Featuring images of a speeding car in broad daylight and a girl on the beach as the sun sets, RUN reminded me of the extreme polarities of emotion often attributed to the young and the crazed, of Icarus flying too close to the sun.

Blew my mind.

Then there was Carmen Yih’s Empty Your Plate taking montage to a whole new level by not only utilising Lev Kuleshov’s Russian techniques of juxtaposing a sequence of seemingly nonrelated images to reinforce an idea, but by modifying the frame of each sequence in tandem with camera movement and angles, to indicate dramaturgical weight. Although, at one point I did feel like I was watching the opening gambit of the 1970’s American sitcom The Brady Bunch, however I surmise that this was also used as a device to highlight a sense of connectedness. As each frame appeared in The Brady Bunch we learned of the machinations of a blended family structure, whereas in Yih’s Empty Your Plate we were made privy to the cultural reinforcement of simply sharing a meal, as well as sharing a dance.

The viewing experience couldn’t be more different between Sue Healey’s On View: Icons, which was cinematic, compared to my consuming of the Short Sharp Dance entrants, which were alternately viewed and reviewed on my phone, tablet and laptop whilst reclining in my bed.

Eight years in the making Sue Healey’s Icons was a treat. The six people in focus Lucette Aldous AC, Elizabeth Cameron Dalman OAM, Nanette Hassall AM, Eileen Kramer, Elma Kris, Shirley McKechnie AO FAHA couldn’t have been more deserving. Big thanks to Sue for giving these doyens of dance another spectacular outing.

The format was a work of two halves, the first featuring Aldous, McKechnie and Hassall, the second, Cameron Dalman, Kris and Kramer. The focus shifted slightly from one half to the next.

In the first video installation I felt there was a gentle probe into the Western epistemologies which underpin the dance and upon reflection it stands to reason that the first artist featured was Lucette Aldous. With Lucette we were introduced to a back and forth retrospective format, which would be adopted throughout the film. In this instance we were treated to archival footage of Lucette dancing with Rudolf Nureyev in his version of Don Quixote in 1973, which was cut with her dancing in the studio well into her eighth decade. I was more than a little incredulous that she could rise en pointe and felt a pang of envy as I watched her perform a series of back articulations, as ripples, whilst leaning against the railing of a jetty. Despite Aldous lack of pedagogical jargon it was fitting she was grouped with Hassall and McKechnie as much of her life was spent teaching. For it was as the fiery yet diminutive ballet master of the Dance Department at WAAPA where I met Aldous in person, through my then burgeoning association with the equally formidable Nanette Hassall.

I can’t quite recall whether it was Nannette Hassall or McKechnie who was featured second, however I do recall thinking that it was as if Nannette was one of our contemporaries and not the revered elder of modern/contemporary dance I assumed had retired. What began as a whimsical recurring appearance along a colonnade which brought her closer and closer to us, morphed into a standing sequence in an empty quadrangle before the pièce de la résistance where Nannette was filmed from above making her way up a multi-storied racetrack shaped winding staircase. This last sequence made great use of the drape in Hassall’s dress whose hemline whorled as she turned.  A seamless movement into and out of the floor made me wonder if it was Sue’s filmic treatment of Hassall which manufactured her descent into a swastika or seated and lying fourth position. But no, it was all Hassall!

If I hadn’t known of the close association between Hassall and Healey beforehand it was plain to see in this work for Hassall’s interview was the only one in which Healey manipulated the original image to extend Hassall’s presence beyond that of mere corporeality. In Sue’s rendering of Hassall she became the refracted spectre of light as seen through a kaleidoscope, for us to be dazzled, whilst she reminisced on her career and her relationship with her body. I am kicking myself that I didn’t make a second viewing because I should have taken notes. For Hassall’s words were indeed noteworthy.

Shirley McKechnie didn’t dance so much as her text which danced around her in animated snippets. From Healey’s film we learned that McKechnie’s contribution to dance research in Australia was both pioneering and prolific. Her insight certainly afforded people like me the opportunity to extend my career beyond its shelf life in the studio. In a roundabout way this blog is made possible by the groundwork covered by McKechnie. McKechnie’s academic contributions helped to legitimise embodied arts as research, including her creation of the first dance degree course in the country, at Rusden College in Victoria.

It is in the second film featuring Elizabeth Cameron Dalman, Elma Kris and Eileen Kramer that Healey departed from the structured and cerebral to explore, in more depth, the transcendental potential of dance and where the legacy of the icons is felt in the short works of the remaining SSD finalists.

Elizabeth Cameron Dalman appeared like a goddess with wings of gossamer. Well maybe not cobwebby as I was duly informed when looking up the definition, but definitely light and filmy. For Cameron Dalman wielded large kite-like apparatus which billowed and shimmered as they caught the breeze coming off Lake George adjacent to her sprawling mud brick dance hacienda and studio. This effect was made famous by free dance pioneer Louie Fuller, but whereas Fuller’s use of voluminous fabric was used in conjunction with light to appear other worldly Cameron Dalman appeared as the very air that the earth and all things upon it need to live. Healey captured Cameron Dalman as the embodiment of breath as she danced around a modern-day stone circle, which punctuated her presence in the expanse that is the famous dry lake bed.

It is to the likes of Cameron Dalman that works like Rhythmic Polarity by SSD entrant Alfie Tait have a strong resonance with the specificity of locale that is our Australian terrain. For it is in some, but by no means insignificant, part that Cameron Dalman who has spent a lifetime mining the unique features of our landscape as impetus for her works that Rhythmic Polarity, which explores the clash between industrial and natural worlds through contrasting scenes of dancers in two different environments, exists.

The next dancer in Sue Healey’s epic documentary was Elma Kris. Elma is renowned for her portrayal of spirits and women with other worldly qualities featured in many of Bangarra Dance Theatre’s productions, from the little Aboriginal novelty in Stephen Page’s Mathina to the disturbed woman in Francis Rings’ Rations. However, as we see her walk beside a mangrove bed in Icons we learn of Kris’ beginnings as a visual artist before embarking on an embodied arts career.

It’s upon experiencing Torres Strait Islander woman of the Wagadagam, Kaurareg, Sipingur, Gebbara and Kai Dangal Buai peoples Elmer Kris in Healey’s Icons that Nganakaapu by Harlisha Newie-Joe is also apprehended with greater clarity. In Nganakaapu performed by emerging TSI film maker Newie-Joe, in concert with fellow NAISDA developing artists Erica Dixon, Tayla Jackson, Lena Parkes and Ephraim Bani, I recognise a sense of solitude when engaging with country, where time slows almost to a standstill.

The fact so many of the SSD finalists made work featuring the environment speaks to its necessity as a calming or healing presence. However, for Aurielle Smith the land represented the source of the age-old debate for recognition by Australian Indigenous people’s as First Nations. In Yilaathu Ngurrugu Smith personalised the struggle by embodying the words to the song From Little Things Big Things Grow, which was sung in English and Aboriginal language by acclaimed world music duo Electric Fields. Smith’s filming locations, from red dirt country to the Sydney city metropolis, were evocative of the famed meeting between Aboriginal custodian Vincent Lingiari and prime minister Gough Whitlam where the prime minister poured soil into Lingiari’s cupped palm whilst stating, “‘I put into your hands this piece of the earth itself as a sign that we restore them [lands] to you and your children forever.”

In the SSD film Dark Nature by Jannah Allen, Rebekah Kennedy and Ally Young the performers became a quirky extension of their natural surrounds. The dancers experimented with their bodies and their costumes in unorthodox combinations to alert us to the wonders of nature. Maybe this was not their original intent but it definitely was one of the ramifications of their provocative images.

So too was the final featured artist in Sue Healey’s work a fitting provocation, as Eileen Kramer was filmed next to a tree that I later discovered was also a centenarian. For at times Kramer’s delicate skin became an extension of the tree’s exterior. This prompted me to return to her overarching theme of lineages and legacies and the value of very old things as they can teach us how to be in the world, to care for it, therefore ensuring its maintenance.

It is fitting then that I close my blog with Limbs by Erika Barnier who shot the entirety of her film indoors, within the confines of her home. Fave moment catching a glimpse of her family members as her body replicated and accommodated the architectural features and furnishing of the house and therefore consolidating this overarching theme of connectedness.

So catch season 2023 of Short Sharp Dance Film while it’s still up on the website, and definitely watch out for a screening of Sue Healey’s On View: Icons, it unmissable viewing I promise you.

Vicki Van Hout
FORM Dance Projects
Blogger in Residence

Watch the Sharp Short Dance Film finalists HERE

“Loie Fuller – Wikipedia” https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Loie_Fuller – video link to Like Fuller dancing witharm properties.