Welcome to 2021

So, I can’t bounce in a nearby nightclub, or jump a jig at a wedding, but I could park my derriere in reasonably priced seating and ring in the New Year with a feast of dance merriment via Sydney Festival. Woo hoo.

To state that this year’s festival signalled a change of pace is an understatement. That it occurred at all was a miracle. The first show I attended, the seating was sparse with most chairs acting as spatial dividers safeguarding audience members in tightly formed bubbles. Toward the end of January numbers were up to the point that we could rub shoulders and make small talk with art loving allies, made mysterious through masks.

Due to the stalling traffic on the international airways, the coveted show slots were predominantly filled by home grown entertainment, where the experienced mingled on the bill with emergent talent.

First up was the very seasoned Andrea James with her latest show Sunshine Super Girl, a biographical play about Wiradjuri woman Evonne Goolagong Cawley’s rise from humble beginnings to tennis world number one.  I was the original choreographer and movement director working on the production through three developments, and no matter how much distance had passed, as soon as I recognised the sequences, which sprang from our collective imagination (from the cast’s and myself) set forth on stage, I was immediately propelled back into the fold.

I remember meeting Goolagong Cawley during what would’ve been my second development with the project. With antique racquet in hand Goolagong had me shadow her after the showing, as she ran through one of her winning routines. ‘Now there’s a woman who can dance’ I thought to myself, as I watched her glide seamlessly around the court. ‘We didn’t hug the baseline like the players do today’, she declared. ‘We volleyed because the wooden racquets we played with didn’t have the power the metal ones do now.’ I remember thinking that while I didn’t want to ape tennis shots, if I could capture a tenth of the grace and agility embedded deep within Goolagong Cawley’s muscle memory I would have something. I also remember calling everyone I know afterwards, boasting that I was given an impromptu private tennis lesson from Evonne!

To see the finished product dressed for its Sydney Festival debut was definitely a treat. Romaine Harper’s set design represented a tennis court with the audience sitting in traverse on both sides. Harper’s costumes were a faithful nod to the sporting couture of the nineteen seventies. But it was a combination of Mic Gruchy’s video media and Karen Norris’ lighting design that really drew us in, transporting us to that comforting place of nostalgia which had us yearning for a more innocent era. A video overlay of black and white tiles enabled us to peek into Goolagong’s childhood home, while the white markings of the tennis court would appear iridescent, heightening the sporting spectacle about to ensue on the grass. The ensemble worked well together, but special mention has to go to another Wiradjuri countryman, Luke Carroll, whose acting range fleshed out the play.  From the sometimes overbearing trainer Vik Edwards, to Evonne’s cheeky younger brother, Carroll’s embodiment was a clear indicator of his experience. Tuuli Narkle as Evonne was a last minute replacement but from her performance you wouldn’t know it.

If you missed Sunshine Super Girl’s first run I am sure you will get a chance to catch it and Goolagong Cawley’s impressive history again. Something tells me this show has long legs.

Two shows at Campbelltown Arts Centre were a surprise inclusion in this years Sydney Festival in Rhiannon Newton’s Explicit Contents and Jasmin Sheppard’s The Complication of Lyrebirds. While not exactly a double bill these two embodied offerings afforded us a great opportunity to travel to the peripheries of the city. Like last years Dance Makers Collective work, The Rivoli, which premiered in Granville’s Town Hall, my excitement grew as I traversed the main drag filled with shops, mirroring the suburbs multicultural community and as I paid for a coveted two litre jug of tahini from one of the Lebanese grocery stores, I realised what a fabulous location to frame and showcase these two emergent choreographic voices.

Explicit Contents did as its program notes promised by successfully drawing us into a world where the human body is but a part of the fabric of the environment we inhabit. After what felt like a false start as the two dancers Ivey Wawn and David Huggins explored the confines of their black box mimicking and engaging with its particular features, from the lighting rig to the disguised proscenium arch, the breadth and depth of the performance space was both inhabited by the dancers and the dancers’ bodies in turn became an embodiment of the fixtures, before the show changed pace.

We heard Newton’s first water vignette before we saw it. As a continuous drop, dripping at smaller steady intervals the hidden bodies of the seated dancers slowly reemerged from an immersive velvet darkness, energised by the quickening pulse of the splash. The overall theme of the permeable human body as amorphous extension of its habitat was subsequently repeated several times in different guises, from the slow sensuous eating of the flesh of fruit to the manual movement of water in containers forced to ripple in waves whilst nestled in the torsos of the performers carefully undulating bodies. The audience was tested in turn to remain actively engaged as Newton challenged our ability to endure. The result, time stretched and we slid into a meditative state, into spaces of contemplation.

Watching Explicit Contents I was reminded of Narelle Benjamin’s award winning work Cella which also premiered at Sydney Festival two years previously. Both Cella and Explicit Contents accentuated the fragility and vulnerability of the body. Both works highlighted the body’s ability to shape shift. Whereas Benjamin’s physical virtuosity is the result of a lifelong development of a specific vocabulary melding eastern practices of yoga and Kung Fu with western contemporary somatic dance practices, Newton’s success lay in her ability to heighten what can be perceived as accessible gesture, only to elevate it out of the everyday through the consummate skill and commitment of her performers.

Jasmin Sheppard’s The Complication of Lyrebirds is part of a dance canon devoted to redressing Australia’s past in relation to its treatment of its First People. Sheppard states that although she is of mixed ancestry including Hungarian, Ashkenazi Jewish and Chinese, it is only her Aboriginality that is extensively challenged, asserting in her artist statement ‘… questions of proving Indigeneity within myself, towards each other in our own First Nations community and very strongly from wider Australia.’

In The Complication of Lyrebirds Sheppard unpacks one of the widespread initiatives of forced assimilation, made infinitely more insidious, in that it persuaded scores of Indigenous Australians to want to adopt it. I am talking about the Aboriginal exemption pass, known amongst blackfellas as the ‘dog tag’, which originally allowed Indigenous Australians to live off the reserves in society as whites. The Aboriginal exemption pass was a gateway for some to eventually be granted Australian citizenship. Yes, you read that correctly, Aboriginals were not officially citizens. The passes were known as dog tags because at any moment the privilege could be revoked, and hence, the loss of dignity experienced by many was no better than that of a dog.

Sheppard’s piece opened with a video of her seated at a dresser methodically concealing her ‘coloured’ skin with a think white clay-like cosmetic. She appeared like an apparition from the past, perhaps the forties or fifties, due to the treatment of the film. Video artist Sam James manipulated her image, reminding me of lenticular photography which was all the rage before smart technology, often used for religious paraphernalia, usually depicting Jesus appearing beatific from one angle and dying on a crucifix from another. I half expected Sheppard’s face to reveal some other darker truth behind her methodical yet sinister grooming routine.

Sheppard chose the lyrebird for its chameleon ability to mimic the call of any other bird. Sheppard states ‘…we as First Nations have done the same. How clever are we at survival?!’ But for all the imagery within Sheppard’s multidisciplinary work which featured a beautiful lyrebird costume which turned into a freestanding sculpture, designed by Emily Adinolfi, and a simple set consisting of oversized white sheets augmented by James’ videos projected on the floor as well as the cyclorama, the work spoke more specifically to sufferance and hardship. For the sheets sometimes shrouded the face, and when folded meticulously reminded me of my mother’s generation and their preoccupation with cleanliness, laid down in flat columns on the floor to appear like prison bars and finally twisted and set on the floor to demarcate rooms in a house, they signified yet another more sinister confine in their camouflage as a place of security.

Highlights include performer/collaborator Kaine Sultan Babij strutting the runway as the ultimate social climber in a cape of lanyards, the free standing lyrebird outfit which should’ve had its debut on Jennifer Hawkins when she won the Miss Universe pageant, although I think Sheppard gave her a decent run for her money and the dancing sequence which began with both dancers on all fours performing a scrubbing like gesture which developed into alternate solos from Sultan Babij and Sheppard from either side of the stage. I didn’t realise I was yearning for the pace and level of physicality that section delivered until it arrived. Sheppard’s choreography in MACQ commissioned for Bangarra Dance Theatre when she and Sultan Babij were both dancers in the company was exciting to watch because the imagery was matched by the physicality. Coming into The Complication of Lyrebirds I was expecting a similar physical intensity, as it is one of Sheppard’s strengths, and shouldn’t necessarily be secondary to an earnest message.

One of the almost best kept secrets of this year’s festival was the livestream lineup. I tuned in to a talk titled Memory Memorials and Truth. Don’t get me started on the truth. I promised myself to watch Songs of Don advertised as a musical tribute to Don Walker of Cold Chisel but missed it. Missed Paul Capsis and IOTA present RAPTURE: a song cycle of Desire and Ecstacy, Murder and Mayhem too. I did catch Bangarra’s Spirit: A retrospective 2021. The thing is I didn’t want to mingle with the rabble on the hill at Barangaroo for the night performances and as it turns out, I didn’t have to. I think live streaming could be a great additional source of income for the festival and for those who can’t experience the shows live. I have watched quite a few livestreamed events and if captured well they don’t disappoint.

Last up was In Situ an outdoor event set in Parramatta Park. This was a Dance Makers Collective initiative titled Future Makers Project, which saw ten choreographers paired with ten emerging performers. The performers were placed at different points within the park and we, the audience, roamed from one to the other with our phones tuned in to live audio accompaniment. I have to be honest, I found difficulty identifying which choreographer made which work, except for three. Martin del Amo’s dancing counterpart, Beryl La, was dressed in a loud costume compared to most of the other performers who mainly wore subdued monochromatic garb. Del Amo’s female performer danced a series of poses like a painting which could’ve been hung in the shallow repetitive rectangular recessed architectural features of the building she steadily traversed in front of. Ryuichi Fujimura was in attendance to oversee his work, performed by Christopher Wade, in a small concrete rotunda and gave us instructions to systematically open and close our eyes to the simulated gong sounds throughout. The effect was both like a flip book of moving images, and a game of hide and go seek, where we had to search for each new space the dancer deposited his body and in what relationship to the space and us. Of course, I guessed Julie-Anne Long’s choreography by the heavily laden plate of what looked like scones and cream. Long’s performer, Jessica Kuit, was an embodiment of the early settlers as the choreography slipped from stylised task to stylised task. Long’s performer was a reminder of our comparative sedentary lifestyles. No twenty four hour gym needed in that era. The choreography climaxed in a waterwheel with arms waving in large circles whilst holding a soaking wet tea towel. At least I think it was a tea towel. Who cares, the glistening arcs sliced through the air more effectively than a sprinkler and it was joyous.

Our meandering came to a head at the top of an old bridge which was connected to another bridge below by a series of coloured rigger’s ropes. Lee Serle’s choreography demanded a looseness I could never achieve. Although the performer, Ella Watson-Heath, was perilously close to being upstaged by the hundreds, if not thousands of bats hanging from the trees above. Every now and then, one would take off and I would forget the woman I was meant to watch. Ahh.

‘til next year Syd Fest.

Vicki Van Hout