Welcome to 2022

Welcome to 2022. Surprisingly, there has been much dance on offer to mark the end, and subsequent beginning, of yet another year. Maybe less surprising, is the fact that I have managed to either catch, or insinuate myself, into some of the performative activities.

Just before we broke at the end of 2021, I was able to sneak in a show in the big theatre at Riverside in Parramatta. The Tap Affect was the inaugural work of the newly formed The Australian Tap Dance Company. The program boasted four co-director performers, including brothers Thomas and Jack Egan, along with Peta Anderson and Brianna Taylor and an additional cast totalling eight performers. Although, the show was so fast paced and jam-packed with what seemed like every increasingly complicated rhythmic combination imaginable, it felt as if the stage was filled with many more bodies than credited.

Unfortunately, like many other shows, The Tap Affect was mired with numerous postponements due to Covid and was finally realised just as Omicron was rearing its all pervading head. In this instance, The Tap Affect represented the perfect remedy, a mini vacation from the ubiquitous pall of the pandemic, which would eventually see social dance banned once again.

FYI, I missed the rhythm dances from the Torres Strait Islands I was taught at NAISDA and recently resumed tap dance to get my syncopated fix. Tracy Wilson, my primary tap teacher at Sydney Dance Company, would constantly remind us that tap dancing had an added benefit in that we were effectively conducting dementia prevention. Consequently, I was armed with a little rudimentary knowledge before taking my seat, which meant I could more readily appreciate the consummate skills on display including the ultraclean sounds produced by Thomas Egan, the inventive and highly playful footwork of brother Jack, and the individual style (and swagger) expressed by each and every ensuing performer.

The Tap Affect represented both a declarative nod to earlier incarnations of tap, and a promise of its perpetuity, as a primary fixture of theatrical embodiment well into the future. This acknowledgement of the enduring significance and diversity of tap dance was evidenced in a rhythmic section performed in bare feet in reference to its African American roots, a number of soft shoe shuffle numbers, and a segment which was accompanied by a musical interlude of song with a lone chanteuse and piano player, reminiscent of a jazz nightclub or speakeasy scene.

Don’t think I missed your subtle yet equally fabulous costume changes to match your musical stylings Andy Freeborn! For it was Freeborn who literally added a little colour to the very pared back design, which perhaps gave a nod to director Walter Bobbie and William Ivey Long’s black minimalist costume design for the long running Broadway musical, Chicago, minus the lace.

If I haven’t credited the individual performers adequately it’s because there are simply (still) not enough opportunities to see and experience tap as a stand alone style in Australia outside of the commercial dance realm, to afford us the opportunity to recognise and follow the performers as we do our exemplary contemporary practitioners, and for this I applaud FORM for showcasing this work. And kudos to The Australian Tap Dance Company for daring to present tap in a different capacity in order to forge new audiences and to continue to foster innovation within the tap genre.

By the way, I was lucky enough to do a few of Thomas Egan’s classes when he subbed for Ms Wilson at Sydney Dance a couple of years ago. His rhythmic stylings made a huge impression, so if you get the chance to attend a class he or any of his dancers are leading, I encourage you to take it!

The next two shows I will cover were attached to Sydney Festival which came with its own controversy this year. It transpires that Sydney Festival had secured funding support from the Israeli Embassy to the tune of $20,000 to cover presenting costs for much lauded choreographer Ohad Naharin’s work Decadance, which he had made on Batsheva when he was artistic director (from 1990-2018) and which was to be remounted on the Sydney Dance Company. Subsequently, up to a quarter of the proposed acts boycotted the Festival in support of Palestine through the Boycott Divestment & Sanctions (BDS) movement aimed to highlight civil and social inequity for Palestinians in Israel, which includes the repatriation of what is widely considered as the unlawful colonial acquisition of lands.

I chose not to boycott my involvement as a performer in Legs On The Wall’s environmentally charged durational installation titled Thaw, which was presented on the Sydney Harbour Foreshore as part of the Sydney Festival lineup. As an indigenous independent performing artist, I am representative of a community which has only (relatively) recently enjoyed an upsurge in audience interest and support, in comparison to the Eurocentric artistic hegemony which has enjoyed dominance in the black box since colonisation. My presence in the production of Thaw represented a significant development in self-determination, predominantly on a personal level, but also in a larger capacity, and for this I felt compelled to remain steadfast as a member of the Legs production.

I came to Thaw in its last creative development into presentation period. Firstly, when I was invited by Legs Artistic Director, Josh Thomson, to try out I didn’t realise I was auditioning. Not even when company manager James Beach blue tacked a sign stating ‘auditions in progress’ did the penny drop. Ah, d’uh! All I knew was that I was starting to get passed over as a performer in lieu of job offers as an advisor on other people’s projects. I don’t know if this was indicative of an ageist perception in relationship to older performers in general, or evidence of my dwindling physical ability, I just knew I didn’t like my situation and Thaw presented itself as the perfect remedy.

Thomson knew I had a fear of heights but invited me to audition despite it, imagining he could rule me out in a matter of minutes when vertigo inevitably reared its ugly head. He did not count on my newfound determination which saw me literally throw myself off the ledge to run, and albeit awkwardly tumble, along the side of the famed ‘redbox’ wall in my eagerness to secure a spot on his team.

Why did he audition me at all (?!) you might well wonder. To answer this, I’ll supply you with a little background information. Thaw is a hybrid experience, part performance and part installation, part provocation and part meditation, on the urgent need to make a more concerted investment in the precarious state of the planet. Hence, it is appropriately presented both as a durational work, whilst staying true to the Legs theatre legacy, it is also an example of physical spectacle.

Thomson originally envisaged a solitary figure inhabiting a harsh but vulnerable environment. This figure was eventually embodied by three successive female characters, the alien, the symbol for excess and destruction, the protector or custodian, as both an interpreter and extension of her surrounds, and lastly the advocate, the young protestor. The environment was realised in the manufacturing of an inverted iceberg which, weighing in at 2.4 tonnes, was suspended from a crane which flew from mere centimetres from the Sydney Harbour foreshore, to 20 metres above the heads of the audience.

My character’s existence exemplifies a laissez faire attitude toward climate change. As the alien she initially appears in the guise of a wealthy socialite, imbued with a blissfully carefree careless attitude. I discovered I was engaged because of my ability to successfully embody her as part clown, part train wreck. Her innocuous indiscretions mount over the course of her appearance. From a dubious interactive monologue with the audience revealing an ignorance of the size of her carbon footprint, she moves to literally welding, ingesting and spewing forth large chunks of carbon.  She’s embodying both the machinations and ramifications of power and the ever- increasing consumptive demands on the environment.

As a performer on Thaw I found the work physically and emotionally exacting. The durational aspect affected my body in symbolic correlation to the impact of man on the environment. My presence on the ice was a test of endurance, and on more than one occasion I thought the task at hand was nigh on impossible. The psychological and physiological transformations that transpired throughout each show added a different dimension to the work, making our mere presence with that sculpture as thematically significant as the narrative content we were expressing. This test of endurance was extended to every member of the creative team who were simultaneously energised and enervated by the summer’s rays.

After the Sydney season the whole cast and crew repeated the event in Tasmania as part of the Mona Foma Festival where the humidity was lower and the sun cut through the sky like a laser. We performed over the freshwater of Cataract Gorge, soaring a further 15 metres skyward in front of an audience that were famed for their environmental activism.

As an Aboriginal person it was refreshing to play the environmental nay-sayer. To play against type. It would’ve been so easy for Thomson to cast me as the custodian. It is for this reason that my involvement in Thaw was a significant step in the move toward an acceptance of diversity in depiction and representation of Aboriginal people in the arts.

Oh, and just don’t get me started on the numerous safety checks involved – of my harness, the carabiner that clipped me to the ice, the descender which had to be operated smoothly so my rope wouldn’t snap, to the number of experts on hand if an emergency situation should’ve arisen. Also, the fact that the show was fully carbon offset. That Thomson, and technical director David Jackson (whom I affectionately and erroneously called baby daddy), had conceived of and realised the ice sculpture between themselves, and applied for their crane operator licenses just for that gig. That between myself, senior creative producer Cecily Hardy, and stage manager Daniel Story, we had to spend what seemed like an inordinately and disproportionately long time mending and maintaining what turned out to be my impossibly ridiculous but albeit sensationally looking costume, designed by Aleisa Jelbert.

For this third review in the inaugural blog for 2022, I now turn to Marrugeku’s latest work titled Jurrungu Ngan-ga or Straight Talk, which was eventually added to the Sydney Festival bill due to an earlier postponement, which delayed their season to coincide with the festival, only subsequently to remove themselves in solidarity with the BDS response to the Israeli Embassy sponsorship deal.

Jurrungu Ngan-ga was visually arresting even before the performers graced the stage in Bay 20 of the Carriageworks venue. Marrugeku have used what have become signature spare sets featuring monolithic structures, oft times doubling as projection surfaces. Take Gudirr Gudirr, whose video and vertically striated set was designed by renowned portraitist, Vernon Ah Kee, or Nicolas Mole’s looming, refracted backdrop featured in Le Dernier Appel, and the large concrete textured wall of Burrbgaja Yalirra (Dancing Forwards), designed by Stephen Curtis. Abdul-Rahman Abdullah’s metallic scenic design for Jurrungu Ngan-ga, as with the aforementioned productions, also alludes to the scale of the issues it tackles.

At its core Jurrungu Ngan-ga is about incarceration. It is about the process of dehumanisation, from the ’round the clock surveillance, where the audience is treated to a dual performance in real time, and through the minutely delayed virtual lens of closed circuit camera, to the control of space via Abdullah’s metal cage.

The choice to open the show with performer Emmanuel James Brown was a strong one, in that for all his liquid spinal undulations and rolling fingers Brown’s performance was endowed with a gaze that transported us to the places where spirits are broken. His ability to shape shift was later called upon to represent the devil. Through the crouch of his body, the small shuffling of his feet and sporadic cackling, Brown successfully conjured the dark part of the psyche that lures one to possibly take their own lives.

Every cast member was well chosen for their individual strengths and their ability to maintain their individuality, whilst portraying a group placed in a situation which by definition reduced each individual to a common denominator, as that of mere body, unit, or number to be managed, policed.

A mark of a good show is the level of immersion, of suspension of disbelief from the everyday into the world portrayed on stage, and by this standard the show was outstanding. Afterwards, I began to think about what the show did not do. Whilst it did allude to what might precipitate a breach of duty of care, a riot, or a death under suspicious circumstances whilst in custody, it did not portray the horrific daily occurrences that befall prisoners.

Jungurru Ngan-ga is not a documentary. What it did was remind us that any one of us could one day find ourselves being incarcerated. Jungurru Ngan-ga reversed the process of dehumanisation that culminates in the substitution of names for numbers to give its incarcerated characters their bodies, their identities, back.

Some outstanding moments include Miranda Wheen’s crazy volatility expressed through her chain-smoking facial tics, Zachary Lopez’ gender fluidity expressed through a series of high leg extensions that sliced the air like laser beams, Luke Currie Richardson’s rap which appeared like an alternative sermon delivered in a contagious krumping sequence which rippled and reverberated throughout the cast in abstracted repetition, and Feras Shaheen’s overall physicality, culminating in a closing sequence imbued with such a depth of poignant yet inescapable futility which brought many to tears.

Vicki Van Hout
FORM Blogger in Residence

Image: Dom O’Donnell, The Australian Tap Dance Company