Wrapping up the Year with a Dance Compendium

Since Dr Garry Lester’s generous appearance here as guest-blogger to review Cloé Fournier’s work Mea Culpa, I have been impressed by the amount of Dance on offer in the ensuing month. This began with the fourth instalment of my solo endeavour plenty serious TALK TALK as part of the annual Performance Space Liveworks festival at Carriageworks. plenty serious had its maiden season a little over a year ago, at Riverside Theatres, as part of the line-up of FORM Dance Projects’ Dance Bites program. So, with as little fanfare as possible I will try to recap some of the dance-related activities I’ve experienced. (Although I have a sneaking suspicion you might have to read it in instalments and well into the new year when we will meet again.)

From plenty serious TALK TALK I traipsed down to the Sydney Dance Company studios on Wattle Street to resume rehearsals for the pre-professional program end of year performance, in which I am pleased to announce, I am one of four choreographers. Spending two weeks in the SDC venue, I was made privy to the extent to which that building is used. With hungry eyes I imagined how that space could be utilised once the company moved back home. I imagined what a space like that could do for the independent dance sector. Of course the company was in rehearsal for their upcoming celebratory season paying homage to fifty years in existence.

Naturally I went to see the second 50th anniversary season, staged at SDC’s long term residential venue, The Roslyn Packer Theatre, conveniently situated across the road from their original dance studios within piers 4/5, which have been under renovations for over a year now.

This SDC season featured a double bill comprised of a remount of Bonachela’s 6 Breaths and a new work commission by Gideon Obarzanek titled Us 50. I had seen 6 Breaths as part of the Sydney Festival in Parramatta Park in 2011. I thought this was an intriguing choice to remount for an event already heavily laden with nostalgia. In hindsight the perfectly synchronised gymnastic piece very succinctly represents Bonachela’s aesthetic and current artistic direction. The opening and closing animation, a sculptural image of two bodies being formed by small pieces that flock into the space like a swarm of bees or birds, forms a stunning framework which lends an emotional quotient that the dancers are prohibited to express. Us 50, by contrast, pulled on the heartstrings of all the long-term Sydney Dance Company loyalists by bringing back an array of performers from past decades. I sat in front of a fellow supporter and together we uttered in recognition all of those bodies as they appeared on stage. The choreography was almost pedestrian in comparison to Bonachela’s. Almost. Afterward a few people remarked that they wanted to see more from those veterans. On the contrary, the simplicity revealed the refined elegance that never leaves the body, long after retirement has taken the overt athleticism. This contrast was highlighted when the stage swelled to a crowded fifty, supplemented by a cast of predominantly non-dancer audience participants. It was a very clever tactic to create a sparse physical score as it allowed us to simultaneously replay our fondest memories of each former star. From Sheree da Costa, who lit up our TV screens in the 1970s as the living flame in the natural gas ad, to Bill Pengelly, who went on to become rehearsal director of Bangarra Dance Theatre, to Katherine Dunn and Lea Francis, who also went on to dance with Bangarra. I spied Kip Gamblin, who now graces our screens on various long running soaps, and wife Linda, who runs the pre-professional program at SDC. I was chuffed when Bradley Chatfield featured in a quirky heel-toe walking combination, my last memory of him rehearsing ‘full out’ amongst a sea of markers in preparation for a Sydney Festival First Night event which rounded up around midnight. His irrepressible energy was (and is still) representative of a bright spark amongst spent sparklers.

From Sydney Dance Company’s 50th to Sharp Short Dance at Riverside. This is where you want to be if you are keen to spot the dancers who are going to be the familiar faces of the future. I will not lie, this event is always a marathon. As usual I don’t read the program, because for one, I can’t see so well anymore and two, I prefer my experience to be dictated by the action on stage rather than some convoluted explanation. No need to worry, the program really only consisted of a list of names. Sharp Short Dance is a competition after all.

I won’t list the winners as there is a link to the last newsletter that can supply that but I will point out a few favourable mentions. To the tapper Kai Taylor, whose footwork was so impressive the tap shoes in my bag were itching to jump on stage to shuffle with him. I mean, move over Sammy Davis, Gregory Hines and Savion Glover, this fella can hoof! To the young hip hop crumper, Victoria Lewis, who had no flies on her. It was a joy to see such passion and commitment. Lastly to the quirky cat, Mahlia King, whose parallel staccato bourré made a sneaky entrance and equally playful antics ensued.

Prizes for recognition of excellence are always a controversial aspect to art and competitions even more so. Art, in terms of value, can only be truly judged in the eye of the beholder. What set Sharp Short Dance apart from your average Eisteddfod was the encouraged camaraderie, evident in the ensemble finale, which capped off the evening. The presence of an MC in veteran dancer comedienne Kay Armstrong who shared tidbits about the Sharp Short process and who facilitated short interviews with the prize winners, asking about their next steps, goals and ambitions, helped to frame the event as an inclusive gathering of future artists.

Next up was On The Cusp. Supported by Critical Path, On The Cusp is an annual initiative, conceived and driven by long-time independent choreographer and visual artist Karen Kerkhoven, who is driven by her conviction that there are often too many conditions inhibiting the chance for dance makers to present work. This year I saw Olivia Hadley perform in Jorvn Jones’ work Infinity Loop, inspired by his in-residence stay at Paringa mental health facility. Although Hadley’s face was originally obscured by her hair, I correctly guessed that this was the Olivia I had been rehearsing with at SDC and who also participated in Sharp Short Dance just a few nights beforehand. Her previous performance had earned her title Best Female Dancer and deservedly so as in Infinity Loop she represented the mysterious physical standout, until my suspicions were confirmed by someone next to me who had perused the program online beforehand.

Next, a double whammy of Australian Indigenous dance was available in NAISDA’s end of year program and the Sydney Opera House’s Annual Dance Rites program.

Titled Ngoenakap this years NAISDA EOYS (end of year show) director Sani Townson recreated the Torres Strait Islands in a series of still and moving images, manipulated with live capture footage projected on a white backdrop, which consisted of the cyclorama and floor tarkett, joined together to form an almost seamless white envelope. Sani has been at the forefront as leader of both his Torres Strait Island culture and as a queer performer in the Voguing dance community. Sani was pivotal in the National Gondwana Indigenous Children’s Choir creating the famed TSI version of Peter Allen’s I Still Call Australia Home. It was a no-brainer for NAISDA to invite Sani to create this year’s end of year show.

It was a treat to hear and see Moa islanders from the community of St Paul share their everyday experiences in situ. These short videoed island vignettes both punctuated and framed the short episodic dance offerings. Vaughan Stefan’s (chosen fierce alias) interview, as single gay dad-of- three was inserted with a clip of him dancing in a jazz Voguing mash-up style. The video was followed by a piece titled Unicorn, choreographed by Sani in collaboration with dancers Janaya Lamb and Jannali Johnston, and it definitely stole the night. Unicorn perfectly captured the contemporary/traditional life conundrum and the humour which often alleviates and elevates a community’s spirit. In a TSI community context this type of playfulness is often demonstrated through a series of outlandish danced improvised skits titled eggy. In this instance Chandler Connell was hilarious as a badly lip-syncing drag queen. Connell may have lost her tinsel wig and dropped her fan, but tickled everybody’s funnybone in the process.

Mitha Mura (just you lot) was the second piece to really strike a cord, not only because of the breathtaking virtuosity on display by the graduating students but because Sani invited the audience to video capture the whole dance in a reprise. This was designed for the parents and friends of the graduates, unable to make the oft-times lengthy journey to Sydney to witness the fruits of their labour, to do just that. So, like obedient minions, a sea of smartphones came to life and trained their lenses on the action before us. I begged Carl Scibberas (Dance Makers Collective artist) seated next to me to ditch shots of the dance and take a shot of the choreography occurring in the stands instead. I mean, the experience was like being at a U2 concert! As usual, the choreographer in me wished there was a camera live capturing us as final frame on the white wall behind them. (It’s tucked up there in my memory bank for later for sure.)

Did I tell you I spent a week in Melbourne at Circus Oz facilitating and taking part in an Indigenous initiative titled Blackflip? Well I did and I can tell you I am buggered. While I managed to make NAISDA’s EOYS I did not manage to make Dance Rites. Yes, shame on me. But all was not lost. I did manage to watch a live feed. True, there was no real-time ambience, but I had the perfect vantage point from three different camera angles. No, I was not on country at the Sydney Opera House, but I was flat on my back cheering and crying with joy at times like I was in amongst it all. I saw that there were only about 180 live followers and I was thankful the initiative to capture the event live wasn’t canned.

Dance Rites is also a competition and my attitude toward this aspect is ambivalent. Yes, the world gets to see the beautiful and rare legacy left from Australia’s original inhabitants. To see an expressive form that has lasted for millennia in some regions and is being revived in others. These dancers hold the key to a relationship of longevity with country. The dances serve as the memory banks and manuals. Each seemingly pedestrian gesture holds the key to a wealth of intellectual knowledge. So it is hard for me to reconcile the importance of the dance performed in a competitive environment. How do you pit the solemnity of the desert ladies’ dances with the more extroverted delivery of the reclaimed groups? Both serve as vital community practices. The worst thing that could happen is that those communities with dances that are more subtle become showy in order to more adequately compete or cater to a western audience. It is my opinion that the original gravitas of intent should always supersede one particular form of entertainment.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention two specific dance events I was invited to, the Campbelltown Arts Centre dance gathering F*** Art Lets Dance and the Ausdance NSW panel presentation Glance@Dance. In a nutshell both initiatives were instigated to ignite further action surrounding the state of dance in NSW. It is a widely known fact that arts funding each year is reduced and as funding bodies merge the art forms, dance is one of those that is hit hardest because it is subsumed into or competing with other arts.

At Campbelltown Arts Centre we addressed a range of issues including identity and diversity and the avenues for development, with a focus toward a model for presentation. The theoretical inception of a festival taking place at Campbelltown to cater to risk-taking and innovation was workshopped.

At Ausdance we addressed much the same issues but the focus was placed on current attitudes and how we might act toward one another in the future. We acknowledged that funds were low but that a collegiate approach is needed rather than an aggressive competitive environment. I think these events came about because of the need to keep in touch with one another outside of the theatre foyers. The Ausdance Dance Awards were born out of the dancers picnic, a more impromptu event which positively affirmed the presence of the community and dance as a positive effect within and on our communities as a whole.

Maybe it’s as simple a start as that: bring back the dancers picnic.

See you in the New Year.