Carriageworks, Sydney, May 6.
Visual artists have yet another handsome prize to aim for, with the recent announcement of the biennial Ramsay Art Prize for artists under the age of 40, working in any medium. It is worth $100,000 and is funded by the James & Diana Ramsey Foundation. The winner of the annual Doug Moran National Portrait Prize (founded in 1988) receives $150,000 and the winner of the venerable Archibald Prize, also for portraiture, is given $100,000. And these are the big ones. There are others.
Dancemakers don’t have quite the same degree of support, to put it mildly, but the Keir Foundation’s biennial Keir Choreographic Award – which has just concluded its second iteration – offers tremendous encouragement, offering the substantial amount of $30,000 to the winner, plus $10,000 for the people’s choice award. Eight semi-finalists are chosen from applicants and supported to develop their ideas into a piece of about 20 minutes; the winner is then selected from four finalists.
The award is “dedicated to commissioning new Australian choreographic short works and promoting innovative, experimental and cross-artform practices in contemporary dance across Australia and internationally”. The Keir also “welcomes choreographic ideas for works that reflect the interconnectivity between disciplines and challenge conventions about what the moving body is or can be in contemporary society. It hopes to foster new understandings of what choreography might become.”
The goal is admirable, but regrettably the work of the four Keir 2016 finalists didn’t offer much that was new or, in the case of three of them, much that was particularly challenging or even interesting. I wasn’t in the least surprised to see Ghenoa Gela carry off the people’s vote but it was perhaps telling that she also took out the main award with the most conventional of the pieces. As I wrote in my last week’s round-up, Fragments of Malungoka – Women of the Sea was much more emotionally engaging than the other works; it was warmer, more human, more interesting, more inviting. It was also the most dancerly of the works.
Fragments of Malungoka – Women of the Sea included some use of technology – the desired “interconnectivity between disciplines” – but its power was in the questioning of meaning inherent in or imposed on Indigenous dance. Three women wearing stylised masks danced while being “watched”. A camera worn by one of the performers relayed movement to a screen behind them and some game-playing aspects of the choreography (What’s the time Mr Wolf?; rock paper scissors) hinted at conflict and surveillance. The alert, watchful pauses often seen in Indigenous dance took on a different flavour in this context, as did the shadows of the performers thrown on to the screen. Despite these intimations the performers – Elle Evangelista, Melanie Palomares and Melinda Tyquin – connected with the audience as women of flesh and blood.
Rebecca Jensen’s Explorer, in which the choreographer performed, contained several impressive feats of strength as Jensen walked sideways around the space, supported by a male partner who also carried her up a long flight of stairs and moved her from one side of the room to the other as she lay across his shoulders horizontally. There were rolling bodies, a leaf blower, smoke and a hanging branch, none of which resonated strongly. Jensen wished to show how the “rapidly shifting digital world” has transformed “the perceived limitations of the body”, yet she was doing nothing much that hasn’t been seen in the new circus for many years.
Martin Hansen’s If It’s All in My Veins was potentially the most intriguing piece. Its theme was – if I understand the somewhat confusing program note correctly – that a forward-looking gaze and critical mind must be brought to bear on how the weight of time and history affects dance in the present and future. Three women dressed in tops and trousers that suggested hospital scrubs spoke in unison and counted down to new sections of action. Clips of famous dancers and dances were shown and the audience laughed, for what reason I couldn’t divine. Showing they recognised Isadora Duncan and Nijinsky?
The performers reacted to the clips in various ways, mimicking, for instance, Beyoncé’s – ahem – homage to Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker in her video for Countdown, and moving chairs around when a sliver of Pina Bausch’s Café Müller was shown. In the main the unfortunate effect was of sourness and mocking rather than a call to be as creative, groundbreaking and influential as these illustrious forebears.
Sarah Aiken’s (Tools for Personal Expansion) started well with three women, dressed identically except for a small difference in costume colour, all proclaiming themselves to be Sarah Aiken. In its second half the piece’s distortion of the body, achieved via camerawork, was ho-hum. The self was expanded. And? I felt the same way about similar effects in Body of Work, by inaugural Keir winner (in 2014) Atlanta Eke. Body of Work was shown at this year’s Adelaide Festival although I could see that its depiction of body as machine and monster could well have been more interesting in its shorter version for the Keir award. As I wrote in my Adelaide Festival wrap a little while ago, there was a cool atmosphere of disconnection and skewed reality that couldn’t sustain interest for the work’s 40-minute length.